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Destined for Failure

by Jason Peters

Published in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine



I AM ASTONISHED by the number of academics convinced that the infusion of a few technological electrolytes will cure the pounding hangover sure to punish us for partying so recklessly in the hospitality tents sponsored by Cheap Readily Available Oil. People with five or seven letters after their names are clinging to the delusion that energy and technology are interchangeable, that when one goes into decline the other will arrive to take them up the mountain for a weekend of downhill skiing.

This error persists for any number of reasons, among them the fact that higher education has largely become a faith-based institution governed by the motto “In Progress We Trust.” But perhaps a more immediate cause is that as participants in an increasingly abstract economy we have simply let ourselves live in a kind of blissful ignorance about oil—how it was formed, what we use it for, how we get it, what and whom we destroy in the process. And so as a teacher I have often wondered whether general-education curricula should include an interdisciplinary course on oil—and whether passing such a course should be a graduation requirement.

This is part of a larger question concerning the problem of ecological illiteracy, that unselective pestilence as likely to infect a professor as a frat boy. Too many of the guests and tenants in academia bear a striking resemblance to that clueless freeloader at the end of The Great Gatsby who shows up one night after Gatsby’s death, unaware that the party is over.

But it is, and it’s high time we who teach started saying so, because lean times are coming. For example, our dependence on the food system, which is run by oil from farm to table, will waste no time teaching us a few things about how incompetent we are. That many of us with impeccable academic credentials will be among the first to starve means only that chickens do come home to roost: we are the confessors of an educational creed that dismisses the value of the domestic arts and sends graduates out into a world of surrendered skills and purchased necessities. We are the diploma retailers who have allowed students to assume that the machines and the ungraduated will supply all their real needs. We have let these students major in Getting Ahead. We have strip-mined the local talent, converted it into “graduates,” and shipped it to Big Important Places. Deracinated and deracinating vandals that we are, chasers of whatever grant money inflates our egos, we have taught students to be as we are: citizens of every place, which is to say citizens of no place—that is, not citizens at all, but parasites.

It’s time for something better.

On every campus we need large, highly visible vegetable gardens that are tended by everyone who likes to eat; cafeterias that provide, insofar as they can, only local foods; compost heaps steaming next to these cafeterias to remind us to pay our debt to the soil. We need administrators committed to dismantling, not enlarging, our vast system of technological dependencies, and professors committed to living defensibly and responsibly and competently before their students. Our foreign studies programs must become local studies programs. Our new buildings must be made to run on energy sources that will still be available when the buildings turn fifty or a hundred.

We can’t ignore the problem of ecological illiteracy any longer. It must become a prominent curricular concern all across higher education. And no one should graduate who doesn’t know what oil has done for us—and especially what it has done to us: made us fat, lazy, stupid, and incompetent. This won’t cut it.

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Jason Peters teaches English at Augustana College and is the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work.

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