Westminster's new major to improve green vision
By Sadie Hoagland
Education: Green Laurels
Everyone knows that heartbreaking scene at the end of Wizard of Oz, where it is discovered that the Emerald City isn't really green, and it's only the glasses that are green-it left us all with bitter feelings of betrayal in our young hearts. While nothing may ever make up for the childhood disappointment, Westminster College is doing its best, both by making the world a greener place and by teaching its students to see through green glasses again, and this time for forever.
The college has initiated a new environmental studies major, expanding the minor that has been an option for students for more than 10 years. The new major, like the minor, will be largely interdisciplinary, incorporating classes from several departments, including English, philosophy, anthropology, biology and economics. Students can concentrate in one of three areas: science and environment, culture and environment, or civic environment.
The new major is part of a campuswide movement toward greater greenness that includes plans to make the campus landscape more eco-friendly, a new environmental center that facilitators hope will be a connecting point between students and local environmental groups, and a host site for community environmental forums, where discussions between different interest groups take place.
"We are putting more energy into awareness of the environment," says English professor Jeff McCarthy, whose research focus is environmental literature. Awareness really is the right word for this program: the new major acts both as a recognition of the growing job field in careers such as environmental law and natural resource management, as well as the growing need for an interdisciplinary background for any job. As McCarthy pointed out in a poignant example-even bigwig financial advising firms like Goldman Sachs are beginning to profile companies environmentally. Even companies with no green blood need someone who can communicate about enviro-issues.
While "environmental studies" may seem like a catchphrase uttered on college campuses across the country, Westminster has a unique take on the latest trend in academia. The program's goals are not just about the environment crisis-but also about a sense of place. "We want to acquaint students with the place we are," McCarthy explains, detailing how students should learn to look at their immediate surroundings scientifically, linguistically, economically. "All are important to anyone who is going to look at the environment," McCarthy says. This focus in locality relates to a second aim of the new major: to make concrete the academic concepts that too often remain in an abstract world. By paying more attention to the place we actually inhabit, McCarthy explains, we have a better reason to start considering environmentalism.
Speaking of place, both McCarthy and biology professor Ty Harrison are quick to point out the ideal locale for a program like this: "Utah is a great place to study the environment, not only because of the glory," McCarthy says as he motions to the sunset framed by his office window, " but also the cross purposes," meaning the various interest groups.
The discipline's exchange between local and national, abstract and concrete, gives McCarthy an excuse to intersperse teaching naturalist writers like Thoreau and Virgil with Utah writers like Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams. It also gives Ty Harrison a reason to organize his curriculum conceptually by Utah's three major bioregions: the Great Basin, the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau. The local, hands-on approach encourages every department to get their students out into the place they are trying to understand.
Utah is also a great place for field trips, another focus of the Environmental Studies program. The faculty wants the major to involve the physical place as much as possible, what McCarthy describes as "heavily experiential." This means taking class concepts out into the real world, but also bringing the real world concepts back into academics. More literally, this means four- to five-hour field trips each week if you are in the environmental biology class, including trips to the landfill and canoeing the Jordan River. But not just the science classes are out in the field-in May, an art class will head out to the West Desert to look at earthworks such as the Spiral Jetty.
This interactive approach to education also entails service learning; students work on projects such as Hidden Hollow where they plant native plants in order to draw animals back into the city. Service learning is a familiar concept for Harrison, who has his students create websites about the local natural history instead of writing term papers, so that the information will be accessible to the community. In fact, Harrison won an award last year from Campus Compact, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education, for his efforts to involve his students in the community. For Harrison, the new program has a two-fold purpose: to increase environmental literacy for students, spilling over to become a critical part of the community.
Westminster, as a small, liberal arts college, can have a program that is truly as idealistic and intimate as it sounds. Field trips, visits by Terry Tempest Williams, trips to the Spiral Jetty?the world is already looking more like the Emerald City.
The new major becomes active in September 2006. For more information visit Type your body content here.