Educating for the Anthropocene: the Local View

The Anthropocene (April 26, 2016 blog) is a proposed epoch beginning when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Regardless of what we call our time period, if we want to successfully manage our planet, we have to select institutions capable of understanding how humans interact with the physical environment and act accordingly. This requires that we learn how to properly prepare for such endeavors, but there is almost universal agreement that our global educational systems are not up to the task (see last week’s blog about opinions of both the general public and scientists on the educational system in the US).

What are the requirements for such an educational system? (May 3, 2016):

The real point is that governing has reached a greater complexity than ever before. Governing bodies must consider global issues as well as local. They must set and implement policies that balance society’s safety and that of our physical environment. Such a feat necessitates considering multiple stories, setting priorities, and being aware of long-term consequences. It requires that scientists be involved in governance as well as that politicians be scientifically literate. For that, we need some major changes in our educational system to promote that sort of bilingualism.

In addition to the required bilingualism, educating for the Anthropocene necessitates globalization. We need to make the knowledge accessible worldwide; meanwhile, in relative terms (area per person), our planet is getting smaller and smaller. Humans need to each be able to make informed decisions regarding what we are doing and how we can do it better.

In a series of blogs that I wrote more than two years ago (Feb 25March 25, 2013) I tried to cover the needed educational transition. I discussed some of the issues within the US’s K-12 education that attracted my attention during the special session of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Boston that I attended. I later extended the discussion to colleges and universities. This is the same organization from which the Pew organization drew its statistics of scientists’ opinions on various issues (last week’s blog).

Our need for national standards arose from an increasing discrepancy between state standards, coupled with our lag in international competitiveness. Here is an excerpt from the first blog in that series:

When a youngster enters military service, he or she goes through basic training that can be very demanding. If he or she desires or is assigned to a leadership position or a specialized role, he or she must first undergo further training before being allowed to take part in any combat activity.

The age threshold for voting in most countries is 18. The preparation, in the optimum case is high school. I am absolutely not trying to advocate a reintroduction of literacy tests for voting. I do, however, think that we should use every opportunity available to educate our children on the nature of the choices on which they are being asked to vote.

Since I didn’t hear any mention in the talks about including voters’ education as part of the standards, I asked the speakers to comment on this with an emphasis on Climate Change.

The answer that I got was that the speakers are aware of the issue but in their opinion, to address it properly, we need to revisit our entire educational system and make broad changes – changes for which we are not yet prepared.

What is the Common Core?

State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 42 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.

My earlier blogs were targeted at governance of climate change but now I am trying to expand that discussion to the governing of society’s future, with the belief that climate change is just an important early symptom of the Anthropocene.

This is a huge job and collectively we are not ready for it. The introduction of a national common core was meant to improve America’s educational standards in comparison to other countries, especially given our considerable resources. We can get into all of that another time. For starters, let’s look at a much smaller and better defined system – the school where I teach – Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY).

Brooklyn College’s preparation for the Anthropocene included the following initiatives:

  1. Establishment of a new Environmental Studies program, anchored on bilingual education in the sciences and social sciences, with the active participation of 14 departments.
  2. Establishment of a new General Education program consisting of about 25% of the credits required for all students’ graduation. In addition to major components in the sciences (including laboratory requirements) and social sciences, the program features major offerings in interdisciplinary courses, including health-related and environmental issues.
  3. Externally funded support to establish a program of quantitative reasoning across the curriculum.
  4. Establishment of a Global Studies program.

I was directly involved in most of these initiatives and tried to help put my school at the forefront of the changes to our broader educational system.

The paragraph below was taken from one of the Environmental Studies program’s early reports:

The Environmental Studies program is a liberal arts program aimed at educating students to be fluent in the languages of the social and physical sciences in the range of areas related to the environment, broadly construed. The program is actively involved in undergraduate education, research, and community service. It was officially approved on September 1998 to include a major in Environmental Studies. It was expanded recently to include an additional concentration in Environmental Management and a minor in Environmental Studies. An environmental concentration for the early childhood education and childhood education majors is planned.  At present, there are 3 declared majors. Students have not yet had an opportunity to declare a minor in the program.

Most of these programs that we hoped would “revolutionize” the educational system and be a guiding light for other schools didn’t pan out. They ended up failing or being diluted beyond recognition in one form or another. I was fired as director of the Environmental Studies program and disengaged myself from some of the other programs (fortunately, I have tenure and being fired from directing a program does not mean being fired from the school).

Opposition to such initiatives came from almost every corner. As is evident from the above quote, the initial success with students was limited. The maximum number of students that declared the Environmental Studies Program as their major was below 30, as compared to (2002 data) Psychology (515), Computer Science (759), and Economics (1061). Even small majors such as Physics (43), Geology (33), and Classics (31) did better. There were two main reasons for this limited success:

  1. An obscure pathway between graduation and job opportunities. The skillsets of being prepared to vote and operate within the coming Anthropocene are not yet marketable for job opportunities upon graduation. Nor do they provide clear pathways for advanced degrees. In many cases, attempts to correlate statistics of future job opportunities with the learned skills met with considerable amounts of skepticism.
  2. Credit requirements. The central premise of preparation for the demands of the emerging Anthropocene is becoming bilingual in the sciences and the social sciences. But sciences are much more vertical than social sciences. In other words, they require many more prerequisites. So a major that focuses on that bilingualism became a very large major. To graduate, students are required to take a certain number of credits (122 in Brooklyn College). A large major decreases students’ abilities to take elective courses outside their major and outside other requirements such as General Education.

The last, key, obstacle was the lack of understanding of quantitative reasoning across the curriculum.

Often, students come to the college with very few quantitative skills. In many cases these quantitative skills have diminished as the students progressed through their educational careers. The old adage about muscles, “use them or lose them,” is also true of academic skills such as quantitative reasoning. That includes some high-school-level math such as percentage calculation, exponential growth, elementary algebra, and working with large and small numbers. Many attempts to incorporate such skills throughout the curriculum and as graduation requirements translated into significant obstacles for students underprepared in these areas.

There are also more abstract hurdles involved in making even basic – not to mention interdisciplinary – changes in an academic environment. Henry Kissinger memorably said that, “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” He was in a position to know.

Indeed, academic departments hold a great amount of power within the university environment: the tenure system is associated with departmental service, not with institutional service. In almost all cases, a faculty member has to operate from within the departmental structure, which itself works to try to amplify its own strength, often allocating of resources on a departmental basis. This is a lifeline for any college activity.

Given such fierce competition, the discussion about interdisciplinary courses within the restructured General Education program has often run into objections such as, “we shouldn’t try to teach interdisciplinary topics before students master their disciplinary requirements” or, “if we need the car to be repaired we don’t have to learn to do it ourselves; we go to specialists in a garage.”

These are all serious impediments. In the next few blogs I will try to describe some local remedies before moving on to the international situation.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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