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College of the Atlantic’s ambitious new goal

Posted Feb. 12, 2012, at 1:43 p.m.

Recently, I attended a talk by Darron Collins, the new president of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Collins is a friend and former student of mine. He spoke eloquently about the college’s distinctive educational mission and the contribution he hopes to make to its future. Collins has set an ambitious long-term goal of building an endowment that will permit the college to become tuition-free, which would model a fundamentally different orientation to higher education.

I am enthusiastic about Collins’ goal. In a society now marked by Gilded Age inequalities, students increasingly become debt peons in order to survive. This circumstance affects career choices, political ideologies, familial relationships and lifestyles.

In the last two decades up to a third of students at elite colleges have gone into finance to make the big bucks that allow them to escape debt peonage. In the process they become further committed to the values of individual acquisitiveness so emphasized in that profession and contribute to the financial instability that occasions so much insecurity — and acquisitiveness — by much of the rest of us. (Some young finance majors somewhere are madly securitizing student loans, perhaps the next big bubble to burst.)

Along with these career paths go the material perks that are both reward for, and symbols of, success. These foster a dynamic that further challenges the integrity of the planet. Homes and building lots keep getting bigger as young parents seek the best neighborhoods with the best schools. Cars become faster, more gadget-intensive so that one can work while traveling on increasingly congested roads. Eventually the most affluent resort to helicopters, leaving the rest of us to cope with noise pollution. The cellphone, once a luxury, becomes a necessity and soon is rendered obsolete by the smartphone.

Throughout the social chain, each purchase makes sense for an individual, but creates new needs for everyone below. The very ability of the wealthy to continually ratchet up consumption in response to any social problem reduces their sensitivity to common problems and their willingness to contribute to common solution.

The harried middle class goes increasingly into debt to sustain their position. They also become ever more reluctant to support collective policies that might trim the value of those goods for which they have borrowed and sacrificed so much.

Furthermore, debtors in this society are reluctant to show their faces. With a cultural heritage that treats wealth as a sign of moral virtue, debt by implication becomes an indicator of moral turpitude. Hence the debtor often feels under increased pressure to follow conventions.

With the scientific consensus on global climate change more clear than ever, never has attention to the environmental implications of these trends been more urgent. As Collins pointed out, COA as an institution, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary education and learning through problem solving, is well-positioned to address these challenges.

Climate science denial is much more than a matter of science ignorance or even the influence of big oil. Our culture, history and political economy predispose us to a growth path that is antithetical to the planet’s long-term needs. Fundamentalist religious strands, racial and ethnic antagonisms and nationalism all play interconnected roles.

If forest management is to be reformed, suburbs and roadways altered, and wind farms located, planners and policymakers must negotiate among and be attentive to a thicket of cultural and political sensibilities. One must also have the patience to recognize that resolutions in the midst of such complex interactions are seldom final and will need periodic readjustments.

A progressive educator of an earlier era, John Dewey, was attentive to the role that patient and open-ended problem solving played in education. Today the best of brain science adds to this emphasis.

Neuroscientists George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling argue that “voting decisions are fundamentally taken on the basis of values and empathy. Policies and facts matter; they are, however, not absorbed in isolation but are moreover embedded in values. Politicians therefore need to communicate a value framework in which policies are embedded and add up to a coherent program.”

COA already provides a worthy exemplar of these democratic, interdisciplinary and pragmatic commitments. If its new president can also someday model debt-free higher education, the college will have added one more impetus toward environmental and social sustainability.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor. He taught at College of the Atlantic from 1986 to 1993. His most recent book is ‘Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.’

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