Eager new faces peering over brochures, earnestly signing up for far too many organizations’ voice-mail trees. Warm handshakes and the soft money propoganda of candy, cigarettes, and other goods: the annual Lawrence Activities Fair brings back a torrent of my freshman memories. Hopeful, motivated, and nervous, I was aching to find those Lawrentians whose organizations were driven by a sense of urgency to create change and propel campus movements. I was certain that my academic institution would cease to make these transient, bohemian years of collegiate living and studying the only “business” that President Warch assigned us. Two years later, appropriately a more realistic, albeit disheartened, junior, I am struck by the accuracy of David Brooks’ assessment of my generation as “young men and women of America’s future elite [who] work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life” (“The Organization Kid,” Atlantic Monthly, April, 2001).
That “most students have no time to read newspapers, follow national politics, or get involved in crusades” was a succinctly described reality that I knew. And as if to appease my irritation with an over-present cheerful conformity, Brooks writes, “they’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent.”
Yet, I was recently encouraged by attending the fourth annual “Greening of the Campus” Conference hosted by Ball State University, Indiana. Their Green Committee mission to empower the student body and encourage green policy and administration seemed to echo the efforts of most of the participants of the three twelve-hour plus days, filled with speakers, workshops, discussion, and frenetic networking. Amid the success stories of compost systems, no-water urinals, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified campus buildings, ecologically-enriched curricula, and climate neutrality commitments, the most inspiring speaker, David Orr, also provided the most relevant instruction.
As director of the environmental science program at Oberlin College and author of Earth in Mind: Essays on Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect (1994), Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World (1992), and frequent contributor to many magazines, Orr spoke to the core of our collective aggravations: the societal need for academic institutions to pioneer and coordinate an ecological movement that puts its money where its mouth is.
In other words, universities that can integrate sustainable measures into their architecture, agriculture, food, and labor policies, will be irrevocably altering their identity from isolated, protected academic communities immersed in esoteric research to breeding grounds for experimental policies and initiatives. In this “moving to the mainstream,” to borrow the conference’s title, students will begin to see connections across their many campus organizations. The co-op that supports organic and locally-grown foods, the religious-affiliated groups concerned for general human welfare, and the political activist will find their concerns linked to broader terms of trade, consumption, and profit.
Ultimately, Orr asks whether “institutions that purport to advance learning [can] become learning organizations?” A challenge not too small for a defiant minority that still cares to find its crusades and enlist.