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December 10, 2001

Teaching in the natural world

John Bugge is a professor in the English department.


Just before noon on the second day of a faculty workshop on “Environmental Issues Across the Curriculum” last May, a passage from Brave New World came back to me. It’s the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning explaining why children under his care are conditioned by electric shocks “to scream at the sight of a rose”:

Primroses and landscapes … have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes … but not the tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they should keep on going to the country, even though they hated it.

Maybe some of the frightful statistics we were tossing around in the workshop that morning (e.g., that every car in the United States needs 7,841 square feet of asphalt or concrete for roads and parking space—a paved football field for each five cars) made me think of Huxley’s mordant critique, but, whatever the reason, I was glad to gain a sense that my own work in this workshop was under way.

That task was, indeed, the self-imposed one of rethinking a dozen works of English and American utopian fiction from a perspective that would highlight an issue heretofore only latent: How might the ideal human polity (or the most dystopian) relate to nature, to the environment? In a word, I’d set for myself the task of “greening” my old utopian-literature course, of repositioning it so it would front the ever more crucial matter of “utopian ecology.”

I would not have been doing this without the impetus provided by the “Environmental Issues” workshop (see story), which was the brainchild of two dedicated faculty colleagues, chemist and anthropologist. They’d secured generous support from Emory’s Center for Teaching and Curriculum, which made possible the contribution of two seasoned seminar leaders from the national educational consortium Second Nature (whose website, incidentally, is indispensable).

Applicants from across the University were invited to create a new course that would raise awareness of issues of environmental sustainability, or to retool an old one. The enterprise would involve taking part in the workshop, spending three weeks of precious summer vacation time thereafter in gestation, and giving birth to a syllabus by Aug. 31.

The invitation was for me propitious. Although I’d taught utopian fiction for years, I’d long understood that the most demanding work on the reading list, Walden, was properly no utopia at all, but, if anything, a preface to a higher kind of polity, to higher laws.

I realized that perhaps Thoreau’s transcendentalist understanding of what we now might call “deep ecology” gave the intellectual purchase needed to make sense of any utopian impulse that might remain in the face of ongoing 21st century environmental degradation.

It was well past time to color my old course green.

The workshop itself was wonderfully interdisciplinary. There were 14 faculty from the Arts & Sciences, plus five more from public health, theology, law and business. Each brought a new slant, and for two days I borrowed wisdom from everything they said about how ecological awareness might inform and reinvigorate one’s teaching.

Without that experience I doubt I’d have overcome my own inertial guidance system to devote three weeks to revising a course that was easy to think of as already a finished product. I surprised myself by producing a big, baggy monster of syllabus by the middle of July, one replete with secondary readings in the environmental science, philosophy, political science and religion. Realistically, its overreaching will probably scare many students away, and I expect I shall have to trim it to realistic proportions before I launch the course this spring.

The syllabus begins: “The goal of the course is understanding—understanding of how better to live in the natural world, plus a grasp of what we need to do to change the system so we may live ‘sustainably,’ in harmony with nature.”

I felt a genuine urgency when I wrote that, for if this younger and reasonably idealistic generation of Americans doesn’t attain such understanding soon, those coming after may be facing environmental catastrophe.

This essay first appeared in the Department of English newsletter, Loose Canons, and is reprinted with permission.


Back to Emory Report December 10, 2001