The Green Scene: The Lawrence Bubble

Jess Vogt

As I am writing this, my last column in The Lawrentian, it is a gray Tuesday. I sit looking out over the Fox River, watching the seagulls swoop low over the water moving among the rocks. The white smoke from the paper plant melts into the gray-white sky that is rimmed with trees, smokestacks and radio towers. Though this view I have is far from natural, it carries a rich history that lends a sort of industrial beauty to the landscape.
As I reflect on my time at Lawrence University, I regret that I have not learned more about this landscape that surrounds us. Though I am an Appleton native, I have not spent much time at all thinking about the Fox River – its ecology, industry, history – or the greater Fox Valley community during my time at Lawrence.
Until this, my last, term at Lawrence, when I have been involved in a project on the history of the Fox River for Professor Monica Rico’s American Environmental History class, hardly a single class I’ve had at Lawrence has integrated this place Lawrentians call home into the academic subjects we learn here.
Lawrentians could easily spend four years here and never truly get to know the community’s history, ecology, politics, socioeconomic demographics or current issues. Lawrentians joke about the “Lawrence Bubble,” and possibly lament the fact that they rarely get off campus into the surrounding community.
We hear how the “townies” dislike the students for having loud parties on the weekends and for riding their bicycles down the sidewalks of College Avenue.
Many on campus would make this out to be merely a PR problem – it is only because the surrounding community doesn’t know all the good things Lawrence students do; they don’t get to campus enough to see the “real Lawrence”; and only the bad things get into the local papers.
But is this really true? I argue that the issue of the “Lawrence Bubble” is more than just bad PR; it is the lack of involvement and positive interaction between Lawrentians and community members.
True, programs like LARY Buddy and Habitat for Humanity do attempt to reach out to members of the non-Lawrence community and create a positive face for the university.Students are regularly encouraged to vote in local elections, though they may know little about the local issues on which they are voting.In the education program, student teachers are required to observe and teach at local schools.
The Campus Center will purportedly be available to the community at large as a limited convenience store and available for community events when requested. And some faculty, such as Associate Professor Mark Jenike through his research on nutrition in area schools and Rico’s aforementioned Fox River project, are attempting to break out of the Bubble and use the surrounding community for translational research and experiential learning.
But for the most part, these are isolated examples that only reach a small portion of students and the community. There has been no comprehensive, University-wide effort to engage students in the Fox Valley community. If Lawrence is to truly prepare students to be both world citizens and also contributing members of a community, it must start with encouraging students to be members of this community.
We need to attempt to burst the “Lawrence Bubble” by engaging ourselves in meaningful ways in the greater community.
The Green Roots mission statement reads, “Responsible citizenship.requires.that we act in a manner that cares for the places in which we, and others, live and work. [T]he hallmark of an educated person.must be knowledge of the places we call home, an awareness of their interconnectedness, and an acceptance of our civic duty to act in ways that protect their well-being.” In order for Lawrence to truly create graduates who go out into the world with an understanding of “the places we call home,” it is necessary that our curriculum and civic outreach reflect these goals.
We must encourage faculty to use the Fox Valley as a “text” for academic study. We must educate students on the current local issues, so that they can become engaged citizens working toward a better community. We must teach students about the importance of local businesses in sewing together the economic and social fabric of the town. We must bring in more community members to share their knowledge about local and global issues with Lawrentians.
If we can create students who truly know this place, perhaps they will go out into the world knowing the importance of how to live well in a place and how to contribute to strong, vibrant communities. Only if we can take care of our own communities will we be able to extend that care into the larger world in the search for a global sustainable society.(Many thanks to Stewart Purkey for exposing me to many of the ideas present in this article in his class Environment, Community and Education, and for suggestions on a draft of this article.)