Sustainability and the Liberal Arts
A central tenet of a liberal arts education is to broadly educate students so that they may become responsible citizens who can understand and respond to the complex issues that they face or will face in the future. Sustainability represents a complex, interconnected and ever-changing set of issues, and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh has adopted it as an Essential Learning Outcome in its new general education program, the University Studies Program.
Sustainability has begun to coalesce with liberal arts in the sense that sustainability pertains to all issues of a traditional liberal arts education, and goes even further into issues and seeks a multi-faceted take and adjustment to them. That is, sustainability is a natural progression of liberal arts because it is what is needed for students to be prepared for the future. While there are many approaches and disputes on the interpretation and application of sustainability across the vast spectrum of issues, the fundamental issues and our need to address them in a way that perpetuates human life, as well as social, ecological, and economic values is clear.
(CC Image of the 7 liberal arts (right) by Herrad von Landsberg (Hortus Deliciarum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) (Click to enlarge)
The threat to the stability of those broad categories relies on the maintaining of all of them. For instance, the economy is only a subset of the environment. If we destroy, deplete, or over-consume some (or many, as we are) resource that our economy depends on, we suffer, as does the integrity of the ecological system that supports us.
The real knowledge this union of liberal arts education and sustainability curriculum can impart, is that all these major systems our interconnected and that the failure of one will lead to systemic failures in other areas. The recognition of system failures across a broad spectrum of areas such as: social justice, environmental degradation, species extinction, pollution, fossil fuel consumption, climate change, economic instability, the growth economy on a finite planet, and much much more will be difficult, but will be necessary to appropriately respond to the number and intensity of un-sustainable systems that bear down upon us.
(Image of solar flowers and Sage Hall at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh)