"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." ....Albert A. Bartlett.

Commentary of the Day - June 22, 2014. Sustainability - good, "lastability" - better.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

Paying serious attention to the environment has been a national priority ever since the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law on January 1, l970.  What now travels under the wide umbrella of "sustainability" includes a push to have electric cars replace gas guzzlers, solar panels replace at least some of the electricity generated by coal, oil, and gas-fired power plants, and paper or reusable cloth grocery bags replace plastic.

In Washington, D. C., some politicians worry if programs such as Social Security or Medicare are "sustainable"-- which means, will there be enough money in our national coffers to send out retirement checks in the near future.

The "sustainable" carries good connotations; "unsustainable," by contrast, does not.  On college campuses, sustainability usually means turning green -- not only in terms of recycling one's trash or going all out for Earth Day, but also by increasing pressures to add "sustainability studies" to the curriculum.  After all, who can be opposed to academic research that focuses on preserving the planet we all share.

Sometimes sustainability shows up as a single course offered as public policy in a government course or the special focus of a biology class, but, increasingly, there are calls for "Studies in Sustainability."  I remain skeptical about paper departments cobbled together from several real departments, and even more so about anything advertising itself as "X Studies."  Some of these programs have demonstrated their merit but some are little more than trendy additions to the curriculum.

In short, I have good reason  to be skeptical about  how academia responds to environmental threat, but even more reasons to be scared silly about the knuckle-scrapers outside our campus walls.  As it turns out, most of the grumbling about climate change comes from  deniers of science  who argue that the Left manufactures environmental worries from whole cloth.

Meanwhile, the evidence of extreme weather is  everywhere.  Granted, I am not the greenest guy on my block but I recycle our trash and know, without knowing the hard science behind it, that sustainability is important.  It has a place on our campuses, but so too does what I call "lastability," a term I've trademarked in the same way that Stephen Colbert once trademarked the George Bush-like word, "truthiness."  Simply put, "lastability"  is a measure of how long the courses we give will last.  One signature  of a genuine education  is whether or not it creates life-long learners.  A student who  first encounters William Faulkner's The Sound and Fury in a college class should  be able to make his or her way through Absalom,  Absalom! as a middle-aged adult.  The same is true for students who first cracked their heads over Plato's dialogue Meno, listened intently to a Mozart symphony, or studied a portrait by Picasso.  Life-long learning props itself on this intellectual scaffolding.

For many students, humanities courses are one "introduction" after another, but the collective weight of these experiences should create a thirst for knowledge that doesn't disappear, even in the hum-drum world of jobs and balancing checkbooks.

Am I being too optimistic about what students do after graduation?  Perhaps but "lastability", as I understand it, is just as important as sustainability.  Granted, one could argue that a college education, like youth itself, is wasted on the young.  No doubt some students nod off somewhere during the class discussion of John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (beer pong parties can take a toll) but I remain a great believer in education-by-osmosis.  Some things get through and my experience is that there is no accounting for seemingly lackluster students turning up. years later, in elderhostel courses.

Lastability asks tough questions about how long a given course "lasts." A solid Shakespeare course can outlast a slate roof; by contrast, a seminar in Alice Walker's The Color Purple cannot match the warranty on an eight-speed blender. Studies in popular culture often have the life span a fruit fly. A course in Madonna won't draw many students these days, but one in Miley Cyrus will.

I am speaking primarily about humanities courses where questions such as "How should a good person live?" or "What is the nature of justice?" have an ageless ring.  By contrast, my colleagues in the hard sciences have a different set of worries. In their world, knowledge changes at warp speed.  Pluto was once a planet, and who knows what neuroscientists will think about "thinking" tomorrow.

Courses in the hard sciences need to foster the skill sets necessary for students to adapt to a rapidly altering scientific landscape.  Teachers of science  also need to stand tall when the scientific method itself is under attack -- not probably in their college but in the high school or junior high school down the road.  While compromise has an important place in teaching about politics, there is no room for it  in the "debate" about how old the earth actually is.

We live in contentious times and nothing sows more mischief  than the "reasonable" notion that compromise is called for when some people feel that Intelligent Design deserves space in a high school biology class.  This is akin to saying that because a college offers courses in astronomy, it must also offer courses in astrology.

I have great hopes that "lastability" will prove as useful to people of science as it clearly can for people of the humanities.  Sustainability speaks to  preserving our planet and the human species who live here; "lastability" speaks to preserving the best that human beings have thought and said.  From this perspective, the classics are what they have always been; namely, that which pleasures many and that has pleasured them long.  No wonder I say sustainability?  Good.  "Lastability" even better.

2014, Sanford Pinsker.
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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and  Marshall College. He currently lives in south Florida where he continues to read and write about American literature.

The Irascible Professor comments:  While Sandy Pinsker raises some good points about the "lastability" of "studies programs" as opposed to more traditional college and university departments, the IP thinks that "sustainability studies" maybe the weakest target one could choose to make that argument.  After all, the literature relating to "sustainability" can be traced back at least to 1798 when Malthus published his essay on population growth.  And, there is a rich tradition in both British and American literature relating to nature, the environment and by inference to sustainability.  It may be the case that these mainly prosaic works have not captured the heart and soul of many traditional English departments, but a good case can be made that they present lasting issues that need to be studied.

These days most colleges and universities have interdisciplinary programs in "environmental studies,"  and these form a natural home for courses related to sustainability.  Now, one might ask the question about the "lastability" of any interdisciplinary program, but the IP thinks that there really is no other effective way to teach environmental studies.  The reason is that these issues touch on the hard sciences, the social sciences, and public policy in ways that make it almost impossible for them to be taught effectively within the confines of a traditional academic department.  What do you think?

A final point.  Sandy frequently has come down hard on the "lastability" of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple.  The IP is no expert when it comes to modern American fiction; but, he would note that The Color Purple ranked 5th in Radcliffe Publishing's list of the top 100 20th century American novels -- just behind Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and just above James Joyce's Ullyses.  That may not put it in the same league as some works of Shakespeare, but it's not exactly "chopped liver" either.

 

The Irascible Professor invites your  .

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