Environmental education: Why US universities miss the mark on environmental literacy podcast

In this thought provoking and timely discussion, Professor Manuel Vallée from the University of Auckland discusses the barriers that prevent US universities from effectively imparting environmental literacy to their students. In discussion with Daniel Ridge, Commissioning Editor at Emerald Publishing, Professor Vallée explains that despite the growing number of environmental courses, these are often limited to students in specific majors and fail to reach the broader student population. Vallee emphasises the importance of understanding the interconnectedness between human health and environmental well-being, and he outlines the historical context and institutional challenges that have hindered the widespread adoption of environmental literacy requirements.

The conversation reveals that although there was significant momentum for environmental education between 1975 and 2002, including multiple international meetings and declarations, progress has stalled, with only a small percentage of universities maintaining environmental literacy requirements. Vallee identifies various obstacles, such as the infrequency of general education reforms, lack of incentives for faculty, and resistance due to perceived resource competition. The discussion also highlights successful case studies, like the University of Vermont, where student advocacy played a crucial role in implementing environmental literacy requirements. Overall, Vallee remains hopeful that with continued effort and collaboration, more universities will recognise the critical need for comprehensive environmental education.

Professor Manuel Vallée’s article, How and why US universities fail to impart environmental literacy to all students was published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Speaker profiles

Manuel Vallée, PhD is an environmental and medical sociologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where he heads the sociology department. His research interests lie at the intersection between human health and environmental pollution, and his projects have examined the social production of environmental pollution, the sociology of pesticides, state violence, the production of ignorance about environmental harms, and factors mediating the spread of environmental education. His work has been published in Environmental Sociology, Social Science & Medicine, Advances in Medical Sociology, International Journal of Social Determinants of Health and Health Services, and International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. He is also an award-winning teacher whose courses have included: Environmental Sociology, Sociology of Health and Illness, The Sustainable Community, Environmental Crimes and Environmental Justice, and Controlling Processes. 

His recent book Urban Aerial Pesticide Spraying Campaigns: Government Disinformation, Industry Profits and Public Harm can be accessed here. Manuel's profile can be accessed here.

In this episode:

  • What is environmental literacy?
  • What are the obstacles to institutions in providing environmental education?
  • How instrumental is campus culture on environmental literacy? 
  • How do external factors, such as politics, effect the decision making behind providing environmental education?
  • The success of the University of Vermont in implementing environmental literacy requirements

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Environmental education: Why US universities miss the mark on environmental literacy

Daniel Ridge (DR): Hello, my name is Daniel Ridge and I'm a Commissioning Editor at Emerald publishing. Today I'm joined by Professor Manuel Vallee who's environmental and medical sociologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where he also serves as head of the sociology department. In our conversation, we delve into his research on the shortcomings of environmental literacy in US public universities. His article, How and why US universities fail to impart environmental literacy to all students was recently published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. Here, Professor Vallee sheds light on the challenges and opportunities surrounding this crucial issue. Throughout our discussion, we explore various facets from defining environmental literacy to uncovering the historical context of environmental education and institutional barriers. I began my conversation with Professor Vallee by asking him to define environmental literacy. 

Manuel Vallee (MV): Environmental literacy refers to the understanding that human beings are inextricably intertwined with the environment, in the sense that what happens to the environment, in terms of pollution, and so on, will have an impact on our health and well-being. The food that we consume will have an impact on us, the water that we drink will have an impact on us and the air that we breathe will have an impact on us. So environmental literacy is getting people to understand this inextricable connection between the environment and human health. And understanding the importance, therefore, of protecting ecosystems and understanding when ecosystems are in distress and being able to know what can be done to rehabilitate those problems.

DR: So within the context of your article, the environmental literacy is referring to, well, what your goal and what you're working for was studying the graduation requirements at public universities in the US. And so I'm curious why you think this is important? And what were the main goals of your research and writing this article?

MV: Well, so the 21st century is beset by a number of environmental problems, including air pollution, biodiversity loss, water pollution, diminishing aquifers, rising sea levels and climate change. And to effectively address these problems, we need a citizenry that understands that our health and well-being is inextricably intertwined with the health of our ecosystems. Citizenry, that understands how ecosystems work, and one that's aware of what can be done to address those environmental problems. Universities play an important role in shaping the lifelong beliefs, value systems and practices that the next generation will have. And it is why universities have been seen as a crucial site for transmitting environmental education, with international meetings being held on this topic, many international meetings being held on this topic between 1975 and 2002, in particular, and that's the period that I studied. 

Now, environmental literacy requirements are important because, while it can't be denied that universities have increased the amount of environmental courses they teach. What's often happening is that those courses are restricted to students who are in environmental majors, making the courses inaccessible to non-majors. And if the courses happened to be open to non-majors, they are invariably only taken by students who have an interest in environmental issues. And result is that the vast majority of students flow through university without exposure to environmental content. So environmental literacy requirements would add another or will add a layer of assurance that students are at least getting exposed to the concepts. And the research has shown that when students are exposed to the concepts, even at universities where it's, they have a graduation requirement that they be exposed to the concepts the students have, exhibit a greater concern for environmental issues and show a greater tendency to alter their behavior in a positive way. One of the things that really captured my attention about this issue was that there was a big push for environmental education in universities between 1975 and 2000 to 16 international meetings on it. There was a whole bunch of declarations and resolutions that were signed. And the most prominent, perhaps is the Talloires Declaration in 1990, which was originally signed on by 20, University VCs, vice chancellors, or presidents, and has since grown to 520 signatories. And the signatories committed to having universities provide environmental literacy to all graduates. Not some, but all. And, you know, there was a lot of hope and fanfare that environmental literacy would become widely accepted or institutionalised. And some had predicted that by 2005, they'd be wildly institutionalised across universities in the United States. And preliminary research suggests that, that there was some uptake of this initiative. In 2001, a study reported that 11% of universities in the United States had an environmental literacy graduation requirement. But then the scholarship, soften around that issue and kind of was put the side and when I came around on the issue, in 2020, what I've discovered is that no one had been studying us, and people had assumed that university would just be carrying on the momentum. And when I actually started looking at the issue, I found that less than 5% public universities in the United States had it.

DR: That’s really surprising. So there seemed to have been a lot of wind in the sails at the beginning, but it seems to have petered out. Is that your takeaway?

MV: Yeah, petered out. And in some places, I mean, the rate that I discovered, suggests that perhaps it was a regression where some institutions had it. And then for reasons yet to be discovered, dropped it. So I became really interested in finding out well, why what's happened, what caused what's contributed to this lag, and perhaps the loss of this initiative at some institutions?

DR: Yeah. Well, I mean, to get to that you, you mentioned that there were obstacles to environmental education. So I'm wondering, you know, what were some of these obstacles that you saw that, that came up in your research?

MV: I think, to just clarify the point, I think that there has been great uptake in environmental education in the sense that universities have dramatically increased the number of courses that they offer, and there's been an increase in the number of universities that have developed environmental degrees, like environmental sciences, or environmental studies, what hasn't happened is the environmental literacy graduation requirement. And some of the obstacles to that, there's a number of them. One is that the general education requirements don't often get opened up for change once in a decade. So it's quite possible that someone might be interested in pursuing some sort of innovative change at that level. But that the opportunity really isn't there. Another obstacle is that the academics who would be the one who would be championing this initiative, can be disincentivised from doing so from a number of factors. One is the fact that it is a very lengthy process. In the best case scenario that I found to date, the University of Vermont, and it took them five years from inception to implementation. And so, if you're going to be going down that route, you're gonna have to be ready to invest a significant amount of energy and time for a process that's fairly uncertain at the end, because there are political obstacles to having a past, which I'll come back to in a second. 

DR: Yeah, that's what I wanted to get to. I thought it would be you know, you talk about institutional disincentives. And that there's a sort of resistance that can be a resistance to environmental literacy. And I was wondering if maybe you could elaborate a little bit on the institutional disincentives and talk about some of the resistance that that you were able to find it your research? 

MV: Yeah, so some of those institutional disincentives. A campus culture, for example, especially at the universities might be different liberal arts colleges, where the focus is on teaching. But universities with a focus on research, teachers or academics don't necessarily get recognised, let alone promoted on the basis of pursuing teaching innovations. So, knowing that there's going to be a fair amount of time and energy required to pursue something like this, that will detract from their ability to do research would be disincentive enough. And then another disincentive is that there might not be adequate resources. If you're going to pass a requirement that a certain course be taught you have to have staff it so that means you have to hire the people and if you don't have the support from leadership in terms of being able to hire new faculty or at least train existing faculty on a particular course. And then that's a fairly major disincentive in and of itself. And then there's also the resistance from colleagues that can happen where if you get to the Senate floor and you're trying to get your proposal progressed, some people might see it as a student, grab our cash grab or resource grab, that might impinge upon the resources that they have. And examples might be, you know, if I'm from environmental studies, and I'm pushing us, people from English, or other humanities disciplines might not necessarily see why I should be able to get the resources that will start flowing to me by having this as a required course. Other disincentives, which I kind of touch upon was the lack of university support, so a lack of support from university leadership, it has maybe a lack of priority setting that would emphasise sustainability will be another factor, a lack of campus vision that adequately incorporate sustainability as an issue. And a lot of the success of sustainability or environmental education is based on interdisciplinary collaboration. And on campuses where you don't have that sort of collaboration, that can also be a disincentive to pursuing the initiative.

DR:  So it sounds to me like some of this has to do with the culture of a university campus in itself. I went to a very progressive liberal arts college in California, UC Santa Cruz, and environmentalism was sort of baked into the bread with, with everything that we did. And I think that could be particular to a school like that. I'm just thinking in particularly in the northwest of the United States, there's a lot of environmental studies that go on there and a lot of environmental consciousness that may not exist in other parts of the country. Do you think that that might be true? Well,

MV: Well you know, it's surprising. It's actually, yeah, that's been one of the surprising things that I've learned from this research, I assumed that the west coast was going to be leading the way on this particular issue with regards to environmental literacy requirements. But that's not been the case, I've actually been very disappointed with the schools on the West Coast. The only one that had environmental literacy, graduation requirement was San Francisco State University. And they have since dropped it as of two years ago. University Colorado, Colorado Springs is one university that does have it. And there's been a lot of schools in Minnesota, the majority of the public universities in Minnesota have such a requirement. And there's a number of schools in the Northeast that have such a requirement. And one of the consistent threads that I found is that, like you said, you know, when environmentalism is baked into an institution's DNA, it makes it a lot easier, and they're much more likely to have a such a requirement on the books. And that's what I found at a number of universities. 

DR: Well I was interested in what you said about external factors. So one of your one of the key findings of your research was this, this idea of external factors coming from outside of the university. And I think you know, this is important because it weighs in into the role of politics in the process. So can you tell us a little bit about your findings in terms of external forces impacting these decisions?

MV: Yeah, so one of the factors that I've been looking at is the political control or interference that comes from outside factors. And one of those outside factors is state curriculum boards that might exist, or college regions that might be exerting influence as well, by setting by obstructing any initiatives that might not align with their vision of how the world should be organised. You have a number of states in the South, where, where control is exerted at the state level, through higher education committees, where they set the curriculum in stone and actually leave very little room for individual universities to innovate.

DR: Do politics, I mean, so much has been going on in politics in the US in the last several years, I'm thinking more like Black Lives Matter and that type of thing. But, you know, the political, political issues definitely weighed into environmental issues. And I'm wondering if, if you've seen anything in that or if you have any comment on that? 

MV: Sure, so in many states, where higher education is overseen by regions, the regions are invariably appointed by politicians. And so, in the southern states, what you will have, to the degree that the administrations are Republican or conservative, they'll appoint like minded people at the positions of the board, which will lead to the implementation of initiatives or blocking initiatives that don't align with the conservative mindset.

DR: So, you know, let's talk about the successes of institutions that have been implemented in environmental literacy requirements. Here you discuss in detail the case of the University of Vermont and the role of students. Can you tell us about this case study?

MV: Sure. That's that's really hopeful, encouraging case study. It was not driven by academics proposal at University of Vermont was actually driven by the students, they found out that the general education requirements were going to be opened up and certain things were going to be added, like a cultural competency requirement and a writing requirement. And student leaders found out about this. And they objected to the fact that environmental sustainability or environmental issues were not considered at all, they made their case to the committee that was overseeing the changes to the general education requirements. And that committee was, had an open mind about what the students had to say, they present and they offered them the opportunity to present a business case to the Senate, where it was also enthusiastically welcomed. And there is a champion who rose up, believe the President of the Senate, who championed the issue and formed an ad hoc committee to oversee the shepherding of this initiative. And the details got worked out. And within five years, they had implemented it. And to date, it's been successful. One of the factors, I mean, one of the things we need to think about are the enabling factors that allow or enable institutions to pass this requirement. And, as mentioned before, University of Vermont has had environmentalism baked in its DNA for decades. As a result of that they've attracted faculty, administrative staff who have a commitment to environmental issues. And so when this when the students presented this issue, they had a fair amount of support, just because they had like minded people, both amongst the academic faculty, and amongst the administrators who are in positions of power to help make this come about another enabling factor is that instead of pushing for a particular course, like let's say environment on society, where one department was going to benefit from the majority of resources going that direction, they champion, a multidisciplinary model where they had they identified a number of courses across the disciplines that could count towards this environmental literacy requirement. And so that created greater political buy in from disciplines that might not necessarily have been supportive in the first instance.

DR: Yeah, so it sounds like students played a key role at the University of Vermont. And then it sounds like a real collaboration within the university culture system to build on that.

MV: Yeah, yeah. And, and, you know, going back to the benefits of having it having environmentalism baked into the DNA is the fact that because they had championed environmentalism, they had built up a suite of courses that touched on environmental concepts, environmental issues that could help provide environmental literacy to students. So, it's not like they had to have a huge investment of resources to get this up and running. They had to invest some resources, but not the degree to which you would have to if you're at a school that doesn't have a history of teaching environmentalism and valuing, evaluate environmental and sustainability issues. 

DR: So, how do we nurture this with the students to help them push for change in the university?

MV: Well, you know, one of the things that I can say is that I've been teaching an environmental sociology course for over 12 years now, and I get a lot of students who, sociology students who have never had anything. I've never taken an environmental course that didn't necessarily have an environmental issue that they were interested in. But they took the course because it's one course that they needed to graduate or it's the one that course that fit in their schedule. And by the end of it, they were completely converted in the sense of they understood the inextricable connection between humans and the environment. And understood the importance of caring for environmental issues and the importance of getting a better understanding of how ecosystems work and how to put pressure upon the political system to pass legislation and policies that protect our environment. So, I think in terms of generating student support, there could be different ways about it. I think that the the taking a course, opens a student's minds to the issue. And which is an important first step. And the next step is having the university providing the provide the fundings so that you have groups and opportunities for the students to plug in on environmental issues. The courses provide the baseline kind of background foundation, for for environmentalism, but then it's important that students have an opportunity to actually apply what they learned, be it through student farming, student advocacy groups, even if it's film, environmental, maybe like an Environmental film festival, with a focus on after each film to generate collective knowledge about environmental issues, you know, now that you've seen this movie, go out and tell five friends or family members about the importance of your issue. That way they can become agents of change. And I guess the other piece of it that was really important for my case is that students were aware that there were changes taking place with regards to general education requirements. And that gave them an opportunity to interject. And to their credit, they did a great job. I mean, they, the Senate would not have been moved without a coherent business model or business plan. So they were able to present something that really swayed the people that otherwise might have been on the fence on the issue.

DR: Yeah. Well, so overall, after writing this article, and doing your research, what are the major conclusions that you came to? And what do you see when you look into the future of environmental literacy? I'm sure there's more room for research, where you left with a hopeful attitude.

MV: Well, I was left with the with the impression that the process is a lot more difficult than people had initially envisioned. There's a lot more obstacles that need to be navigated. And one of the things that I discovered is that when I started disseminating my article, in professional forums, I got a lot of feedback from people who had thought that their institution needed an environmental literacy requirement, but didn't know how to get started. And or other people had started the process, but were wary of the potential pitfalls. And so this research ended up providing them a great resource, not just in terms of my analysis, but they were able to mine my my references and bibliography to see the other scholarship that's been written in this area. And I am hopeful that we will come to a time where environmental literacy requirements are much more widespread in universities, I think it's going to take a bit longer and a bit more effort than initially believed. And in terms of research, one of the things I didn't touch upon is private universities, which might have their own factors that might be swaying the uptake of this initiative. I didn't, I did not look at the international context. So I'm not aware of what the attempts have been in other countries, though, I will say that based on the scholarship research that I did, does not seem like that has been taken up in many places, if at all. That's not to say there isn't environmental education. But again, it's an opt in model where you provide the courses and those who want it will take it. And it leaves aside, the people who perhaps need are most in need of having exposure to environmental content.

DR: So a lot of our audience, you know, they might be researchers and scholars themselves. So I think it might be helpful if you talk a little bit about your research process and the methods. So what were some of the limitations to the information you found and what were some of the surprises of the places that you've benefited from from finding information?

MV: Well, in terms of my process, the process involves actually locating the general education graduation requirements for every public university United States which at that point number 549, assessing them for the presence of any environmental literacy or environmental awareness graduation requirement. So that was the first part of the study was just to get a sense of, you know, what's the spread of this innovation across the American landscape of public universities. And the second step was to try to account for my findings. And for that I leaned on a scholarship review or literature review, that examine the various factors that obstruct the implementation or pursuit of environmental education. And the third part of the study was actually looking at the case study of Vermont, which was one of the positive case studies to get a sense of what are the factors that enabled them to pass this innovation, who were the constituents who actually championed the issue, how they go about doing it, and what the structural factors of contextual factors were, that enabled them to succeed. That was a wonderful case to see how students and academics could work collaboratively as well as with administrators to bring about an innovation of this sort. But it also, I guess, the main lesson I learned from that particular case was understanding that context matters. The cultural context matters. What kind of value systems are baked into the institution matters if you have an institution that values environmental issues, that's going to have a slew of knock on effects that will make such initiative easier to become institutionalised.

DR: Thank you for joining us for today's episode. For more information about my guest and for a link to his article, please see our website. I'd like to thank my fellow commissioning editor Danielle Crow, my guests Professor Manuel Vallee and the Studio this is Distorted.

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