We are now in new times, both at Lewis & Clark College and in our country at large. As of last week, it’s spring semester 2017 at LC, and one new course in our Environmental Studies Program is ENVS 295, Environmental Engagement. There is also a new—and in basically all respects radically different—administration at the helm of our country following President Trump’s inauguration yesterday.
How should we respond to the opportunities and challenges of change? We in ENVS are hoping that engagement is key, and that by working with students to cultivate skills in environmental engagement they can play a leadership role in these times.
But what is engagement? In ENVS 295 class last Wednesday we considered engagement along the arguably too-expansive lines of civic engagement—a catch-all category ranging from voting to “symbolic non-participation,” as well as the largely discredited lines of “constructive engagement,” i.e., the business-as-usual approach the early Reagan administration took toward apartheid in South Africa. The point is that engagement can mean basically anything! And that’s not helpful to us.
So, for a more helpful definition, we went to the Oxford English Dictionary, a really useful exploration of the history of usage of English words. Along one line of reasoning at least, our use of words is richer when we are mindful of, and allow them to resonate with, a fuller range of their historical meanings—I’ve done this, for instance, in my writings on environment (e.g., here or here).
And when we looked up the etymology of engagement in the OED we found a rich array of historical meanings, from roughly the early 17th century to the present. Think, for instance, of engagement in the context of intimate relationships: here, engagement is (OED) “The fact of being engaged to be married; betrothal.” As our students reflected on these usages, they came up with some interesting, and etymologically related, notions: attachment, entanglement, even the clashing of swords!
Here is one rather simplistic but easy to remember summary of what engagement has meant over time. It involves three words: connection/commitment/communication. Connection seems key to engagement, as one always engages with someone or something else. Commitment seems key to many historical uses of engagement (including but not limited to marital engagement), and may be especially important in the times of conflict we face today. In this sense, engagement is never a one-off connection; it is always an enduring process of attachment. Finally, communication, in the broadest sense, seems to capture the give-and-take in these committed connections, such that engagement means to listen as well as to speak.
So, for me and for now, I’ll keep in mind connection, commitment, and communication as I consider whether certain forms of environmental action are true to the history of the word engagement.
The above has been wholly definitional. Stay tuned for upcoming posts related to ENVS 295—and possibly our upcoming ENVS Symposium 2017, which also may adopt an engagement theme—for how this notion of engagement applies to the opportunities and challenges of these new times.