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Davis, California

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Education reform

Earlier in the quarter, I wrote a column calling for the decommodification of education. I bemoaned the lecture format and compared our University to a bank in an attempt to make heard my discontent with the system. I received several responses from alumni and students that empathized with my position. As a follow-up, I would like to recommend some tangible changes that could address the issues of school reform.

I wasn’t alive a century ago, but what I gather from all my lectures is that daily lives and interactions have greatly changed with the development of certain technologies and the arrival of new schools of thought. The generation before us attended school without laptops, without internet databases and without Facebook. Let’s take a moment to consider how their learning experience was different from ours.

We need teaching practices that can address how vastly the way we learn has been altered. Here, we can take a lesson from ecology.

Popular ecological thought returned to the United States starting in the 1960s after being pushed aside by industrialization. Make no mistake, it was here before and is not new. What we are relearning is a basic concept in ecology: It is that of interconnectivity.

I am connected to you, as you are connected to the food you eat, as it is connected to the farm worker who picked it, as she is connected to the soil it was grown in, as the soil is connected to the water I drink. That sentence could be infinite.

But this common sense is not reflected in our academic disciplines. We have plant scientists studying plants. Soil scientists studying soil. Anthropologists studying people. Philosophers studying ethics.

Where are the anthropologists studying soil? Where are the plant scientists studying ethics? I dare anyone to make a thoughtful argument that these disciplines do not influence one another.

Our educational system has become reductionist. A student can go four years studying science without ever grappling with the social implications that such knowledge has for people, for the environment and for other worlds. A social scientist can go four years without learning basic scientific concepts that apply to everyday life.

General education requirements try to address this by requiring a breadth of courses to graduate. This is a well-intentioned beginning, but only serves to distract from the real problem that our majors are designed to specialize and narrow our academic perspectives.

What is required of us to know should reflect the interconnectivity and complexity of the world we live in. Our world is interdisciplinary and so should be our majors. We are beginning to see educational reform move in this direction.

My major, sustainable agriculture and food systems, was formally approved last fall and is exemplary of how an interdisciplinary major can function. For example, my major gives me the option of taking courses from the following disciplines: plant sciences, soil sciences, philosophy, anthropology, economics and animal sciences.

Perhaps the most interesting part of my major is comparing perspectives across the disciplines. In one day, I can attend two different classes with competing viewpoints. This surely contributes more to my critical thinking skills than being limited to courses speaking from one perspective.

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (ECI) now offers an interdisciplinary minor called “sustainability in the built environment.” It requires two core ECI courses accompanied by roughly 30 other courses from which students can choose from. The options range across environmental sciences, anthropology, community development, environmental toxicology, economics and more.

I applaud the creation of these interdisciplinary majors and minors at UC Davis, but would like to see them expand beyond the concept of sustainability. Where this has already existed on our campus — within departments and classrooms — I appreciate deeply. My education as a student and the development of my self has greatly benefited from such multiplicity of perspectives.

Please consider this column my formal request for more.

To argue, agree or suggest more educational alternatives email ELLI PEARSON at erpearson@ucdavis.edu.

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