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Sustainability, Ethics, and Spirituality: Why Independent Schools Must Act
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By Wynn Calder

Many of us, confronted as we are with a diminishing rather than flourishing world, find ourselves asking aloud in frustration: Why aren’t we doing better? Why aren’t Americans, with all the information and know-how we possess, taking better care of ourselves and the planet? Why are we still throwing away nearly 70 percent of our waste (including billions of plastic bottles every year)? Why are we wasting so much energy and failing to act on climate change? Why are we letting our children get fatter and less fit every year, and why do we continue to tolerate levels of poverty in the U.S. that are largely avoidable? As individuals and communities in an affluent, democratic society, we continue to make self-destructive short- and long-term choices.

Behavioral-change experts give us many reasons for our failure to do the right thing: ignorance, denial, and avoidance, to name three. Since high percentages of educated Americans, including leaders in every sector, know enough to know better, “ignorance” is no excuse. In fact, evidence suggests that increasing numbers of primary and secondary schools from public to private are actively teaching kids about our environmental and sustainability challenges (see Endnote 1). A small but growing number of independent schools are reorienting traditional subjects and introducing new ones (mainly in the form of electives) to provide students with some of the knowledge and skills we need to improve the world we depend on for existence. Despite our knowledge of the problems, however, we repeatedly prove ourselves to be adept at “denial” and “avoidance.” And what about values? Do we care enough to do the right thing?

Harold Glasser, a professor of environmental studies at Western Michigan University, has spent a lot of time thinking about the pervasive gap between knowing and doing. Glasser suggests, based on research and surveys showing that most people care about sustainability, that the challenge is to harness these existing values more effectively (see Endnote 2). We need “to better understand our nature—and learn how to work with it—to identify levers that can help us bring about the change we seek” (see Endnote 3).

Investigating Where Values and Sustainability Meet
In the fall of 2010, I decided to do a cursory investigation of the confluence of sustainability, ethics, and religion in independent schools. Where is this happening? What does it look like? How does one influence the other? And what can we learn from it? I looked for schools that (a) have a stated religious or ethical grounding, and (b) have a stated commitment to sustainability or environmental stewardship (see Endnote 4).

Every Wednesday morning at Darrow School, a small, tuition-driven independent boarding school in New Lebanon, New York, the entire community (over 20 crews of faculty and students) goes to work making apple cider and maple syrup, gardening, recycling, and attending to many other needed projects. An outgrowth of the Shaker motto, “Hands to work, hearts to God,” this program emphasizes the dignity of labor and cooperative effort. It also supports Darrow’s commitment to hands-on learning, giving students opportunities to develop practical interests and skills. Looking back on his experience, one student noted: “In the tradition of Emerson’s view of spirituality, I suppose working in nature, which is what I most remember about Hands-to-Work, was in effect ‘going to church.’” Many of the work projects contribute directly to Darrow’s sustainability initiative, which has become central to the school’s identity. In both a practical and philosophical sense, these two dimensions of life at Darrow are interconnected.

Judy Asselin, Sustainability Coordinator and Middle School teacher at Westtown School (West Chester, Pennsylvania), believes that the school’s Quaker foundation strengthens its new sustainability mission. “Sustainability and earth care stem from the ethical and spiritual Quaker roots of the school and our hopes for the children in our care.” Their school-wide sustainability focus last year was on food—how it is grown, the effects of different farming techniques on soil and water, etc. This year, the Middle School is building on that learning by putting it into practice: seventh graders gleaned from a local farmer’s fields and gave several hundred pounds of winter squash to a food bank; another group made corn bread and chili for a homeless shelter. “The thread was sustainable food and habitat restoration,” said Asselin, “and the expression of that learning involved service.”

Sustainability and eco-justice issues are also a regular part of Middle and Upper School religion, ethics, and history classes at Westtown: how creation stories influence our relationship with the natural world, why incinerators and other high-impact technologies are often built in poorer neighborhoods, the connections between Middle East oil and U.S. foreign policy, and what these issues mean for our daily lives.

At Millbrook School (Millbrook, New York) Sustainability Coordinator Jane Meigs works with the spiritual life committee on campus. “I’m always looking for allies,” she said. “It’s important to approach sustainability from as many angles as you can.” The student environmental group (SCAPE—Students Concerned About Planet Earth) invited the Spiritual Life student group to their fall 2010 meeting to find ways to collaborate on projects. Their first joint project was to hold an event with a spiritual component on Sunday, Oct 10 (10/10/10), a day of climate change work parties sponsored by The groups share a fundamental compatibility: they’re motivated to do good and they share a concern for the earth.

The Willow School (Gladstone, New Jersey) has been built from the ground up as a sustainable school. The first two buildings met LEED Platinum standards and their next is projected to achieve Living Building Challenge certification. Mark Biedron, a co-founder of the school, describes how they began with three core objectives: “We wanted to start a school that emphasized mastery of the English language, combined academic excellence with the joy and wonder of learning, and was rooted in a strong virtues program. Although not originally intending to go ‘green,’ we soon recognized the inextricable link between human virtue and ecology. From the virtues program, which was designed to mentor the ethical relationships between humans, grew the commitment to mentoring that same ethical relationship between humans and the natural world.” This progression led to a deeper understanding of sustainability. “Now sustainability looks at social justice, cultural justice, equity of communities just as much as it does at ecology.”

Mercy High School (San Francisco, California), a Catholic school for girls, is owned and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy. According to Jim McGarry, teacher of religion at Mercy, the link between sustainability and religion is inextricable. “The Religious Sisters of Mercy are ‘Green Nuns,’” he said. “Their mission statement prioritizes this work, based in the Social Teachings of the Church. As creatures, we revere the creator and the magnificent gift of creation.” Jim takes this connection further: “I think ‘sustainability’ can be seen as a theological principle. It is wrapped up in the notion of limits, modesty, sharing, humility, but perhaps most importantly in the notion of divine transcendence itself. I think this modern notion of sustainability is reminding us of a part of our tradition we had ceased practicing…east of Eden.”

Jim teaches a social justice class with a special emphasis on environmental justice. The syllabus describes the course as follows: “We are seeking ways to reverence and protect the endangered earth and its threatened residents, which include human beings and other species.” Jim believes that the most important leading edge of “religion and ecology” is environmental justice because it addresses human dignity, including fair labor issues such as living wage and safe work environments. “If we don’t take on power and privilege,” he said, “our greening of schools is hollow.

From all of these examples, several tentative conclusions emerge: First, an ethical or religious perspective tends to broaden and deepen a school’s concept of sustainability (see definition at Endnote 4), as nearly each school demonstrates. Second, the ethical and religious perspective tends to include care for humans. And thus social justice and community service, which are part of education for sustainability, may be stronger at schools that emphasize religion, ethics and sustainability, as Westtown and others show. Third, since religion and sustainability can be mutually supportive, it may be strategically wise to encourage these groups to work together, as at Millbrook.

What Schools Can Do
How can we make the connection between values, religion, and sustainability more explicit at independent schools? In an interesting new book on how college students think, James Farrell, a professor at St. Olaf College (Northfield, Minnesota), claims that most students don’t see a relationship between religious values and environmental issues. This is partly because schools, colleges, and universities tend to be secular places and the expression of values and spirituality is not encouraged. Farrell has found through his teaching that students’ deepest values differ significantly from the values of American consumer culture, which dominates college campuses. When asked why they share their deepest values with so few people, the answer was: “We don’t share [them] because we’re afraid that people will laugh at us or think us weird. We’d rather be ‘not too bad’ than ‘too good.’” Farrell concludes, “This is college peer pressure at its most powerful—the pressure to keep students silent about what they really care about….When our deepest values are private, they have almost no public consequence” (see Endnote 5).

In a recent address, Elizabeth Coleman, president of Bennington College, gives a scathing critique of higher education’s failure, in general, to address the problems of the world. She also suggests corrective actions, many of which she is attempting to implement at Bennington. Coleman describes our educational challenge as follows: “Priorities need to be transformed so that enhancing the public good becomes an objective that is a match for private aspirations, and the accomplishment of civic virtue needs to connect to the uses of intellect and imagination at their most challenging. Our current ways of approaching agency and authority need to turn inside out to reflect the reality that no one has the answers to the challenges facing citizens in this century, and everyone has the responsibility to participate in finding them” (see Endnote 6). With this in mind, schools should strongly consider the following actions:

First, acknowledge that values matter and that our failure to take better care of people and the planet is a moral and ethical problem as much as it is a psychological, social, economic, technical, and political one.
Independent schools are mission driven, which means they can take an ethical stand, or support a character education program, without apology. Try addressing sustainability in the context of moral education: respect and care for tomorrow’s world.

Second, since independent schools have the autonomy to teach and practice what they believe—albeit within limits—it is incumbent upon them to be the innovation leaders in teaching and learning about the necessity of doing good. Glasser advocates for “active social learning,” which explores “both existing practices and the values that undergird them” and is based on “mutual trust, collaboration, shared interests, and concern for the common good” between learners and teachers (see Endnote 7). Experiment more with place-based learning, which turns students into active citizens (see Endnote 8).

Third, as the Millbrook School example shows, make every effort to encourage the spiritually minded and the environmentally minded to work together. To facilitate that union, consider creating a position that explicitly makes this connection, such as Director of Sustainability and Ethics.

Fourth, for those schools that are religiously based, consider making the connections between sustainability and religion explicit in their teaching and practice.
Farrell suggests that despite their imperfections, American religious traditions have much to offer students in terms of the “moral ecology of everyday life….In a world where we desperately need to consider the ethics of our extensive environmental impacts, religion can connect us to some important wisdom traditions” (see Endnote 9). Those religious “resources” and ideas include: stewardship (the art of taking care), sacramentality (“we all live in a holy land”), mysticism (the direct experience of Earth’s beauty), Sabbath (a tradition of rest and restoration), love (for all creation), community (social service and Earth-honoring rituals), vocation (calling people to good work), and simple living (less consumption can offer more meaning) (see Endnote 10).

“Today,” writes Farrell, “college culture constrains both the expression of values and the practice of virtues” (see Endnote 11). I would argue that this is also true in high school as well as adult American culture. Moral and ethical growth should be part of any sustainability initiative, and independent schools are uniquely suited to embrace both with enthusiasm.

Wynn Calder directs Sustainable Schools, LLC, which works primarily with K-12 independent and private schools to build sustainability into strategic planning, teaching, and institutional practice. He has been principal consultant on environmental sustainability with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) since 2003, and designed and chaired the NAIS summer Institute for Leadership in Sustainability from 2005 to 2009. Calder attended Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, and received his B.A. from Harvard University in 1984 and his M.A. in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School in 1993. He lives with his family in Wayland, Massachusetts.


Endnote 1
Church, Wendy, and Skelton, Laura, “Sustainability Education in K-12 Classrooms,” Journal of Sustainability Education, vol. 1, May 2010.

Endnote 2
For example, 86 percent of Americans are concerned about the environment, and 82 percent think most Americans are wasteful and buy and consume more than they need. From “Yearning for Balance: Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment,” Merck Family Fund, 1995.

Endnote 3
Glasser, Harold, “Minding the Gap: Social Learning for Turning Ideals into Actions,” The Systems Thinker, vol. 20, no. 3, April 2009, 3.

Endnote 4
The concept of sustainability—which, at a minimum, addresses how humans can live on the planet over time in a manner that protects cultural and biological diversity, recognizes and appreciates ecological limits, offers just and accountable governments and economies for all, and draws on the human capacity for adaptive learning and innovation—offers a tremendous challenge for education. It invites educational institutions to rethink their missions and to re-structure their courses, research priorities, community outreach, and campus operations. By preparing students—and the whole campus community—to be more adept decision makers in the increasingly complex, dynamic, and uncertain future that we all face, integrating sustainability into all of the major activities of educational institutions also presents a tremendous opportunity.

Endnote 5
Farrell, James J., The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of Campus Life Can Change the World, Milkweed: MN, 2010, 220.

Endnote 6
Coleman, Elizabeth, Address: Independent Matters, National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference, February 25, 2011.

Endnote 7
Glasser, 5.

Endnote 8
See the work of David Sobel, including Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, Nature Literacy Series, No. 4, The Orion Society, 2004.

Endnote 9
Farrell, 207.

Endnote 10
Ibid., 207-16.

Endnote 11
Ibid., 220.

[Type: Article]

[User Group: Administration, Parents, Teachers]

[Grade: Lower, Middle, Upper]

[Subject: School Culture]


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