University needs to focus on environment

Wisconsin students should be taught about the dangers posed to the natural environment.

When UW-Madison students graduate from college, they will enter into a society markedly different from that of their parents. The world is rapidly changing socially, politically, economically and environmentally. As a result, UW-Madison needs to ensure its students are prepared for a lifetime of change and trials as we begin our adult lives.

One way the school tries to ensure that students are well-rounded is by implementing general education requirements. Most students have to demonstrate proficiency in quantitative reasoning and communication, as well as an understanding of ethnic issues, literature and various forms of science. The environment, however, is ignored by these requirements, leaving students ill-prepared for the challenges we’ll face in our lifetime.

As of Spring 2016, approximately 250 students are Environmental Studies majors at UW-Madison, with many more taking classes within the department. In a school with 30,000 undergraduates, however, this isn’t nearly enough. A vast majority of students never take a class addressing the scientific and social aspects of environmental conservation and it’s important in a changing world. 

As the planet undergoes changes caused by humanity’s interactions with the environment, this generation of college students will be faced with myriad issues. The threats of a warming planet, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, increased frequency and intensity of natural disaster events, mass extinctions and severe droughts and food shortages may drastically impact all of our lives, yet so few people are educated on the issues.

Increasing environmental awareness is the first step toward addressing these various threats. In an ideal world, many people would take it upon themselves to seek out education that explains the issues. Many people, however, don’t have the time or willpower to do the research on the subjects. Many get caught up in the politics of climate change and various other environmental issues, and remove themselves from the conversation so as to avoid conflicts. 

The Nelson Institute at UW-Madison is one of the premier environmental studies programs in the nation. Few students are unaware of the excellent courses and fine faculty the Institute has to offer. Those who do, however, aren’t the ones who most need to be educated on the environmental issues at hand.

Those who willingly take environmental studies courses, or go as far as to major in the subject, are already sold on the environmental movement. Many professors, are “preaching to the choir” when it comes to environmental studies classes—students are already environmentalists, and therefore need no convincing. 

While it is helpful to continue to educate those who are passionate about these subjects, it is those who are apathetic and skeptical that we need to reach the most. Those who shy away from the political aspect of environmental issues, or decide that these problems can be solved by somebody else, make a surprisingly large negative impact on the conversation. By refusing to interact with others and take part in the discussion, these people are inhibiting the progress that can be made. 

This conundrum can be solved by implementing a general education requirement that can spark conversations and debates that are necessary to inform the general populace about environmental issues. This solution, one that is espoused by the Sustainability Committee and various other environmental groups on campus, would not significantly increase students’ credit requirements, but would significantly increase environmental awareness and activism.

The intention of general education requirements is to ensure that any student—regardless of background or major—is a well-rounded, culturally competent adult by the time they graduate. 

The current system, though, is short-sighted. The university should look to the future and consider the issues that will demand the most effort and attention in the lifetimes of its students. Implementing an ethnic studies requirement did exactly that, and showed an understanding that issues of diversity will continue to stay prevalent for decades to come. Environmental issues, too, will continue to be pressing matters for the remainder of the century, and impact the lives of every single student at the school. UW-Madison is doing its students a disservice by not requiring them to learn about the dangers looming ahead.  

Sebastian is a sophomore majoring in history and environmental studies. What do you think of UW-Madison’s current general education requirements? Do environmental issues play a role in your everyday life? Please send all comments, questions and concerns to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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