FAQ about Sustainability Education

Luther’s sesquicentennial strategic plan includes a recommendation to “make sustainability a part of every student’s learning experience.”  Achieving this goal will require greater faculty engagement in sustainability education.  We believe that a clearly articulated conceptual framework for sustainability education is necessary if faculty from disciplines across the college are to discover how sustainability connects to their work and can enrich their teaching.  This document attempts to lay out that framework as it relates to Luther College.  

What is sustainability education?

Sustainability education fosters in students the knowledge, skills, values, and habits of mind necessary to be responsible citizens of communities striving for a more sustainable world. 

Do sustainability educators need to agree upon what is “sustainable?”

Sustainability education does not prescribe a list of practices that lead to the “right” outcome but instead demands an iterative series of questions and answers that require students to grapple with unsustainable situations and reason toward more sustainable solutions.   Therefore, sustainability education offers both a process of discovery and a vision for the future, although the exact nature of this future may be impossible to define or agree upon. 

Does sustainability education teach a body of knowledge, a set of skills, or a way of thinking?

Sustainability education is not merely a set body of knowledge, but one cannot take a systems approach to the social and natural worlds without a basic understanding of how those systems work.  Therefore, sustainability education should strive to provide students a basic understanding of appropriate subjects from the physical and social sciences. 

Sustainability education also emphasizes the skills necessary for a systems approach to problem solving.  It helps students develop the ability to assess empirical claims, think critically about alternative viewpoints, communicate verbally and in writing, engage in political discourse, advocate change, and commit to action.

Most importantly, sustainability education serves as a lens through which we can analyze and understand problems and ultimately leads to a different way of thinking.  Sustainability education promotes an understanding of social and ecological systems, an awareness of their interdependence, and an appreciation for the complexity of our world.  Sustainability education demands attention to the importance of place and community while simultaneously increasing students’ awareness of cross-cultural perspectives and global interconnectedness.

What is the role of social and economic justice in sustainability education?

Employing the habits of mind developed through sustainability education forces students to consider the connections between environmental and social systems and to see social issues such as poverty and racism in a larger context.  Social and economic issues are a necessary, but not sufficient, part of sustainability education.  

Does sustainability education require a certain value system?  Is it activism? 

Sustainability education should not push a political or moral agenda and must resist simple, dogmatic thinking.  However, while sustainability education does not demand a particular value system, it does demand a critical evaluation of individual and collective values and the impact of those values on people, species and other systems.  And while sustainability education should not advocate any particular change, there is an implicit assumption that some change is necessary and that students should develop the skills and knowledge necessary to work for change. 

How does sustainability education relate to the liberal arts?

The systems thinking and interdisciplinarity that sustainability education can encourage – everything is connected and mutually influential, and it’s up to curious minds to discern how – is perhaps just another name for the kind of flexible, comprehensive, and curious thinking liberal arts education is designed to encourage.  However, sustainability education is more than simply a repackaging of the liberal arts.  The concrete and immediate challenges addressed by sustainability education give it a coherence and practicality that is often missing from the liberal arts.   

How does sustainability education relate to my discipline?  Doesn’t Environmental Studies take care of teaching about sustainability? 

While Environmental Studies classes may be the most likely to address the concept of sustainability directly, many disciplines have a role to play in effective sustainability education.  Some disciplines are more likely to focus on knowledge – for example, the basic workings of ecological and social systems – while others will help students hone the necessary skills such as problem-solving and effective communication.  Much of what is currently taught in many disciplines contributes to sustainability literacy but significant change is also necessary.  Faculty need to examine their role in preparing students to be responsible citizens of communities striving for a more sustainable world. 


AASHE Curriculum Working Group.  “Sustainability Education Framework” (8-1-09).

Rhodes, Frank H.T.  “Sustainability:  the Ultimate Liberal Art.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 20, 2006).

Sherman, Daniel J. “Sustainability:  What’s the Big Idea?”  Sustainability, Vol. 1, No. 3 (June 2008).