Published April 16th, 2012
The following appeared in the February 2012 issue of Pro Tem. David V.J. Bell is an IRIS Executive Board member, as well as the YCAS Director emeritus; BA'65 (York/UofT) AM '67, PhD'69 (Harvard University) is Chair of Learning for a Sustainable Future (www.lsf-lst.ca) and is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University.
I’m honored to be invited to serve as co-editor for this issue of Pro Tem, a position I last held in 1964-65! It’s gratifying that the name Pro Tem (adopted with tongue in cheek) has survived despite its obvious ephemeral quality. The student founders of the paper were fairly confident that a more enduring moniker would emerge within a few months of the original publication in February 1962. But then the name caught on – and I’m glad it continues.
A bit of personal background. I began my undergraduate life here at Glendon, as a member of the third entering class of York students, 50 years ago this Fall. The total student body numbered around 300 spread over first, second and third year programs of the 3 year “general” Bachelor of Arts program. At that time the
Keele campus had not even been conceived, so we constituted the total student enrolment of York University. There were about 40 faculty members. York was smaller than nearly everyone’s high school.
Despite its tiny student body York was an intellectually exciting place. The vibrant sense of community among students, faculty, and staff extended far beyond the classroom. There were academic clubs and guest lectures and musical performances and foreign films and lively common room discussions. Traditions were emerging. We defined a “tradition” as anything that had been done the year before. The place was alive with pranks and practical jokes and endless amounts of literary humour (including the occasional writings of a fictitious student named Chuck Brayfield, who even managed to get outrageously satirical letters to the
editor published in the Toronto Star).
A distinct intellectual identity had already emerged, inspired by foundingPresident Murray Ross’s writings about The New University. York embraced ideals of interdisciplinarity, the integrity of all knowledge, and a quest for wellroundedness,balance and wholeness. Ross had written “…when specialization requires or implies that knowledge be limited to one narrow area of life, and that an individual’s view of mankind be lacking in perspective and that he be insensitive to the problems of the modern world, then certainly there is need to question the adequacy of an educational system that produces such specialists.” York would strike a new path, true to its motto Tentanda Via – the way must be tried. The sculpture of the “whole Man” reminded us daily that even as undergraduates we were embarked on an intellectual journey that was new and different and wonderful – and a bit scary.
York’s ideals have served the institution well through its first half century. York has innovated in a number of key areas: General education at the undergraduate level; interdisciplinary graduate programs in both the Social Sciences/Humanities and the Natural Sciences; the world’s first Faculty of Environmental Studies (itself highly interdisciplinary); a unique Faculty of Fine Arts, and so on.
But looking ahead 50 years I believe that York’s founding ideals need to be reinterpreted and expanded. It is abundantly clear that in the wealthy countries like Canada and the US; the emerging economies like China and India; and the poorest countries like Haiti, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan: the current trajectory of development is environmentally, socially and economically unsustainable. Although my perspective on the key to a more sustainable future has evolved over the past 2 decades I am now absolutely convinced that education is the sine qua non of a successful transition. I believe that as a species we face an “educational challenge for humankind” – can we learn to live differently on this planet?
Consider this formulation. In the 19th century some people were “pupils”; in the 20th century most of us became “students’; in the 21st century all of us must become “learners.” We must learn to live sustainably on this planet. Educators become less the omniscient imparters of knowledge (access to which is expanding
exponentially through the internet and social networks) than coaches and mentors in the learning process; themselves life-long learners.
If Murray Ross were writing today about the educational underpinnings of a new university he would surely describe sustainability education as required general knowledge for the 21st century.
How does all of this relate to Glendon in the year 2012 and to this issue of Pro Tem? To begin with, the theme of this issue, anticipation, reflects a central tenet of sustainability: “it is better to anticipate and prevent than to clean up after the fact.” (ORTEE - Ontario Round Table on Environment and the Economy 1992.) We need to think ahead and anticipate the future consequences of present day actions such as our wasteful use of energy and our growing reliance on fossil fuels (despite the irrefutable evidence of anthropogenic climate change). We
need to consider the future implications of growing inequality in our society, and of a world population greater than 9 billion half of whom (if today’s situation is replicated in 2050) will be living on less than $2 US per day.
Glendon has the potential to become a living laboratory of sustainable practices and behaviours. Thanks to a group of current students mentored by Sociology professor Stuart Schoenfeld (and assisted by one of Glendon’s first undergraduates John Court), a new website (http://glendon.irisyorku.ca/) situates Glendon in its natural and historical context and discusses “Conservation, Preservation and Sustainability” of the campus. Current students can find out about the immediate environment as a step toward enhancing their sustainability literacy. They can “connect the dots” (one of my favorite definitions of sustainability) between the past and the present, and between the environmental, social and economic aspects of Glendon. They can start “conversations about the future” (my other favorite definition) that they envision for their own and
subsequent generations, expanding their focus from the very local to the global. In short, they can learn and practice attitudes, values, and actions that will help bend the curve toward a more sustainable future.
Merci beaucoup. À l’avenir durable!