All Good Things….
by Dan Gorman | University of Rochester
College is inherently fun. It’s a place to make friends, seek romance, keep terrible hours, dance to bombastic music every weekend, discover an infinite variety of pizza toppings, and do a bit of homework here and there. A university is Bohemia, summer camp, and an education rolled into one vibrant whole.
But college is not just a place to have fun, nor is college even wholly about the homework and exams. No, the college experience – if done properly – is a laboratory for producing good citizens. College is the place to ask critical questions and develop a complete worldview – the last place to examine everything, before we venture out into the workforce, gain more responsibility, and lose the time to ask such questions.
I wonder how many college students ask the really deep questions about our society, even as they excel in their career-oriented coursework. Some students certainly do, but probably not enough. We are rapidly approaching the time when serious decisions regarding the future of this country (and all of human civilization) need to be made. To be clear, I’m not trying to make any readers panic, or come off as some sort of apocalyptic pundit. No, I just want to talk about a few pressing issues that most people don’t like talking about, yet should be talking about.
How often do you think about hunger? I don’t mean the mere desire to eat dinner now. I’m talking about real, genuine hunger, brought on by food deprivation and poverty. We’re going to hear more about hunger in the years to come. Great advances in the Green Revolution increased world harvests, thereby saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Unfortunately, the advances made in agriculture are starting to stagnate, while the world population continues to soar. This disparity between food supply and food demand suggests that large-scale famine is quite possible during the next fifty years.
Nonetheless, human life is inherently valuable, a belief reiterated by just about every great religious and secular philosophical tradition. Even if we can’t save everyone from starvation, we have a moral imperative to try. Still, we can’t fight famine without advances in farming technology and agronomics. We need people tackling the problem of world hunger.
Renewable energy needs development, too. Oil production in The U.S. will surpass that of Saudi Arabia by 2020. This is certainly good news for our economy, but the science is clear: Oil supplies are finite on this planet, and the end is approaching. More fossil fuels, obtained through better mining and hydrofracking, will only delay the end of petroleum by a few decades. I fear that a new surge of oil production will make policymakers and voters focus only on the present, rather than the need for renewable fuels in the near future.
Recently, I drove in a prototype hydrogen-powered SUV built by GM. The vehicle is remarkably silent, produces virtually no greenhouse emissions, and can double as an emergency power generator for entire neighborhoods. The science is in place. However, this country currently lacks the adequate infrastructure for transporting hydrogen fuel. Without the infrastructure (and cheap hydrogen), hydrogen cars cannot become standard issue.
Although a major push from the government and the oil-dominated car industry is currently unlikely, the public and private sectors must begin to imagine the energy market of the 2040′s and beyond, rather than the energy market of today. Hydrogen may not necessarily be the answer, but, unless we start seriously developing renewable fuels today, we face a rocky transition off oil in the future. I’ll take a smooth transition over gas rationing, rolling blackouts, and civil disorder any day.
Hunger and energy still receive a decent amount of press coverage, though. The issue of unfair labor practices, particularly in agriculture, rarely receives press coverage.
When I drive to college, I pass through a lot of farm country, and I can see the hovels where migrant farm workers live. As extensively documented in Oxfam’s report, Like Machines in the Fields, agro workers go unprotected by labor laws in all states other than California. These men and women endure backbreaking labor for little pay. Why? Well, a lot of these workers (but not all) are illegal immigrants, and employers, already constrained by the high costs of big agriculture, do not want to treat illegal workers fairly.
Americans pride themselves on workplace protections (banned child labor, collective bargaining), yet a floating population of workers is denied legal rights. True, many manual laborers are illegal immigrants, but how would our economy function without them? You see these workers daily. They wash dishes, mow lawns, harvest crops, and do the jobs much of the middle class shuns like the plague. Illegal immigrants cheated the system in coming here, but they are here, working in backbreaking jobs, and they therefore deserve at least a minimum degree of legal protection. Perhaps we can start by reforming agriculture, and then we can tackle the greater interrelated issues of illegal immigrants and unfair labor practices in the economy as a whole.
Another systemic problem in American society is the state of our school system. Classrooms are overcrowded and standardized tests oppress students and teachers alike, yet most state governments seem to think that more tests and less spending will fix our school systems. These trends need to be reversed – fewer mind-numbing standardized tests and more education spending. (Sorry, Tea Partiers, but we need departments of education.)
However, the true problem in our educational system is the current model of teaching, wherein a teacher stands in front of a room and lectures to students, hoping they absorb enough knowledge. Paulo Freire called this system “the banking concept of education” – the students are the banks, into which the teacher deposits information. Unfortunately, as I’m sure any alumnus of virtually any American school will attest, it is the rare and truly gifted teacher who can make a lecture engaging. All too often, students grow bored, and rote memorization takes the place of genuine understanding.
Dialogic, or collaborative, education stands as an effective alternative to the standard banking concept of education. In this system, the teacher is not a sage on a stage, but rather a guide on the side. Through the use of seminar discussions, rather than pure lectures, students find their way through the class material and learn to think and speak for themselves. Collaborative education isn’t only for humanities or social science classes, though: The use of workshops, peer collaboration on problem sets, and more visual demonstrations can result in truly collaborative science education.
This innovative model of education is currently being tried out in charter schools, but rarely in standard public schools. Overhauling teacher training will require unprecedented collaboration between the state and federal government, as well as both public and private graduate schools of education. A true transition to dialogic education will most likely take more than a generation. But changing our energy sources, inequities in the labor and immigration systems, and food production will take decades, too. That is why we must start implementing these reforms now.
There are other major issues too often ignored – climate change, our decaying national infrastructure, the lack of a definite plan for NASA’s manned space program – but I’ve gone on long enough as it is. I hope I’ve made it clear, though, that the 21st century is going to be a wild ride. Serious ethical and existential dilemmas exist in our modern society.
As college students, we must become educated about these quandaries and begin a serious dialogue about our future. How do we want to treat our workers? Do we want to transition smoothly off fossil fuels, or delay the transition until oil is scarce? What can we do to alleviate famine, even if some degree of famine is unavoidable? We would do well to think of our future children, and ask ourselves what sort of world we want them to possess by the mid-21st century.
I don’t have definite answers for solving these problems. I have suggestions, and I believe there are moral imperatives to create a just society, but I don’t have a concrete plan for the next century. However, I am absolutely certain that we members of the next generation can tackle these issues, if we start thinking critically now, if we remain open to innovation, and if we remember, even amid talk of recession and austerity, to extend compassion to even the lowliest among us.
As the great David Bowie once sang, “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: NextGen Journal is coming to an end. This is my last column. It’s been an honor to write for a national audience, and I will miss hearing from these many talented college students across the United States, who took time out of their busy schedules to write about and discuss the big issues. To quote the Whole Earth Catalog, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”Dan hails from downstate N.Y. and is now a junior at the University of Rochester, studying history, music, and religion. He was a national finalist for the 2012 U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Summer Institute. In his spare time, he enjoys doing the Lindy Hop, reading, singing, playing his cello, challenging his friends to Call of Duty tournaments, and traveling.