The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed."...  ...Mohandes K. Gandhi.

Commentary of the Day - August 14, 2010:  Am I Green?   Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

Three decades after the start of the contemporary environmentalist movement, we have reached the stage of rearranging the (plastic) deck chairs on the Titanic.  The disconnect between the dystopian oil-soaked and ravaged-by-changes-in-weather real world and our daily practices is as extreme as a recent ten-minute storm that devastated suburbs of Philadelphia, PA.  All this was illuminated for me once again when I read the headline of the lead story in the business section of my local Sunday paper: "Give Your Toothbrush a Trim."

"Cutting those frayed bristles," the article proposed, "will prolong its life and save you money."  The image of someone cheerfully whittling away at his toothbrush while the world is falling down around him may very well be the ultimate iconic symbol of mindless postmodern environmentalism.  It certainly represents another step in feel-good environmental practices, somewhere below the grocery-store scenario of the shopper who roars into the parking lot in his or her SUV, which is large enough to haul supplies for a small village.  The driver then jumps down and self-righteously arms herself with a stack of cloth shopping bags (the new badge of suburban honor), which she will fill with fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic.

On the academic front, the worst battles over the soul of post-modern environmentalism seem to involve not toothbrushes, shrink wrap, or oil -- they involve paper.

Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America clocks in at 939 pages.  That's approximately 470 pieces of paper.  Ironic?  Actually not.  Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the US Forest Service, were advocates of conservation and sustainable use, not abstention.

The green movement all too often devolves into the mantra of "save the trees."  Ah, but (to paraphrase another poet -- William Carlos Williams) which trees and from what uses?  What are the most significant changes in the paper industry?  And who's doing the chanting?  The answer to that last question seems to be everyone who has completed American elementary school, where environmental studies begin and end with "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle," and a hectoring lecture on paper.

Rather than simply repeating a slogan that is merely the tip of the environmental iceberg, our students need to do some old-fashioned research on managed tree plantations, reforestation, trees in non-forest areas, and the most serious product-areas of misuse and abuse.  They might check inventories by the US Dept. of Agriculture, papers by the Forest Stewardship Council, or articles in The Journal of Forestry.

My students -- like a good portion of the general population -- live in dwellings made of wood; many of them drive SUVs and clunkers.  The adult education students have used disposable diapers for their babies.  They buy boxed cereal and patronize fast food corporations several times a week -- I know because they carry the evidence into class.  They send greeting cards to each other and to me, purchased from stores with aisles of paper products.  They also seem to like mega-bookstores -- again, passing through rows and rows of paper products, to reach the Starbucks concession stand, where they can purchase coffee in a paper cup.  They're hard wired into the computers in the lab, which runs on electricity.  But if I ask them to make copies of a poem or a short essay for a writing workshop, all environmental hell breaks out.

The same student who purchased the four-volume Twilight series will deliver an outraged lecture on the number of pages in The Norton Anthology.  When I ask students in writing classes to print rough drafts on one side of the page (far more effective for those with difficulties organizing their thoughts) I am met with the same horrified reaction generally reserved for smokers.  In fact, it appears that it is not all paper, but rather paper for assignments and textbooks that is the object of my students' ire, suggesting that what we are actually hearing is one more example of anti-intellectualism.

They will not only print on both sides of the page but use single-spacing and a font size of 4, leaving no way or room for meaningful revision.  But here's the thing, I tell them: writers use paper.  And, interestingly, the amount of a paper that a single student uses in a semester does not add up to several copies of People Magazine or a single issue of Vogue.

It sometimes seems as though the one universal lesson that students bring with them to college is the evilness of using paper in academia.  And when we accept the simple repetition of that mantra, we aren't doing our educational work: we're letting students slide by with easy, nearly mindless advocacy instead of using this as an object lesson in the art of argumentation.  And colleges reinforce this: with administratively approved cardboard posters celebrating "Going Green!" and computer labs that have sheets of paper (!) taped to the walls, repeating that weary save-a-trees line and warning students to "use paper wisely."

I'm all for using paper wisely, and wiser people than I have pointed out again and again that perfecting a task requires practice.  Writing practice requires paper: scrap paper for early drafts and hard copy versions along the way, so that students can see their work on the page -- not lit up on the screen, where everything seems glowingly OK.  And college students have to learn to go beyond and behind the slogan and to enter a dialogue that is richly complicated.

And a simple online search, should a budding environmentalist not wish to use the library’s books, will teach anyone who takes just a few minutes to do the research, that the phrase "wise use" is inextricably entwined with Gifford Pinchot's name.

More maddening than hearing my freshmen chant is listening to adults, who should know better, arguing that paper and textbooks need to become obsolete: that the computer and only the computer is the key to the present, the future -- and the past.

Electronic resources have their significant place.  For example, "paperless" committee reports are an excellent place to start (although, unfortunately, many faculty members still print everything out -- possibly as protection).  In terms of teaching, studies have shown that the more ways we use to deliver material, the more effective our teaching becomes.  Among other uses, classroom computers have made students' oral reports infinitely more interesting, although the old problems of faulty grammar and weak research haven't quite disappeared.  Electronic exercises to address those grammar problems are quite useful.  And electronically enhanced lectures on research can be highly effective.  Another benefit lies in the increased accessibility of works of art; before the Internet, how many people had access to da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine -- a painting that is housed in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow and which is even more glorious than the Mona Lisa?  The computer is an effective tool -- but just that -- and one of several.

Paper is a recyclable and the trees from which new paper is made are a renewable resource, and I would also argue that it -- so far -- remains the best means of archiving.  Think of what is lost every time a software company brings out a new edition or we develop a new computer storage format.

In one of his lectures beneath the trees, Socrates famously proclaimed that the unexamined life is not worth living; the isolated and unexamined slogan isn't wise at all.

2010, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with Carolyn Segal that there often is a good deal of silliness in the name of environmentalism; and, the focus on the use of paper as an avatar for environmental behavior is one aspect of that silliness.  Carolyn correctly notes that paper can be recycled and that trees are a renewable resource.  The critical foci for environmental responsibility lie elsewhere.  They include our profligate use of carbon-based energy that threatens the planet with irreversible climate change, and our propensity to foul our environment with harmful and/or non-biodegradable waste.


Return to main commentary.

2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
Technocrati tag(s): ,