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Nature and Culture, Student Edition

Kate Johnson reviews The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of Campus Life Can Change the World, by James J. Farrell

The Nature of College, by James J. FarrellIn my five quarters of formal university education, I have never once experienced an inclination to read a book written “for” college students. I hardly fit the typical collegiate mold—I’m everyone’s favorite designated driver, and I’d rather wake up at five than stay up until four—and I have assumed that “expert” advice aimed at my peers will rarely apply to my own life. Furthermore, as a lifelong outdoorswoman and an environmental studies major, I often dismiss popular treatises on nature and environmentalism as beneath my level of sophistication. I therefore approached The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of Campus Life Can Change the World, James J. Farrell’s novel-length handbook on sustainability for the American college student, with due skepticism.

Part day-in-the-life narrative, part environmental manifesto, The Nature of College aims to reveal and reform the “hidden curriculum of college”—the habits, ideas, and choices that define college culture and “tend to become the ‘culture of nature’ for the next generation.” Farrell draws on his experiences as a college student and professor, but focuses his analysis on two fictional, ostensibly “typical” students, whom he christens “Joe and Jo College.” As I followed Joe and Jo from dining hall to computer screen to Saturday-night beerfest, I found some of what I had expected and feared from the genre. From the moment his protagonist “reaches out of his slumber, hits the snooze button, rolls over, and goes back to sleep,” Farrell’s portrayal of college life embraces a host of common stereotypes. He also engages in an often heavy-handed critique of American materialism, a culture that “expects us to consume stuff that consumes the world.” However, between keggers and catchphrases, The Nature of College offers meaningful and original insight into our power as students to redefine our cultural institutions as instruments of environmental stewardship. Farrell’s treatise will resonate with anyone who believes, or wants to believe, in “the unique space a college provides for ‘going deep’—for thinking unconventionally about the unconventional issues of our day.” I’m hoping that his ideas will motivate a few of my peers to join me outside the mold.

Farrell packs the opening chapters of The Nature of College with insight into the hidden environmental and social impact of our daily routines, as college students and as Americans. Drawing attention to the chemical contents of a bottle of shampoo, he also reflects on the “cultural work” of the shower and its accessories. “Dirt is evil in our culture,” Farrell concludes, “and so we ritually cleanse ourselves in a sort of daily baptism, initiating us into a cult of sanitation.” Tracing the life cycle of a pair of jeans and a hamburger—incidentally, both require a bathtub’s worth of water in production—he also explores their significance in terms of “the American ideology of choice”—our cultural demand for comfort, variety, and convenience. Farrell follows these themes as he discusses the physical and psychological consequences of automobile addiction, the role of electronic media as consumer of energy and catalyst of cultural change, and the contrast between the escapist “wildness” of a college party and the spiritually stimulating wildness of the natural world. His analysis centers on a critique of unsustainable consumption both on and off campus, and of the cultural institutions and social expectations that support our materialist lifestyles.

Many of Farrell’s best insights emerge as he moves away from the surface of daily routine to consider how larger forces such as love and religion shape college life and environmental awareness. Students may see college as a time to engage in sexual, romantic, and religious self-discovery, but few consider the environmental significance of their emerging identities. Farrell, however, points to an untapped potential for the collegiate self-discovery process to foster a new environmental ethic.

For example, sexual experimentation and romantic love could inspire students to consider “the way that love is shared not just with one another but with all others, and the way in which personal lovemaking might be part of some larger lovemaking,” leading them to a deeper awareness of their physical and emotional role in a global community. Environmental advocacy could provide a venue for spiritual dialogue between religious students and their secular peers, and environmentalists of all faiths “might try to apply the lessons of care and collaboration that abound in the scriptures of many of our faith traditions to the hard work of ecological and cultural resurrection.”

While some students may dismiss Farrell’s ideas on love and faith as outdated or irrelevant, others will welcome the opportunity to reshape cultural conventions as they define their own, and will find in that opportunity a means and justification for exploring the global significance of their personal relationships.

Despite Farrell’s assertion that “[t]he nature of college is a part of the nature of American life,” college culture stands apart from American culture at large, and not only as a time and space for self-discovery. Several attributes of the collegiate lifestyle also offer distinct opportunities for environmental stewardship. Farrell recognizes, for example, that differences in physical layout make a car-free lifestyle easier on a college campus than in a typical American city. However, many of the problems and solutions featured in The Nature of College could apply as well to the developed world in general as to college in particular. Farrell makes only passing reference to many of the aspects of campus culture that drive environmental consciousness and action, such as the power of idealism and optimism among students. This generality may expand the book’s audience, but Farrell misses opportunities to engage students by fully exploring the unique character of the collegiate mindset and lifestyle.

Farrell also risks alienating some students with his stereotypical portrayal of college life. As a college student who celebrated her 21st birthday with a bottle of root beer, I balked at Farrell’s depiction of the college party as an alcohol-centric event. This may be true on average, but my best party memories feature hot chocolate and Scrabble, and I never felt that I missed out on an essential part of the college experience. Farrell only briefly acknowledges the many forms of “quiet fun” students pursue both on and off campus, focusing instead on the negative social and environmental implications of “wild parties . . . occasions when lives of quiet desperation briefly get loud.”

Similarly, in describing the distinct experiences of male and female college students, Farrell perpetuates unfortunate misconceptions and ignores many subtleties of gender identity. Farrell’s “typical” female student “looks over the soup and salad bar” while her male counterpart grabs a burger and fries. She is “taught to worry about keeping up appearances,” so she selects her clothes with care, and fusses with hairbrush and makeup while he slaps on a hat and heads off to class. These behaviors may indeed be typical, but they also hint at real problems with the ways that young, driven women in our culture relate to their bodies, and by extension to the natural world. Changing those relationships will require celebrating students who depart from the trend, in addition to exposing the social and environmental problems with mainstream tendencies.

Perhaps in an effort to appeal to a younger audience, Farrell sprinkles his text with puns, slogans, and wordplay. Occasionally these devices work beautifully, as when Farrell places the concept of “planned obsolescence” in the context of a materialist culture, or defines “bitching” as the antonym of “hoping.” In general, however, contrived terms such as “comfearth” and “murketing” serve only to distract from the insights that led to their coinage, and long tables contrasting the catchphrases of environmentalism with those of consumerism accomplish little more than to fill space on the page. Farrell expresses his hope that the words in The Nature of College “will help to change ways of seeing, ways of talking, and ways of acting,” but he sometimes forgets that a simple, direct appeal will almost always spark more enthusiasm than a cliché.

But beneath its contrived language and despite its omissions, The Nature of College delivers an important message. In exploring environmental action on college campuses and suggesting ways to consciously integrate sustainability into collegiate and American culture, Farrell espouses hope and integrity in a world that often encourages cynicism and ethical compromise. As Farrell points out, “We live in a culture that’s hostile to many of our deepest values, and we think that’s normal . . . The fact of the matter is this: Our peers won’t laugh at us. They won’t think we’re weird. Our deepest values tend to be similar.”

In knowledge, lifestyle, and mindset, college students are uniquely situated to address environmental issues, but we often lack the courage to do so. The Nature of College exposes the cultural conventions that perpetuate our silence. Farrell invites students to adopt social paradigms that acknowledge the significance of our daily routines, and to foster synergy between college life and the natural world. Even as my own college career draws to a close, I hope that my peers—past, present, and future—will listen.


Kate Johnson is a master's student in environmental policy and communication at Stanford University. She turns out the lights when she leaves a room, brings her own coffee mug to Starbucks, buys her clothes at Goodwill, and eats her vegetables. She also drives a gas-guzzling truck and hates low-flow showerheads. As with much of life, and college, you win some, you lose some.
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The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of Campus Life Can Change the World

By James J. Farrell

   Milkweed Editions
   336 pages
   ISBN 978-1571313225


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