Had Grinnell offered a bachelors degree in environmental studies, Clare would have majored in environmental studies. Instead she majored in computer science with a concentration in environmental studies. Concentrations at Grinnell are similar to minors at most other schools, and Clare took as many courses in the natural sciences and environmental sociology as she did in computer programming.

Clare’s course of study interested me because I care about all things Clare, but also because I co-founded the environmental studies minor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in the mid-1990s. I then went on to spend the next twenty years dodging students who wanted to make it a major. I wanted environmental studies to remain only a minor, because I thought it needed to keep its multidisciplinary approach. As soon as a subject on a college campus becomes its own discipline with its own degree program, the walls of the silo start to form. It happens in gender studies and in racial studies. It happens in environmental studies, too. 

It also happened in my own field of recreation management. In the 1970s, I majored in recreation resource management specifically because it allowed me to blend together courses in wildlife ecology, education, forestry, and landscape architecture. In 2017, when I retired from the recreation management department at UWL, recreation had long been its own field of study. Students majoring in recreation were taking up to twenty courses with the REC prefix (i.e., Rec 150 to Rec 499). With so many credits in the major pairing up with an equally onerous list of general education requirements, there was no room for exploration and no room for “fun” courses. That is in contrast to Grinnell, which has no general education requirements. Grinnell trusts a student will develop his or her own diverse course of study given the chance to do so. This single brilliant difference in the graduation requirements allowed Clare to study both computer science and environmental studies, yet travel abroad and dabble in a half dozen other interest areas.

Clare enjoys the outdoors as much as I do, but she did not go into environmental education as a career (like her dad did). Upon graduation from college, Clare took a job at a small, green technology firm. The company installs anaerobic digesters and natural gas upgrading systems. It occurs to me that the difference in Clare’s and my career choices may be the urgency of the current environmental crisis. I went into environmental education forty-five years ago because I wanted to be outdoors. As a professional naturalist, I was able to spend most of my waking hours in nature and still feel I was part of the solution by nurturing the next generation of nature lovers. Clare, on the other hand, doesn’t see environmental education as much of a difference maker. It kicks the sustainability can down the road when the fate of the planet requires immediate changes on a large scale. Anything less than direct action is inadequate and naive.

UWL is now in the process of changing its environmental studies minor into a major. I still think it should remain a minor. I also know I was right to step away when I did, and it is younger educators who are making those kinds of decisions. 

Steven Simpson