In climate science courses, students learn how climate change and global warming impact ecosystems, as well as how to advance local and global climate solutions. In forestry classes, they study the science and practice of sustainable resource management. Geology, natural resources, fisheries, and wildlife ecology – all of these degree paths at Northland have a direct correlation to employment within an environmental field. But with the humanities, you have to look a little deeper to find a connection to the College’s mission and values.
Northland’s values live at the intersection of environmental consciousness and social justice,” says Erica Hannickel, professor of environmental history. It takes familiarity with the collection of academic disciplines that is the humanities—ones that encompass centuries of art, history, philosophy, and human expression—to understand both sides of the environmental and social justice coin. Learning that humans have persevered through incredible environmental and economic catastrophes can give us hope, and even better, provide us with models for how we might take on climate change, the AI revolution, and other challenges confronting us today. An example of one such moment in American history is the Dust Bowl, an environmental event triggered by human land use. Hannickel teaches her students about the “Black Blizzards,” dust storms that rolled across the continent and blacked out the sky. Roughly 2.5 million people were uprooted from their homes in less than a decade. And yet with incredible human resilience, government response, new methods to fight soil erosion, and local community programs, people got back on their feet. There are lessons offered here, and in every other environmental event, that we should study and carry forward in order to effect change.
The humanities connect us to the world by expanding our knowledge and understanding of human cultures, our triumphs, and our failures. “My colleagues and I talk a lot about the most basic question:” says Hannickel, “How do we make students care? How do we make them care about today’s most pressing issues in our classes, and how do we make the larger public care about them through our published research? How do we make people care about protecting the environment and living sustainably? How do we help them develop voices that can clearly advocate for social justice?” The answer, she says, which is borne out through research, is that in order for people to care about a place, an ecosystem, an animal, or a group of people, they must be made aware. “It’s best to have literal experience in those places and with those people,” says Hannickel, “experiences that humanities courses at Northland regularly offer.”
One of the assumptions many people make today is that you can’t get a job if you major in the humanities. The truth is, whether you want to be a journalist or go into the seminary, become a librarian, a teacher, work in a museum, be a lawyer, or go into civil service… there are thousands of careers that people are best trained for if they have a foundation in the humanities, says Hannickel. And this goes to the heart of what the humanities promise: to teach the critical analysis skills every engaged human needs to move through life. Whether it’s a legal brief or an email, a letter to a congressperson or a grant application, a quarterly report or a book, you have to complete thorough and thoughtful research, frame your argument for your specific audience, be able to logically organize your thoughts, and present your information and ideas in a cogent way.
With climate change, for an example, “science is one way to understand the world,” says Hannickel, “but we’ve had the science on climate change effectively nailed since the nineties, with deeper understanding developed since then. And as we know, a lot of people aren’t changing their perception of the world—truthfully, we live on a planet in crisis—and that’s not a science issue. That is a mindset issue. A worldview issue. An economic issue. So if we’re going to tackle climate change with all we have, if we’re going to change minds and work to reshape our culture and ideologies to address the moment that we’re in, that’s going to take the humanities, arts, and the social sciences working in concert with science to get it done. There is no magic machine coming to solve this for us. We must use the full extent of human knowledge and experience to confront this moment.”