We live in a deranged age — more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.
— Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
When, in the final chapter of his much-discussed encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis calls for an ecological education, this might seem to be an afterthought, a mere gesture acknowledging the need for a public more informed about ecological matters. It is much more than that. For Francis, what is at stake in our ecological ignorance is not just the risk of catastrophic environmental collapse, as if that were not enough. At issue is a deep set of misconceptions about ourselves as human persons, and our place within the cosmos. From our current displacement, our state of being lost in the cosmos, Francis calls us back to an acknowledgment of "our common home."
Any pedagogical corrective will consist in much more than a pamphlet or even a required one-semester course. Instead, Francis calls for a rethinking of our entire educational system. His challenge to current practices, especially in higher education, is dramatic and far-reaching. Of course, he would object strenuously to the fact that the cost of higher education excludes so many from participation. But this is only the most obvious challenge he would issue. Insisting upon the inseparability of the scientific and the humanistic, the ecological and the ethical, Francis integrates at precisely the points where the modern university segregates.
In recent years, criticisms of the modern research university have emerged from the very heart of our elite institutions. The worry is that, under the pressure of "the modern research ideal," the university is no longer a place where undergraduate students encounter the most important works asking the most important questions about human life (Anthony Kronman, Yale). Instead, a consumerist and instrumentalist conception of education and of students renders "almost taboo" the question of the point and purpose of an undergraduate education (Andrew Delbanco, Columbia). Summing up the judgment of a number of recent critics, Harry Lewis (Harvard) delivers the dismal judgment that in our best universities, "liberal education lives on in name only." All these critics cite dis-integration (of the parts of the curriculum from one another, of research from teaching, and of student life from academic life) as a vice of the contemporary research university.
Francis sees the roots of our crisis in our inability to see the connections between the parts of the universe; in our loss of a vocabulary concerning the true nature of the human person and its place in the whole; in our tendency to conceive of all knowledge as merely instrumental; and in a consumerist attitude toward nature and the human body. He counters all this with what he calls "integral ecology," which will require not just scientific, technological, and ecological literacy but also a highly developed ethical capacity to judge how to use technology prudently and when and where to put limits to its development and application.
Francis's views on technology are complex. He counts certain leading secular scientists among those who have influenced him, and he embraces their claims about climate change. He praises technology for remedying "countless evils" and celebrates its progress "in the fields of medicine, engineering, and communications." Still, he worries about a Promethean attitude that conceives of no limits to the scientific conquest of nature. We lack "a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint." Thus, "we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it."
Human beings' stance toward others and toward the natural world is never neutral. An academic culture that is indifferent and blind to the virtues of character that inevitably inform our motives for knowing, and to the ways we use what we come to know, is likely to be corrupting. Francis would have us cultivate the virtues of humility and gratitude as essential to the academic enterprise: "Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment."
#share#At the heart of this integral ecology is a renewed sense of the interconnection of all things: "In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation." Appreciating these interconnections will require an education that crosses and integrates various disciplines. Here Francis comes up against the specialization of the modern university and its isolation of the disciplines one from another. The result is that we foster in students a habit of compartmentalizing their knowledge and their behavior, with devastating results in both the moral and the ecological realms.
In fact, Francis's objection to our specialized and segregated ways of thinking and living rests on an even more radical claim. "There can be no ecology," Francis states, "without an adequate anthropology." Certainly an adequate anthropology would include what the sciences teach us about the human species. But that is insufficient. Integral ecology "calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human." Here we find a ground for dialogue between the sciences, the humanities, and theology. While the humanities have in many places fallen into a purposeless desuetude, Francis sees them as playing an indispensable role in education. Not in isolation from but in dialogue with the sciences, the humanities are the locus for the exploration of the nature of the human person and the person's place in the whole of the cosmos.
Francis also has much to say about our consumerist culture, what he calls our throwaway culture. Despite successes in campus conservation and green technology, much of the life of the university fosters in students a consumerist, instrumentalist mindset: sacrificing a unified core curriculum for a menu of curricular options and luring students with a kind of shopping mall of consumer choices in residences, culinary possibilities, entertainment offerings, and athletic and exercise sites.
Another way in which universities fail to practice integral ecology is in the severing of the ecological from the moral. Francis insists upon an inseparable connection between the two, between care for the environment and receptivity to human life at its most vulnerable and most neglected. The "throwaway culture" that infects our attitude toward the environment finds its correlate in the advocacy of abortion and euthanasia.
Countering this would require that universities actually take stands on what is most worthy of study and attempt to cultivate in students a genuine love of learning for its own sake. Francis regularly contrasts a curiosity aimed at domination and control with a spirit of wonder that is silently receptive of nature and that issues in gratitude toward what is revealed to us in the natural and human orders.
That so few in and outside the university recognize its present disorder is itself a disturbing sign. In her best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi offered a memoir of her time in Iran as an underground teacher of a group of young Iranian women with a curriculum consisting of forbidden Western literary texts. She makes a compelling case for the power of these texts to keep human longing alive and thus to subvert the aspirations of a totalitarian regime. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi, now a professor in the United States, wonders at the indifference of Americans to their own intellectual and literary heritage, an indifference that she fears will endanger the democratic ideal. In totalitarian countries, liberal education is a "basic need," as it enables one to reclaim an identity always under assault. But what about ordinary Americans? Do they even "know what they are missing"? How can we "rekindle the hunger"?
Wherever possible, Francis is generous in his embrace of science and secular thought. But the standards of an integral ecological education are so daunting that it is hard to see how any secular university could meet them; even the vast majority of Catholic universities would come up well short. Indeed, it is hard to see how this can be realized apart from theology. As Francis observes, "nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood, and controlled," but "creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion."
If conservatives have been skeptical of Laudato Si', liberals have engaged in a kind of irrational exuberance predicated on a willful disregard of the encyclical's substantive philosophical and theological claims. For one of the most successful institutions of liberal modernity — namely, the research university — those claims pose serious challenges.