A History of Environmental Studies at Bowdoin

Erica Berry and Walt Wuthmann giving a talk on their report,

To mark the 40th year of Bowdoin’s Environmental Studies program, juniors Erica Berry and Walter Wuthmann teamed up last semester to research the College’s history of environmentalism.

They found that this history correlates with a national trend over the past four decades of Americans assuming a greater sense of environmental responsibility, as well as engaging in more urgent questioning of what makes education relevant and effective.

Berry and Wuthmann, who are both English and E.S. majors, describe environmentalism at Bowdoin as “a story of how influential students, professors, and administrators responded to national trends with the constant intent to create a program that could effectively prepare students to face the most pressing question of the modern era: how can humanity inhabit this world without completely degrading and destroying the very resources we depend upon for life?”

While they originally started out just trying to establish a chronological history of the College’s environmental studies program in advance of a departmental review, both students said they quickly became curious about the program’s origins. “Forty years ago, you couldn’t find a program like this is academia,” Wuthmann said. “Why did this happen at Bowdoin in the ’70s?” Berry asked.

From "40 Years of Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College"
In their report, Erica Berry and Walt Wuthmann reference biologist E.O. Wilson, who has said we are entering “the century of the environment.”

As they consider Bowdoin’s environmental program, they write, “Internationally, climate change has materialized as the primary environmental issue of the future, a problem scarcely realized at the time of the program’s formation forty years ago. …What sort of curriculum will be most effective at educating students of the various angles in this issue? What does it mean to go into the world as an Environmental Studies major, and what should these students be prepared to do?

To gather their data, Berry said they unearthed old College curriculum reports and press reports, and collected oral histories from some of the significant people who helped establish and lead Bowdoin’s environmental studies program.

Berry and Wuthmann identified a few key events of the 1960s and 1970s as evidence of a changing culture that lay the ground for the development of environmental studies here, such as the Kent State University protests and the admission of female students at Bowdoin.

The Kent State protest symbolized the potential for student empowerment across the country, while the enrollment of women at Bowdoin signaled an institutional willingness to change, they argue. Moreover, Bowdoin in 1969 stopped requiring SAT scores from applicants and started launching interdisciplinary studies, such as its Afro-American (now Africana) Studies program. “There was a questioning of what made education relevant,” Berry said.

This era, too, was the dawning of environmental activism, and some of Bowdoin’s faculty became very involved in helping to protect Maine’s land and waters. Bowdoin’s location, in a coastal rural town, also began to appeal to prospective students. “Many more students were applying to Bowdoin [in the early 1970s] because of a new interest in nature and being close to the environment,” Berry said.

In 1972, Bowdoin formed a brand new environmental coordinate major program in the belief that an E.S. major needed to be paired with another major to ensure graduates “were trusted specialists in one field but able to view these issues with an environmental awareness,” Berry and Wuthmann write. In its first year, the E.S. senior seminar on Maine’s polluted Androscoggin River attracted 16 students; the next year, it attracted 28. In 2011, 7.5 percent of the graduating students were E.S. majors.

Over the next forty years, the program would expand, strengthen and redefine itself under the leadership of its directors: Ed Laine, David Vail, Dewitt John, Phil Camill and John Lichter.

Now, as the E.S. program evaluates where it should be in a decade, Berry and Wuthmann both recommend it find ways of attracting more minority students.

They also urged that “the strengths, not the limitations, of this coordinate major program continue to be emphasized. We think [Prof. Sam] Butcher’s explanation for the…coordinate major structure of 1972 holds true forty years later: we still don’t know what exactly an Environmental Studies major should be able to do. We are not trying to be all-encompassing ‘environmentologists,’ but we are trying to be educated citizens and leaders, living in a world defined by an ever-intensifying cycle of climate feedback.”

Comments

  1. Bill Seekins says:

    Hello Erica and Walt,
    FYI, I graduated from Bowdoin in 1971. I was too early to officially be an Environmental Studies major since the program was just being developed at the time I was there. Despite that, I switched advisors from Sam Butcher to A. Myrick Freeman who was to head up development of the new interdisciplinary program. Over my junior and senior years, I followed the curriculum of the new major. I graduated with a major in economics and minor in chemistry. (How’s that for interdisciplinary studies!) I continued my education at Umass Amherst and then at University of Maine for my doctorate. I have spent the last 30 years doing research in waste utilization and particularly composting. That interest started with a research paper I did at Bowdoin on recycling by-products at Maine’s paper mills. Go to http://www.composting.org for information on teaching that I do in this area. Hopefully this will give others an idea what an ES degree can lead to!

    ps. My son Sam is in the ES program at Bowdoin right now.

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