We are grateful to Brandon M. Hoover for taking the time to engage and extend our argument about educating students for homemaking rather than upward mobility. In large part, we agree with his call for more robust sustainability programs, but our hopes are at once more modest and more radical than Mr. Hoover’s seem to be.
On the one hand, they are more modest because we know that in many places, there is immense cultural and institutional inertia standing in the way of any movement toward sustainability or place-based education. While Messiah College is a leader in this area, Mr. Hoover’s own sources find that only 29% of schools have any sort of farm or garden, a number that does not indicate they are “a fairly abundant part of the campus landscape”—a presence, indeed, but not an abundance. So our argument was intentionally not romantic or idealistic; we know how difficult it can be to gain institutional support for a garden, much less a farm or a sustainability program. Particularly in light of the belt-tightening that is taking place at many schools, we want to challenge faculty and staff not to wait for a full-scale, institutionally-supported program, but rather to look creatively for even small practices—including but not limited to gardening—that might challenge students to enact their responsibilities to their places.
While such small-scale practices are just a start, we hope they might lead to radical consequences. As we tried to demonstrate in our essay—and as we argue at more length in our forthcoming book—higher education is fundamentally structured to disregard place, so even a well-designed sustainability program would be insufficient if it is only insular. In fact, adding a new program can perpetuate an industrial mindset that solves problems by specialized growth. Universities currently prepare students to live in a career rather than a place and a community, to be individually successful rather than to serve the health of their places. If we try to address this flaw by adding another program, then the rest of the institution can wash its hands of this problem; departmental silos encourage us to think that we do not have to worry about whatever subjects or problems fall under another department’s responsibility. Unfortunately, then, a new sustainability program can tempt everyone else at the university to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to business as usual. In fact, however, as we are sure Mr. Hoover would agree, caring for the health of our places and communities is a fundamental Christian responsibility, one to which we are all called. We see the professionalization of sustainability, then, as a troubling trend. Participating in the healing of creation cannot be outsourced to a few career areas. While we need some graduates to pursue redemptive work in a broken food system, what we really need is whole-person education that shapes all of us into people who redemptively inhabit our places.
We wholeheartedly concur with Mr. Hoover’s call for “an institutional emphasis on sustainability,” and whatever forms this takes, we hope it will lead to personal and communal commitments to serving the health of our places.