Professor Stresses ‘Ecological Thinking' as a Liberal Art

If the purpose of a liberal arts education is to prepare students to contribute to society when they graduate, said Stephen Woolpert, professor of politics, then the job of the Saint Mary's College faculty today should be to add "ecological thinking" to the skills students need to learn. Woolpert made his comments in a March lecture that marked his having been named Professor of the Year 2003–2004.

Humanity faces an environmental crisis, Woolpert said, and evidence for alarm is observable in high rates of deforestation, pesticide use, carbon emissions, and water and energy consumption, for example.

He described ecological thinking as a new way of looking at the world that has ancient roots. Premodern societies could explain their connection to the natural world around them, Woolpert explained. Today, however, we need to understand humanity's role within a larger ecosystem, not separate from or above the natural world.

"The feedback loops between our actions and their consequences in the natural world have become disrupted," Woolpert said.

Woolpert emphasizes this approach in his courses. The hallmark of this way of thinking, he explained, is asking not just "Why?" but "And then what?" He encourages his students to explore how the College itself is a part of its environment as a way of understanding how our way of life can have an impact on local surroundings.

"What we consume and what we waste," he explained, "offer opportunities for exploring our relations to the larger world ... I require my students to find out where our water comes from and where our trash winds up. They learn that it takes over 600 gallons of water to make one hamburger patty."

In Woolpert's view, ecological thinking should be part of a liberal arts education. "I am concerned," he said, "that while we teach our students to become literate in reading human language, they may remain illiterate in reading in the language of the world about us."

Ecological thinking, Woolpert said, is an integrated set of skills crossing academic boundaries. It is, he explained, "a habit of mind that contributes to the public purpose of liberal education, by increasing students' capacity for responsible membership in the communities-understood ecologically-in which they live, learn, and work."

-- by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
College Communications