Why I'm Not Preparing My Students to Compete in the Global Marketplace

Michael Morgenstern for the Chronicle

January 15, 2012

At a recent holiday dinner, a friend who happens to work for the State Department asked me if I thought my college students were "ready to compete in the global marketplace," and whether I had come up with strategies to prepare them for that work.

They weren't, I said. And I hadn't.

In fact, I said, my environmental-humanities class had spent the better part of the semester discussing the ways the "global marketplace" had become an increasingly dispiriting phenomenon to watch. For all the talk of "globalization" as the very engine of their generation's future prospects, my students seemed far more concerned about disappearing jobs at home, rising global temperatures, and a general anxiety about what it all meant. The world did not seem as inviting as it seemed fragmented, even fragile, especially when the conversation turned to the environment, and to the resilience of their own local communities.

In class one week, my students and I drew a chart on the blackboard listing three columns: Places, Industries, and Unintended Consequences. At first we limited the conversation to places students either had studied or had visited during study-abroad trips. We came up with many of the usual suspects: oil exploration in Ecuador, leading to toxic spills and broad human displacement; global logging conglomerates in Indonesia, leading to deforestation and species loss; commodity soybean and cattle production in the Amazon, leading to climate change. These were easy targets—environmental atrocities happening far away, conducted by faceless corporations, with little or no (apparent) impact on my students themselves. It went without saying that this particular "global marketplace" was not something my students were eager to join.

But then the conversation shifted. Environmental degradation wasn't a problem only in foreign countries, after all, and I wanted to know if any students had experienced such things closer to home. It was not an idle question; we had spent time discussing a Wendell Berry essay in which he derides industrial "imperialism" as contributing to "destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems," and Berry was not writing about foreign lands.

At the University of Delaware, my classes are filled with students from all over the mid-Atlantic: the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the mountains of West Virginia, the hill country of central Pennsylvania, the coastal plain of central and northern New Jersey. Here's what some of them had to say:

One student wrote about widespread chemical contamination in Delaware City, an industrial port town where, that very week, a refinery had exploded, sending toxic gases shooting into the night sky. Another talked about a piece of paper she had been handed during a teaching internship, which listed the steps teachers should take if a New Jersey nuclear plant should start to leak radiation; precautions included taking small doses of potassium iodide to curb the possibility of thyroid cancer.

A third student wrote about a visit to a chicken factory on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a region where more than 600 million chickens are slaughtered each year. Growers spray formaldehyde on the eggs to kill bacteria. Weren't there less toxic ways of cleaning eggs? And 600 million birds a year? Wasn't all that chicken manure one of the primary contributors to huge hypoxic dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay?

A fourth wrote about the ambivalence she felt when an energy conglomerate had offered her family a check to install a hydrofracturing natural-gas well on her property in Pennsylvania. The money would be nice, but what would happen to her community's drinking water? Weren't there rumors that people who lived near fracking wells were able to set their tap water on fire?

Clearly, it wasn't just the "global marketplace" that was suffering. It was also the "local marketplace." And if many college students feel powerless to intervene in climate change or the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest or the displacement of indigenous people, it turns out they don't feel powerless when it comes to nurturing their own communities. Many of my students have decided to commit not to "globally competitive" professions but to becoming middle-school teachers, primary-care doctors, nutritionists, journalists, and local environmental advocates.

But even before they graduate, there is a great deal of work to be done. My students and I have begun exploring ways to leverage our collective talents (and by "our" I mean student, professorial, and institutional) to engage more fully with local ecosystems and local communities. What might this look like? My university sits at the juncture of two major watersheds, the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River Basin, and each has its own host of environmental and socioeconomic challenges. Many of those challenges, it could be argued, are symptomatic of the "globalized" economy: jobs shipped overseas; cities contaminated with abandoned brown fields; rural energy production that feeds distant consumers; industrial food production (and consumption) that does little to nourish local people or local economies.

In recent months I have taken students on canoe trips to investigate the water quality of the Susquehanna River, and on walking tours through the toxic urban neighborhoods of East Baltimore. The exposure to both the beauty and the trauma of these places was moving in ways that classroom conversations rarely are, and my students responded with writing that was as vivid and compelling as anything I have read in years.

Indeed, the students' work that emerged after these excursions made something plain: With the interdisciplinary gifts that students bring to these complex issues, there is no end to the possible fieldwork we can do right in our own backyard. There are ecological projects to be conducted, sociological studies to be done, and journalistic inquiries to be made into every corner of our region. All of these endeavors, done properly, stand not only to illuminate areas that are typically obscured from student view but also to offer intellectual resources to communities outside the university that do not typically enjoy them. We're thinking about creating a digital journal, for example, in which communities could find student-written stories about local cancer clusters, with links to local health resources, political-advocacy projects, even the EPA's industrial Toxic Release Inventory.

But this is just one idea, and there are many more—as many, no doubt, as there are students interested in taking them on. All I can say for sure is that the potential for both student work and community engagement is very high indeed. And for what it's worth, it seems to me that a thoughtfully done local project could even serve as a model for something whose scope is far broader—even, dare I say it, global.

McKay Jenkins is a professor of English, director of the journalism program, and co-director of the environmental-humanities program at the University of Delaware. His most recent book is What's Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World (Random House, 2011).