I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).” My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit. The third blog in the series looked at how leadership becomes disconnected from others, and the forth looks at how “busyness” keeps us from the truth. This fifth post is my last blog post for 2012 and examines the last of the series of “my truths.”
My Truth Five:. . . the quest for sustainability may be the best hope for public universities, the farming communities we love, and perhaps for ourselves – but this quest must be founded upon a strong sense of humility.
This “truth” had much support in the survey. About 87% of the respondents choose either strong or full agreement. Public universities badly need a bold idea to focus our energy and rebuild hope – and thus “save ourselves from human cleverness“.
The public agricultural universities that should contribute to a more sustainable food and farming system are perceived by many to be part of the problem. The American public has questioned the credibility of land grant universities because of the seemingly close relationship they maintain with the world of business. The response to this criticism has been that that university research contributes to economic growth and business is the engine of growth. And this appears to be partly true, at least in the short term. But universities should also think beyond the short-term economic growth. One respondent wrote:
“A country’s strength and standing in the world community should be measured by the health of its ecosystems…”
A public research university devoted to ecosystem health (rather than corporate wealth) would certainly be a shift from the situation today where universities have created special offices designed to attract corporate funding and faculty are rewarded based on how much grant money they attract. This is a far cry from the university of the people created over a century ago. University leaders respond that they have no choice but to seek private funding, as the public commitment to higher education continues to erode. One has to wonder however about the long-term effect of corporate partnerships have on the mission of a public university. Students in our Agricultural Systems Thinking class investigated and presented their own thoughts on a corporate gift from the Monsanto Corporation recently. When I first picked up the banner of sustainable agriculture in my own work, I had great hopes that the public university I worked for would make a serious institutional commitment to this great project. The initial response among most of my colleagues was ridicule and derision. That was over 25 years ago. Today the university I work for (a different institution) has taken up the banner of sustainability as part of our public message. While I applaud this message, I hope we are also ready to examine our relationship with corporate power and the influence of corporate money and rebuild the dream of a public institution that truly serves the public good.
University leaders have called for a transformation in research and education to embrace the goals of sustainability. My hope remains that a major public university will make a serious institutional commitment to this great project. Our agricultural programs are working toward this great change. So far, much of the progress toward sustainability by my own university has been in the arena of cost saving changes to our energy systems and the construction of new energy efficient buildings – and this is good. If we are going to truly transform our research and educational institution however, a fundamental shift in how we think about sustainability is needed.
A few of our leaders are indeed exploring how to think about sustainability and are trying to help faculty grapple with the fundamental change that is needed if we are to achieve this transformation. For me, this is a transformation from the quest for knowledge to the quest for wisdom and recognizes that thought alone is not enough. This quest for wisdom, I suspect, will require a shift to a perspective founded upon a strong sense of humility. T.S. Eliot wrote;
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Maybe Eliot meant that only the ‘wisdom of humility’ is truly sustainable (if we substitute Eliot’s word “endless” for sustainable). In any case, it seems a worthwhile quest. And it sort of makes sense that the sustainable agriculture community might be a good place to begin this quest for wisdom in humility, as the Latin word “humilitas” has the same root as humus and means “to be grounded” or “from the earth.” What do you think?
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