Can Sustainability Reinvigorate the Liberal Arts?

Back in 2006, former President of Cornell University Frank Rhodes wrote an essay calling sustainability “The Ultimate Liberal Art”, saying that the tenets of sustainability could be used to make liberal arts degrees relevant once more.

History degree, huh? What are you gonna do with that?

I originally found this topic from JustMeans writer Andrea Brennen, who sums up Rhodes’ view fairly well, but I’ll break it down even further.

  1. Liberal Arts degrees are losing credibility.
  2. This is bad, because they help teach critical thinking, historical context, perspectives, etc.
  3. The Liberal Arts can be reinvigorated by applying them to the current age (i.e. sustainability)

Brennan explains Rhodes’ point of view:

Sustainability, Rhodes argues, is the perfect unifying force; its interdisciplinary framework requires an understanding of science, social science, and economics, and its overarching philosophy is underwritten by weighty moral considerations, ethical debates, and issues of social justice. Additionally, sustainability carries with it a sense of urgency, a nonpartisan immediacy, and a call to action.

I personally love this idea, but Brennan is skeptical, and for good reason. “When did education (or, more specifically, the liberal arts) become about the totalizing presentation of one unified ideology?” She makes the case that at this point we wouldn’t even know what that ideology would be. “Sustainability, as a notion, seems to vacillate between the utmost ambiguity and hyper-specificity, depending on who you talk to. It can mean something as vague as “caring for the earth” or as explicit as not traveling in an effort to reduce your personal carbon footprint.”

*cough* I disagree. Yes, to some people sustainability is just caring for the environment, but that’s not the extent of it. Sustainability takes the whole system into account- environmental sustainability with healthy economic growth, social issues are weighed with a healthy dose of ethics.  It’s the whole package, all with the potential to be taught with new, innovative methods.

I think Rhodes is right. We just need to better explain what a sustainable liberal arts education would look like.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christina on December 7, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    You might be interested in this interview with NYT columnist Tom Friedman–about 10 or so minutes in he discusses the importance of liberal arts education for America’a future, in creating innovation, etc:


  2. I’m not sure where I stand on this one….perhaps because going through BGI seems often as a Liberal Art’s degree with a business focus. That is not a knock on the curriculum of the program, but an honest assessment of how life is as a student, and by how this article is describing the transformation of a liberal arts degree into a more or less a “sustainability” degree of sorts, I don’t think my description is too far off for BGI.

    Let’s consider the current situation and the transferable properties. If Liberal Arts = Sustainability, then our degree as an “MBA in Sustainable Business” more or less can equal “MBA in Liberal Arts.” Is this too far off from BGI’s espoused and acted values? I don’t think so. I would say that BGI’s program is a liberal arts program with a specialty in business. Disagree? Sit at a dinner table and see how many people are talking about financial regression analysis, and how many are talking about systematic relations and their effect reducing environmental impact. I think both are equally important, but it is obvious that the interest and the discussion of the program lands more on the “sustainability” side than the “business”.

    So if my opinion on this was fact (which as a liberal arts business student, recognize is subjective), that an MBA or business degree in sustainability is an offshoot from a core Sustainability (LibArt) education, where is that core being taught now and what other spokes can be created from this hub?

    I would look to the university of Arizona and their School of Sustainability for an idea. Their available degrees include:


    Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Sustainability
    Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Sustainability

    “The undergraduate programs will introduce students to the problems of sustainability taking a comparative approach. Students will learn about factors that determine the sustainability of human institutions, organizations, cultures, and technologies in different environments.”

    Master of Arts (M.A.) in Sustainability
    Master of Science (M.S.) in Sustainability
    Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Sustainability

    “The graduate programs train students for academic, research, and professional roles. Graduates will be able to understand the dynamics of coupled social and environmental systems and will be able to organize collaborative teams to conduct research and provide adaptive solutions to specific sustainability problems.”

    Here we see we have an obvious focus on the core curriculum of Sustainability education with different focuses.

    Overall I think that Liberal Arts can be forced into the undefined box of sustainability as an educational platform, and already is. The major question yet to be seen is how people will understand and perceive what a degree in “sustainability” is. One of the major reasons why a Liberal Arts degree is not valuable is because few know what it really means and how it can be applied to a company. How will changing it’s title to sustainability help? I’m not sure yet.


  3. Posted by Nina on December 14, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    This idea could be successful as long as the curriculum for these new sustainability liberal art degrees could demonstrate and prepare their graduates with the tools to apply their knowledge and a clear understanding of where and how this knowledge can be applied. I went to a liberal arts program in undergrad and I found myself wanting a more vocational program. It seemed like everyone in my school valued liberal arts but no one knew exactly what their ultimate purpose was and if they did, did not connect the dots for students post-graduation. Unfortunately, employers have also been unable to connect those dots. If we don’t teach how to apply knowledge, then you might as well get a degree in how to read a lot of stuff. I get that degree every day when I surf the web. It impacts my thoughts and how I think about problems but ultimately, I stay passive with my knowledge because the avenues and methods (the sciences don’t have this problem!) for application are not clear. This amounts to an existential crisis for the liberal arts…for a very practically minded person like myself…it’s not enough for such disciplines to have intellectual merit…they must also lead to greatness. Greatness, to me, can be achieved with practical toolkits, real impact, and measurable metrics. Oh, and a frickin’ JOB after graduation that doesn’t involve greeting people and answering the phones.


  4. […] liberal arts blog called EcoErudition elaborates on this notion. It’s worth checking […]


  5. […] liberal arts blog called EcoErudition elaborates on this notion. It’s worth checking […]


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