We can learn so much about the most important values in nature from watching wildlife care for their offspring. Consider this mother merganser ferrying her chicks across the lake at twilight. Mergansers usually have a large brood strung behind the mom. I wonder what happened to the other chicks in this brood, but its very clear that the mother is carrying on, keeping her remaining chicks close, letting them ride on her back to get to safety on the other side.
Effective environmental stewardship requires deep grounding in the liberal arts. While Pope Francis does not say it quite that way in his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si, in fact, the idea of the integration of knowledge with principles of values and ethics flows through his writing. His call to action for a “bold cultural revolution” for an entirely new ecological paradigm is a challenge for educators, and particularly for all of us at Trinity where our mission is so deeply rooted in our faith teachings on social justice.
Early in the encyclical, the Pope writes a powerful indirect rejoinder to those who insist that all learning can be reduced to rigid modules of technical knowledge:
“The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression…. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.” (Laudato Si #46)
“Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution…” (Laudato Si #47)
Think about that: True wisdom is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data. Every technocrat with ideas about education reform needs to understand this basic point.
Later in the encyclical, Pope Francis offers a lengthy discourse on the impact of technology on human life and the environment, and the problems created when really smart and wealthy people exalt technology above relationships, values and ethics. These are truly central concerns of an effective liberal arts curriculum, and particularly a liberal arts college formed and thriving in the Catholic tradition such as we are at Trinity. We certainly want to have and use the best technologies and to teach and learn in the most scientific ways. But we must give equal pride of place to ethics and philosophy, to sociology and psychology, to all of the disciplines that are essential to an integrated life in community.
“Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change….The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning… Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?…” (Laudato Si #102)
“Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA and many other abilities which we have acquired have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance of the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely…” (Laudato Si #104)
“There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means ‘an increase of “progress” itself,’ as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such…. our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience…” (Laudato Si #105)
Watching a beaver move through the marsh, consuming large quantities of water lilies, is an education in the purposeful way in which one animal figures out how to make its way in this world. Understanding and respecting the roles of the humble beaver, the majestic great blue heron, the small birds and graceful mergansers are all part of appreciating the component parts of the environment. But beyond appreciating the parts, an integrated approach to ecology and environmental stewardship requires a larger and more complex philosophy of the power of human intervention to preserve or destroy the living planet.
These passages from the encyclical speak directly to our work at Trinity:
“The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or a single set of interests. A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today. Nor are there genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal. Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence. …” (Laudato Si #110)
“Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technological paradigm…To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” (Laudato Si #111)
“All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution…” (Laudato Si #114)