Act: Inspiration

Teaching (or cultivating) sustainability or (or inhabitance) ten years on

May 27, 2021

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

For ten years now, I’ve been teaching one version or another of a class on personal simplicity and economic and environmental sustainability here at Friends University, a formerly Quaker, non-denominational Christian, small liberal arts college in Wichita, KS. Though I teach at a religious university, I don’t teach religion myself–and for that reason, I at first doubted that Jennifer Ayres’s Inhabitance: Ecological Religious Education would tell me much that would be pedagogically relevant to me, despite my strong sympathy with her subject matter. In this, I was partly wrong. While Ayres’s book includes many intriguing (and a few borderline outrageous) educational suggestions, its greatest value to me as a teacher is the way it inspires me to take stock of what I’ve tried to do with with my sustainability class, and to perhaps rethink what my primary goals in that course should be.

My original aim in the design of this class–about which I’ve probably shared my thoughts about too many times already–was always primarily getting students out of the classroom and into the growing, producing, fecund Kansas ecosystems all around us, showing them that there are patterns of life that can keep people fed and housed and happy without committing oneself to the rat race. It shouldn’t have been a shock to me, after I’d lived in Kansas for a few years, to realize how many of my students really had no connection with farming or food systems–but it was, nonetheless. Sometimes broad popular stereotypes about “living in the heartland” would be confirmed as I talked with the students taking the class, and some of them would end up taking the lead in teaching me about cattle ranching or winter wheat or regenerative agriculture. But more often than not, my own agricultural background, limited as it is, nonetheless greatly eclipsed theirs. And so I figured that, whatever else I might be able to communicate to my students about Wendell Berry or John Woolman, I should at the very least get them out of the city and take them to some farms–as well as urban farmers markets and community gardens and other kinds of local sustainable business operations, perhaps going so far as to work on one of our own.

In doing all of that, I’d like to think I’ve been fairly successful, at least insofar as the “getting them out of Wichita” part is concerned. Even in the midst of the worst of the pandemic last summer and fall, different butchers and ranchers and food producers were willing to sacrifice some of their busy days to let students–majors in Conservation Science, Health Science, History & Politics, and more–come and tour their land, their independent meatpacking processing operations, their homemade tomato and lettuce greenhouses, their cheese-making and milk processing facilities, and so much more. These kinds of experiences don’t, I’ll be the first to admit, necessarily provide the students with the sort of detailed know-how necessary for them to develop more sustainable practices in their own lives. But as Ayres herself insists, knowledge about one’s ecological surroundings are only the tip of the iceberg; as she writes, “Cultivating [the] capacity for inhabitance”–which she defines as “seeking to know and love and particular place in some detail and honoring its [ecological] rhythms, limits, and possibilities”–“requires personal and social transformation at a level far deeper than that of figuring out ‘greener solutions'” (pp. 3, 17). Thus the aim of those who aspire to “educate for inhabitance”–which I realized, in reading this book, clearly describes me–has to involve figuring out ways to engage the affections of others, their bodies and appetites and emotions and creative imaginations. If that seems intuitively true, it may be simply because philosophers from Aristotle to Polanyi have consistently argued that nothing can so engage people as real tactile experience, and real practical work. So far as that goes…as I said, I think I’ve done fairly well on the first, though not so much on the second.

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To be clear: any success I’ve had with the first has to be attributed, first and foremost, to having an exemplar to draw upon, and becoming friends with Leroy Hershberger–a mechanic, handy-man, cook, juggler, bicyclist, and born story-teller, all with a degree from Yale–a decade ago has made all the difference in my life and the life of so many of my students. Some of them from years before have told me that dinners at the Hershbergers were one of the highlights of their entire college education. They remember well Leroy’s glorious beard (that he shaved it off during the pandemic came as profound shock of several of them!), the kind words of his mother Mary, the inquisitive questions of his father William (who passed away at the age of 80 during the pandemicLeroy’s tribute to his father was touching, kind, and wise), and most of all the joy the whole Hershberg family take in being able to introduce young people a life more focused on the land, on real material productivity, and in that way a whole ecosystem–both ecological and economic, to say nothing of also spiritual–that exists and enlivens the worldview of many outside the hustle and bustle of our urban college campus.

I’ve sometimes been challenged–or, indeed, given the vicissitudes of trying to do my part to not just educate students but also keep my tuition-driven college campus alive and functioning, sometimes I have challenged myself–as to the real “outcomes” of this class and these excursions. Am I trying to turn my students into farmers, into rural proprietors and local producers? If so, why, and am I at all successful at it anyway? Every educator in today’s late capitalist world confronts those questions of metrics and assessments at one point or another, and it’s hard for me to conceive of anyone serious about the teaching profession who doesn’t recognize the harmful framing they introduce into the very idea of paideia–that is, of the formation of the human person which a proper education should involve.

That may not mean that such questions can–much less should–be simply dismissed as irrelevant; our students live in this late capitalist world too, and are looking to find ways to discover livelihoods, relationships, and most of all places of productive inhabitance within it. If we as teachers provide no bridge from the formation we hope to introduce to their affections to the challenges facing them upon the conclusion of their education, then we haven’t served them well at all. Ayres reminds me of all this, with wise comments on matters of both paideia (which she presents as an acknowledgement of the communities within which we are formed, and the responsibility of constructive critique which community membership must entail–p. 62) and place (which she defines as any location which, through human inhabitation, “is imbued with meaning, with histories, and [most crucially] with contestations”–p. 88). Creating, through my classes, opportunities for my students to come face-to-face, and hand-to-hand, with people like the Hershbergers and dozens of others who have exemplified simpler and more sustainable forms of life hopefully also gives them 1) a model of the love of place, and 2) the incentive to recognize, come to know, and thereby carefully–but unsparingly–critique their own places.

Do I imagine that such incentives and models will automatically transform my students into ecologically, environmentally, agriculturally informed inhabitants of wherever they live? Obviously not, especially since my own inhabitation still falls short in so many ways. But life is long, and beginning students along a path scattered with seeds for reflection, fits in, again, with the kind of trust in the slow pace of creation which Ayers speaks of eloquently:

[S]low knowledge is the kind of knowledge necessary for an ecologically conscious person or community. It is cultivated together and shared, is deeply related to the context in which it is nurtured, and acknowledges–indeed, embraces–human limitations….[M]ost importantly, it demands human patience and attentiveness. It will not be rushed. In the not rushing, in the attentiveness, wisdom is cultivated and inoculates human consciousness against the seductions of technological progress and the quick fix….

In formal education settings, the push toward more content coverage and measurable success makes the proposal of slowing down, reading less, and reflecting more somewhat of a pedagogical and institutional risk. In religious communities, “slow learning” meets other institutional pressures: in a season of anxiety about declining religious affiliations and lackluster participation in education programs, religious and educational leaders might be seduced by slick curriculum packets that promise effortless preparation and meaning engagement with learners. The principle of slow knowledge, however would suggest that efficiency and meaning are sometimes at cross-purposes. Meaning takes time (pp. 72-73).

The relevance of ecological language to the slow formation of ideas, in the lives of students or parishioners or anyone else, contrary to what Ayres calls–learning heavily on Berry, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackon, David Orr, and many others–the “uncritical embrace of the efficiencies and networking capacities of technology” (p. 4) should be obvious. Equally obvious is how committing to the enacting of that slow formation–such as by growing a garden–can only strengthen that relevance. But that, of course, is where things get exponentially harder. It is one thing, in the midst of whirlwind of experiences that make up a college education, to get students to pause for an hour, or a day, or maybe even longer, and enable them to put their hands on the soil and the food and the people who can provide them with real models of belonging and critique. It is an entirely different thing to commit students to fill up that pause with the daily, weekly, monthly work of growing things in a garden, and to be able to see and, eventually, taste the results of their own re-orientation.

For close to a decade, many of us here at Friends have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to commit our students–and ourselves!–to projects requiring some genuine husbandry in a garden space on our campus. Sometimes there have been real successes, and sometimes the space has lain almost entirely forgotten for an academic year (or more). The space in general has much improved since the early conversations about it, and the first rush of enthusiasm to transform what was a vacant lot beside a student housing complex. But an entirely sustainable component of Wichita’s local food system–much less even just Friend University’s!–the garden is absolutely not. It remains, month in and month out, dependent upon the vision and determination of a few of us, and the occasional student or two or five who find ways to make the time spent working in the garden satisfy either their own personal commitments or their academic responsibilities or both. But even in those happy situations, we’ll likely only have a season or two from the students in question: they are, after all, young people, seeking to gain the learning (and the certification of having received such) that will enable them to find their own place, and make their own commitments, on their own schedule, not necessarily Mother Nature’s. So we make the most of the seasons we have, and continue to try our best to get the carrots and arugula and potatoes to grow, in the same way I try my best to make my classes spark agrarian and ecological ideas that might never have occurred to the students before. Sometimes, it all works. And when it doesn’t, we trust in God’s grace and the fecundity of both the Kansas soil and the college student’s mind, and try again.

That kind of attitude is always going to be dispiriting to some. They might look at Ayres’s book and note that she hardly ever addresses the complex structural forces which likely make it difficult for an education in inhabitance to translate into the creation care she considers imperative. The same criticism could made of the three-credit hour college class I teach once a year at a not-especially-notable Christian college in the middle of Kansas, of course: how is that really addressing the obstacles to inhabitance. But as utopian as “religious education” and “local food tours” it may seem, that doesn’t mean we still can’t approach them with a hope for real formation work in mind. Or at least I do–and I thank Ayres for reminding me of that ideal. She is a teacher speaking to other teachers, like me. She is urging, through her book, those of us who have grasped the imperative of seeking to cultivate a greater concern for ecological and economic and spiritual sustainability to “envision…a way of inhabitance that may not yet be entirely possible,” holding on to the faith that the communities we might be building through our teaching “can imagine and do and become that which one person cannot on their own” (p. 129). Perhaps “envisioning for inhabitation” isn’t a bad goal for my class, as I take it into its next decade.


Teaser Photo by William Katerberg on Unsplash

Russell Arben Fox

Professor of Political Science and Director of the History and Political Science Program at Friends University

Tags: alternative education, building resilient communities, placemkaing, relocalization