By Adam Brock
College can be a mighty frustrating place for young radicals. While universities are often hotbeds of revolutionary thought, very little of that thought seems to make it outside the walls of the classroom and into the real world. Colleges tend to remain insular to the social pressures in the communities around them; sometimes, they’re even the cause. My own school, NYU, is certainly no exception – its continual expansion has long antagonized the Greenwich Village community, and it’s played no small role in the gentrification of the area.
Gallatin, the small, innovative division of the University that I attend, is working to reverse that role with a program called the Community Learning Initiative. CLI started several years ago as an attempt to bring the university a bit closer to the ground: courses like “Mapping for Social Change” and “Literacy in Action” combine the rigorous theory and reflection of typical university curricula with hands-on partnerships with nonprofits and activist organizations.
As innovative as these courses are, though, they have limitations of their own, particularly with conflicting timescales: grassroots campaigns usually last years, while universities tend to operate in 18-week chunks. This year, with a bigger budget and expanded staff, CLI is expanding its scope with multi-semester working groups, campaigns, workshops, guest lectures, and research.
While the Community Learning Initiative isn’t explicitly focused on sustainability, its approach naturally connects with the precepts of ecoliteracy. Ecological awareness, after all, means understanding the way we affect and are affected by our environment, an understanding that entails social factors as well biological ones. David Orr, in his essay “Place and Pedagogy,” frames the process as a shift from residing to inhabiting: “Good inhabitance is an art requiring detailed knowledge of a place, the capacity for observation, and a sense of care and rootedness. Residence requires cash and a map.”
With the Community Learning Initiative, Gallatin is well on its way to integrating Orr’s inhabitance into its educational model – but is it scaleable? Grassroots campaigning for credit might be the progressive Gallatino’s dream education, but how would it fare in the decidedly more traditional College of Arts and Sciences? It’s hard to say. For now, at least, it’s reassuring to see that programs like CLI are happening at all, bringing their students closer to the place where they live – and in the process, transforming the role of what a university can be.