Are you a good citizen? If so, what do you do that makes you one?
At many colleges and universities, good citizenship is now understood as requiring a personal commitment to “sustainability.”
Last fall, I traveled out west to visit universities the National Association of Scholars is studying for a project looking at civics education in colleges. “Civics” isn’t what it used to be: the study of how our system of self-government works. Instead the term has been appropriated by colleges that want citizens to repair “growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, [and] economic volatility,” says a White House-commissioned report, “A Crucible Moment,” which is the Bible of this campus movement.
On my trip, I found the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley bedecked with banners and posters announcing the school’s commitment to sustainability and ways for students to get involved. Someone on the quad at Colorado State University handed me a “Vote Climate” brochure. At CU-Boulder I sat down with a student government leader who is majoring in finance. When I asked him what values were most important at Boulder, he named sustainability first.
“For instance, here in the [student center], there are all these different trash and recycling bins, and one of them says landfill so you feel bad about sending things there that could be recycled. It takes an extra 15 seconds to figure out what goes where, but it’s worth it.” I asked him about the top quality Boulder hopes to instill in students, and he said the hope is for everyone to be more “inclusive.”
By Inclusive, You Mean All-Consuming
As it happens, in the world of the campus sustainability movement, being “inclusive” is not very different from recycling correctly. When NAS president Peter Wood and I first began trying to understand this movement, we noticed the way sustainability gathered a flock of Progressive causes under its wings.
For example, a residence-life program at the University of Delaware that pressured students to disclose their personal views on race and sexuality, was self-described as sustainability training: “sustainability is a viable conduit for citizenship education and the development of a particular values system.” (The program was shut down in fall 2007 after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and members of the NAS drew attention to its ideological coercion of freshmen students in the very buildings where they lived.)
The architect of the UD program, Kathleen Kerr, gave a talk at a social-justice conference the year before. One of her Power Point slides was titled “Which of these myths do you believe?” and listed:
- Sustainability is mostly about the environment.
- Sustainability is secondary to the university’s core mission and function.
- Sustainability is primarily a scientific and technical problem.
On the next slide, she offered an inventory of social-justice-related aspects of sustainability, including “domestic partnerships,” “rights of indigenous peoples,” “gender equity,” “affirmative action,” and “multicultural competence.”
According to its proponents, sustainability is reached through a perfect overlap of three components: environmental stewardship, economic “equity,” and social justice. This syzygy (or “triple bottom line”) is often illustrated with a Venn diagram of three coinciding circles.
Truly this is a kind of political orientation, not simply a love of conservation. NAS documents this in a recent in-depth report, “Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.”
Sustainability Tentacles Reach Into Every Domain
About five years ago, institutions such as Washington University and the University of Virginia began offering a “sustainability pledge” wherein students commit to practices such as four-minute showers, using compact fluorescent light bulbs, and eating less meat. At the time, Washington University said, “The Office of Sustainability hopes that this pledge will make a lasting impact on students’ abilities to lead sustainable lifestyles.” Since then, many more universities, including Harvard, Yale, NYU, and Texas A&M, have asked students to make similar pledges.
Most of the 772 universities belonging to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education designate a section of their course offerings as sustainability courses. Cornell, for example, offers 403 such courses. Ten of these are in the government department, including “Introduction to Comparative Government and Politics,” the description of which doesn’t mention anything environmental; and “Social Movements in Latin America,” which focuses on “movements organized around gender issues, human rights, environmental protection, shantytown communities, and indigenous rights.”
It isn’t surprising that courses in government—and even ones in philosophy, English, architecture, and veterinary medicine—are being designated for sustainability. Its permeation of the curriculum has come about through a top-down movement to “integrate” sustainability into all college teaching. As of 2015, 695 colleges and universities have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which includes a pledge to “make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.” So the goal is for every student to become sustainability-minded, having encountered its ideas in their courses and being challenged to conform their personal behaviors to a sustainable mold.
Sustainability: The New Queen of the Liberal Arts
Cornell’s former president, Frank H.T. Rhodes, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that sustainability is “the ultimate liberal art.” The liberal arts, he wrote, are “indispensable preparation for citizenship,” and sustainability is, essentially, the best overarching theme under which such preparation can be organized.
Another former college president, Mitchell Thomashow, wrote in “The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus” about how he centered Unity College entirely on sustainability: “At every stage, I had to clarify…how [sustainability] is both a way of thinking and a way of life, and why it should be the foundation for how we conceive of service, civic engagement, and the liberal arts.”
A prominent theme I’ve found in researching how colleges teach civics education is an increasing emphasis on “global citizenship” and a decreasing one on national citizenship. At some colleges, this is simply a slogan meant to boast about the number of international students enrolled. At others, it represents a soft disdain for America as an individual nation. The sustainability doctrine fits right in with this, empowering the replacement of loyalty to the country with loyalty to the planet.
There’s a new way to be a good citizen. It means using the right recycling bins in the student center, committing yourself to a self-denying lifestyle, pledging allegiance to the globe, and taking a Progressive view of race, class, and gender. This is what hundreds of American colleges and universities are teaching students daily. Shame awaits any bad citizen who might not agree.