17 Education, Careers, and Callings

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In the past decade I have received several hundred letters of inquiry

from students asking for advice about education and careers. Most

want to know how to combine their passion for the natural world

with formal education in order to craft a useful life. The letters and

e-mails are often written in a tone of frustration. An undergraduate

biology major, for example, writes: “I have been researching my options,

and I have come to the conclusions [sic] that there are quite a

number of programs labeled ‘conservation biology’ or ‘environmental

studies’ around the country. It is fairly easy to become lost in a sea of

them. I attended the Society for Conservation Biology meeting in

Maryland, but failed to find any prospective advisors.Would you have

any advice to offer on this topic?” Similarly, a recent Ph.D. in wildlife

biology writes: “I am struggling to translate my professional training

into a life well lived that in some way might contribute to preserving

the natural world and not just documenting its decline. . . . My professional

training did not prepare me well for these tasks.” Dozens of

other letters have the same plaintive themes.

The problem is not simply that there are many more students

who want practical careers in environmental work than those who find

them. The deeper problem has to do with the experience of students

as they pass through the system of higher education. Whatever they

once may have been, institutions of higher education have become

vast and expensively operated machines much like any for-profit corporation.

Students are fed through a conveyor belt of requirements,

large classes, deadlines, and general busy-ness. What they learn seldom

adds up to anything like a coherent, ecologically solvent worldview.

The scale of most institutions is not conducive to humane interaction.

Seldom encouraged to discern an inner calling, students are more

often counseled to find secure careers that pay well. Nonetheless,

many students still feel a calling toward service that runs counter to

the incentives, values, and structure of their formal education.

This was brought home to me during a recent conference to review

various fellowship programs, including some in conservation

biology, offered through prominent universities. Without question,

fellowships such as these have helped a number of young scholars

complete their graduate work and move into professional careers.

Judged by most conventional criteria, all the programs we reviewed

have been successful. The proceedings, however, were permeated by

a sense of self-congratulation that seemed oddly remote from the

larger backdrop of global trends. When asked, for example, how she

defined success, one participant replied that success meant “welltrained

students who finish their Ph.D.s on time.” Another argued

that “depth and rigor in a particular field promoted collegial interaction

across disciplines,” a view that would astonish many in higher education.

While a third agreed that it had taken his field a long time to

discover a connection with the environment, that tardiness required

no further explanation or analysis. A fourth noted that graduate studies

seldom generated a “critical class” of scholars, but found that unworthy

of further comment. Over and over again, the word “training”

(what one does to a dog) was used where the appropriate word would

have been “education.” This is a great deal more than a semantic quibble.

It represents a view of learning and higher education that deserves

to be challenged. The university participants, good people all,

regard themselves as “professionals,” perhaps even as knowledge technicians.

Under the right circumstances this pays well and provides indoor

employment, but it can also generate bullet-proof complacency.

In a subsequent analysis, one conference participant voiced the

opinion that the problems of the world will be solved only by “detailed

knowledge . . . created through empirical research” disseminated

by universities. Accordingly, we provide “young people in the

first stages of careers . . . a perspective for understanding complex systems

and a basis for developing analytic skills.” Similarly, it was assumed

that “academic institutions . . . confer prestige and legitimacy”

otherwise not available and that this is necessary for those embarking

on professional careers. And the fact that conventional, disciplinebased

university programs were often “stultifying” was thought to be

a minor problem.

On reflection, I think that it is a mistake to presume that what

ails the world has much to do with a lack of empirical knowledge, a

shortage of information, or a scarcity of professional, career-oriented

scholars. It is likely that we suffer far more from a lack of courage,

good-heartedness, creativity, and a larger vision of how we might integrate

human societies into natural systems. But these traits are not

often rewarded or even recognized in places that dispense prestige

and legitimacy. On the contrary, such traits are often penalized in

such places. In large part the reasons are to be found in the close relationship

between the modern university and particular disciplines

with corporations promoting, among other things, agribusiness, genetic

engineering, artificial intelligence, the consumer economy,

weapons research, and the excessive resource extraction necessary to

all of the above.

One of our charges was to consider the adequacy of financial support

for various fellowship programs. But funding in institutions with

billion-dollar endowments is seldom a problem . . . for the things that

are valued in such places. The problem is that many essentials of the

long-term health of the world in which our students will live are seldom

high on the priority list of institutions of higher education. As a

result, many facets of a long-term perspective go begging, while parking

decks, athletic facilities, and administrators flourish like mushrooms

after a spring rain. What often appears as a funding problem is

first and foremost a problem of values and priorities, and alert students

are aware of the difference.

A few of us hoped to find programs that encouraged fellowship

recipients to boldly cross the boundaries of disciplines and to connect

fields of knowledge. Alas, the modern university facilitates interdisci-

plinary work with about the same gusto and creativity as some Balkan

countries facilitate interregional tourism. The reasons are many. As a

result, we often launch promising young people into academic careers

that eviscerate their idealism and energy. By the time students

have enrolled in graduate programs, they will have made major decisions

about their career path. Soon thereafter they will have been socialized

into the ethos of graduate school by a combination of fear of

failure, financial dependency, and the asymmetrical power relationships

that pervade such places. To succeed, they must invest more

than just money and time in an effort to get a Ph.D. They must buy

into a particular worldview congenial to professionalized, disciplinary

knowledge and institutionalized science. Dissidents are mostly

invited out. By the time a student has been exposed to four years of

college and four or more years of graduate school, the psychological

investment is large, as is the investment in time and money. There

should be no great mystery why such systems do not turn out a

higher percentage enrolled in the “critical class” of scholars who are

able and willing to critique the kinds of knowledge generated in some

of our proudest institutions of higher learning and how such knowledge

is used.

There is a related problem. Most of us hope that environmental

science will provide more than a rigorous documentation of biotic

impoverishment. If so, we must be open to the disconcerting possibility

that the lens of Western science distorts as often as it clarifies.Describing

the ways by which the native Yup’ik people of Alaska understand

nature, for example, historian Calvin Martin writes, “Their call

for respect for old ways has no soil, in our reality, to take root and

grow” (1999, 111). To minds that perceive reality as participatory,

Western-style research is “strange, discourteous, and vaguely dangerous.

. . . There is a crazy objectification going on here” by which animals

“are removed from the individual’s experience with them [and

rendered] into ‘resources’ or ‘objects’ to be ‘managed’ or ‘studied’”

(ibid., 112). The heart of the issue for Martin lies in the choice we

make between measuring the world in fear or in trust. “That decision

appears to usher its bearer inexorably into one realm of realty or another,

mutually exclusive of one another” (ibid., 205). Such observations

bring us to an inconvenient truth that other cultures armed with

far less hard science but much more of what we disparage as myth

have made far better management decisions than we have.

If there is some fatal flaw in a science intent on “enlarging the

bounds of the human empire, to the effecting of all things possible” as

Francis Bacon put it in New Atlantis (1627, 447), how would a student

in a typical college or university come to recognize it? How would

they learn to see the dangers in, say, efforts to reengineer the gene pool

of the planet? Or those to displace humans with machines that will be

vastly more “intelligent”? How would they learn the humility, compassion,

and perspective that should discipline the search for knowledge

and its use? Could they learn to trust the world like the Yup’ik?

All of this is a way of asking, if graduate training is the solution,

what is the problem? Do we intend to perpetuate an academic system

well integrated with the status quo, or do we wish to preserve the

earth’s biota? The relation between the values built into the machinery

of higher education and the values that animate most students

seeking careers in conservation is not great. What alternatives could

be created?