We are entering the season of graduations and commencements, where speakers will applaud the graduates and exhort them to work hard to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.
No one will mention that these students are graduating into a future made difficult, if not impossible, by the lifestyle choices of their parents and grandparents. Nor will they be told they are unlikely to enjoy either the environmental or economic benefits of their elders, whose enterprises have cut down or polluted what they didn’t use up or destroy.
Those would be facts, not the usual flannel that characterizes the commencement address people expect to hear.
Avoiding the subject does not change the situation, however.
Ninety years ago, Raymond Fosdick compiled a book of commencement addresses he had been asked to give: The Old Savage in the New Civilization. His point was simple: humanity’s technological abilities had developed far faster than its moral capacity. We are using dangerous new tools the same way our ancestors used clubs, thousands of years ago, and risk self-destruction.
The key to moral development, he said, was education. New moral and ethical abilities are needed throughout society to manage the amazing possibilities reflected in the new civilization we have created. We must deliberately educate citizens to think in new ways, with a kind of wisdom and maturity that was lacking in the society that self-destructed during the Great War of 1914-1918 and which was threatening to do so again.
In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fosdick must have sounded like an old, unwelcome crow. Two years later, however, as the stock market crash of 1929 led into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism that preceded the Second World War, his audience likely changed their minds about him and his speech.
At the risk of sounding like an old crow myself, our post-secondary institutions here in Manitoba have failed their graduates and the society in which we live. They have not focused on educating citizens to make better choices than their parents and grandparents did. Instead, they have focused on churning out replacement parts for the machine civilization, whose further development threatens the existence of global society and much of life on Earth.
Sustainability is a social and cultural problem today, not a scientific one, just as it was in 1927. Our moral capacity still lags behind our technological development. An educated citizenry is still our best hope for a sustainable future, but our institutions are not doing what they should to make this happen.
Rather than investing in people, universities have spent the generosity of concerned donors on bricks and mortar, establishing the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth and Resources at the University of Manitoba and the Richardson College for the Environment and Science at the University of Winnipeg. There is still no money for new faculty positions at either place, and current options for sustainability education are cobbled together out of existing courses and programs and only narrowly available to a few students.
Business schools are booming, though. When I ask my students, "Business for what?" I get stunned expressions, as though making money is an end in itself. Check their programs — business for a sustainable future is not an option. You have to live to spend it, though.
As for innovation, that is all about buildings, too — the $36-million Innovation Hub at the University of Manitoba is matched to Red River College’s $95-million Innovation Centre complex downtown, both lacking the staff and program capacity to go much beyond the building facades. Each new building sucks operating money from shrinking grants, so students actually get less.
Like university grads, RRC grads are global citizens, but their options for this kind of education are slim to none, taking programs that focus primarily (if not exclusively) on technical skills. Having developed and taught ethics and sustainability at RRC until 2015, across various programs, I know from experience how much can be learned from just one such course — but most students don’t get the chance to take it.
Raymond Fosdick faced the same obstinate resistance to social and cultural change 90 years ago. He became president of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1936, and over the next 10 years helped shift its funding away from the physical sciences and laid the groundwork for the modern social sciences. That legacy of focusing on people, not their tools, continues to bear the kind of fruit for which he pleaded.
Just not here.
Peter Denton has taught science and technology studies for 30 years. He chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.