Should Sustainability be the “Common Course” for Today’s Education System?

Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University, calls sustainability “the Ultimate Liberal Art,” arguing that this interdisciplinary idea could form the basis of a “common course” for today’s education system. Should educators heed his advice? Does achieving a lasting adoption of sustainable principles throughout society demand a united front in public education? Before you answer with a resounding yes, you might want to read the rest of this post.

Rhodes’ argument (as expressed in his essay “Sustainability: the Ultimate Liberal Art,” published originally in the Chronicle of Higher Education) goes something like this:

1. The liberal arts are loosing (have lost?) their street cred. Edged out in favor of more “practical” training, those areas of study deemed invaluable by the Greeks (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and scholars of the Middle Ages (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music) are having trouble competing with “more relevant” content areas – engineering, programming, medicine, law, planning, business, economics, etc.

2. This is a dangerous trend because it is through studying said liberal arts that students learn to think critically, to read carefully, to value historical contexts, to weigh varying social perspectives, to reflect upon ethical and moral considerations, and to form individual opinions.

3. The liberal arts can be salvaged (as they were during the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution) by reformulating them to apply more directly to the current age, specifically, through the notion of sustainability.

Sustainability, Rhodes argues, is the perfect unifying force; its interdisciplinary framework requires an understanding of science, social science, and economics, and its overarching philosophy is underwritten by weighty moral considerations, ethical debates, and issues of social justice. Additionally, sustainability carries with it a sense of urgency, a nonpartisan immediacy, and a call to action.

Sounds great, except for one small detail: when did education (or, more specifically, the liberal arts) become about the totalizing presentation of one unified ideology?

Sustainability, as a notion, seems to vacillate between the utmost ambiguity and hyper-specificity, depending on who you talk to. It can mean something as vague as “caring for the earth” or as explicit as not traveling in an effort to reduce your personal carbon footprint. If we’re not careful, in its cooptation by corporate America, it can become little more than a means of prescribing behavior and increasing consumption.

Before we argue for educating everyone to abide by a specific ideology, let’s make sure we understand what that ideology is. It seems to me we’re better of sticking with the liberal arts as they are, using the invaluable critical thinking skills they teach to unpack the loaded notion of sustainability, and employing a historical perspective to remind ourselves that any ideology that argues for totalizing compliance should also elicit skepticism.