In the Fall 2016 issue of Common Voice, former presidents of Sterling talked about their philosophies of environmental stewardship education. Here, Distinguished Professor Ned Houston talks in greater detail about the unique environmental stewardship curriculum of Sterling College. 

From Sterling College’s inception, care for the land and sustaining the productivity of the land and its diverse inhabitants has been central to our curriculum. In the early years we used to describe Grassroots as a “one year program in agriculture, forestry, and wildlife management.” All students took a triad of courses directly related stewardship and sustainability: Conservation Studies, Soil Science, and Resource Issues. To these three Ecology was soon added. We felt strongly that students should know something of the systems which underlie all biological production—soils and ecosystems, should understand basics of our land use history and land management laws and agencies—Conservation Studies, and should be able to understand and articulate positions in public discussions about resources—Resource Issues. As the curriculum has evolved and grown, our offerings have broadened and deepened so that we now expect much greater understanding after four years of study than one, but the intention remains to develop students with an appreciation of natural systems, their fragility and resilience, and our human responsibilities to sustain those systems for future generations.

Part of developing that sensibility is academic study, but for us at Sterling another perhaps even more significant aspect always has been actively engaging in caring for the land, the forest and plants, the creatures, the water, and the atmosphere. Again from the start students have worked on the farm, worked in the woods, planted and harvested, measured and assessed, and grappled with complex, often conflicting questions. Just as an example, consider the question of harvesting technology in woodlots. Are horses always a better, lower-impact choice? How would we know the answer to that question? What about economic considerations? After all, if a woodlot crew of ten, working with hand tools and skidding with horses puts only $30 or $40 worth of wood on the landing by the end of the day, how can that amount even come close to paying the bills? By such direct experience, students learn that stewardship involves multiple layers of choices and much balancing of imperatives.

Another aspect of stewardship foundational to Sterling’s curriculum involves community and developing and sustaining human as well as natural capital. The series of courses known as Bounder integrated into every student’s experience from Grassroots to the BA program focus on working together and taking care of each other in the service of higher goals and greater achievement. Expedition has always been a highpoint in the Bounder program and at its core is much less about specific winter camping survival skills and much more about interpersonal survival skills. The question of how might I survive becomes how might we survive –even thrive—in the face of challenge and adversity. No greater question faces us as we seek a sustainable future.

These three components of academic conceptual study, rigorous implementation efforts, and community awareness provide a solid foundation for active involvement in environmental stewardship. Students can build on that foundation to pursue diverse interests and careers. Our hope and optimism as faculty and program designers stems from the many ways graduates embrace the world utilizing foundational concepts fully integrated into our curriculum from our earliest program initiatives. This focus of the curriculum has always been more about process and approach than about specific answers and thus has remained relevant as times change.

When I began teaching the core course known for most of its life as “Humans in the Environment” back in the late 70’s, the world population was more the three billion less than now, many technologies such as laptop computers or gene splicing were still in the realm of science fiction, and human induced climate change was barely conceivable rather than a measurable fact. And yet many of questions I remember posing for students still remain as hard to answer definitively. For example, how should we define a high quality human life as we weigh choices on a personal and social level? Back then, no one had cell phone service or high-speed internet access, so we didn’t worry about such issues as download speed or cyber crime, but we did grapple with soil fertility and urban air quality. We did worry about access to affordable energy. We did need to come to grips with transnational environmental impacts such as acid deposition. And we still had to think hard about getting along with people of other cultures, values, and persuasions as we tried to resolve these kinds of challenges. Were our lives better or worse back then and how do we know? I certainly do not miss my typewriter and the challenge of creating clean final drafts, but is the trail of electronic debris my computer use necessitates over the years justified by my ease in writing?

One of the greatest fortunate surprises of my years at Sterling were the several semester-long trips to the Himalayan regions. These Mountain Culture Semesters did what I think education really is supposed to do: they gave us physical and intellectual challenges that forced us, students and faculty, to re-consider many of our normal expectations and think hard about our values and aspirations. One day during a service week in a remote village in Sikkim that had seen very few Westerners, we were making concrete the local way for our project (a village sanitation facility). This meant descending several hundred feet to the river to pick up sand, hauling rocks as big as we could carry to our site and reducing them to pebbles with mauls and hammers, and hauling fifty pound bags of cement in from the nearest road a half hour or so away. I was breaking rocks with several students and local women who did a great deal of the heavy labor in addition to child care, etc. Every time I put my hammer down, one of the villagers would take it away. I finally asked why and through our guide who was also our interpreter, I learned that the people did not feel it appropriate for an educated white person to be doing such work. I reflected wryly that some of my college classmates might well have shared that feeling, but I am sure Ghandi would not. Later on as we trekked up higher into the mountains after our project on one of the routes Sikkim is developing for an ecotourism initiative, one of the students and I fell to discussing the experience in the village. “I’ll never take a backhoe for granted again,” he said.

In the Solukhumbu region of Nepal, home to many Sherpas and where we lived and trekked for six weeks one year, guests at tea are often served wonderfully flavorful small red potatoes along with a spicy horseradish type of sauce. The potatoes they grow for sale, however, are large and white and go by the name “development potatoes.” Why not eat them? “Oh,” said our hosts, “They have so little flavor!” Greater yield (largely because they take up much more water) trumps quality, but not for special occasions. Perhaps a metaphor about development for us.

When I think about environmental stewardship, I find myself beset by troubling questions. It is not an easy path to navigate on a personal or institutional level. However, it is a crucial obligation. More than ever, we need to reject simplistic answers and really engage deeply the complex process of living. We really need “working hands and working minds,” and, if it seems hard, well, life is a “Bounder experience.”



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