Normally, you would not expect to hear much discussion about water in a philosophy class. Or in an English course or at an architectural seminar. But this semester, you will at Santa Monica College (SMC).
The theme of water has taken center stage in the aforementioned classes and others as part of the college’s Global Citizenship initiative, a two-and-a-half-year project that seeks to cultivate an understanding of international, intercultural and ecological matters among the college’s students.
Another goal is to develop an awareness of economic factors, human rights and environmental concerns, says Georgia Lorenz, the school’s dean of academic affairs.
“Water is so fundamental, universal and so complex,” Lorenz, who is co-chair of SMC’s Global Council, said. “You can study water as an element, H2O, or as a religious symbol. Water is a common theme across the arts. It is part of urban planning.
“You can think about access to water as a human rights issue and an environmental issue. You can learn about the pollution of the oceans and the privatization of water.”
The “dean continued, “There are a myriad of economic issues related to water. There are nutritional implications related to water, from staying properly hydrated to the devastating impact of unclean water on the mortality rates of children around the world.”
The school’s Global Council, comprised of faculty and administrators, was considering a theme for the academic year during the winter semester at a retreat and settled on water, said Gordon Dossett, former faculty leader of the council. He feels that Lorenz was instrumental in the selection of this year’s topic.
“I give her the credit for having water as a theme,” Dossett, a professor of English literature, said.
Professor Amber Katherine, who teaches philosophy and environmental politics, asks her students to consider whether they view water as a commodity or as a human right. Included in the discussions will be the questions regarding private property raised by philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
“In order to bring this 17th and 18th century debate into the present moment, students will be watching ‘FLOW,’ the award-winning documentary which investigates what experts label the most important political issue of the 21 century — the world water crisis,” Katherine’s course description explains.
“The critical question at issue in the film and the world today relates directly to the question of private property: if we hope to overcome the crisis, must we treat water as a commodity or a human right? Students will use Locke’s philosophy to defend the former view and Rousseau’s to defend the latter.”
The philosophers’ beliefs will be deliberated and interwoven with discussions surrounding present day water conditions, including drought and conservation.
“My students will debate the way that society views water in the context of a contemporary issue that unifies all people of the globe,” said Katherine.
Dossett’s students will view the classic film Chinatown, which dealt with political corruption over water management in the 1930s. And Professor Craig Hammond, in his architectural history course, will discuss the role of water in architecture and city planning, and will cover historical structures specifically designed for the preservation and transportation of water for civilizations.
Dossett, who has never screened Chinatown for a class but has talked to other professors who have, would like to have his class explore the concept of water from a rather unique perspective.
“I think that attention should be paid to (water) as an aesthetic and metaphorical symbol,” said the English professor. “In the movie, it can be viewed as purification that has been corrupted.”
Loyola Marymount University (LMU) professor Jeremy Pal, who was among the contributing authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC), an international collaboration of scientists that shared the 2007 Noble Peace Prize, thinks that SMC made a sound decision to incorporate the theme of water into a variety of disparate academic disciplines.
“What SMC is doing is both important and innovative, particularly in light of the recent drought affecting Southern California,” Pal, an SMC alumnus, told The Argonaut. “With projections of climate change and population growth in Southern California and the Southwest, our fresh water supply is likely to become more scarce in the future.”
The college has added a global citizenship requirement in order for students to receive an Associate of Arts degree. Earlier this year, SMC received a $10,000 Southern California World Water Forum water conservation grant that will be used for student-created video public service announcements, which will address how the school’s international students save water in their home nations.
“This really illustrates that SMC has an innovative approach,” said Genevieve Bertone, SMC’s project manager for sustainability. “We’re excited to reflect the global representation we have on our campus, and it’s great that the PSAs fit into our global citizenship initiative.”
The grants are awarded by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.
“We felt that they had a very good idea at a community level that highlights water conservation policies,” said Russ Donnelly, education programs manager for the water district. “We were thrilled to hear from Professor Katherine that (SMC) had moved forward on their interdisciplinary approach to water.”
Katherine said that she believes that incorporating the topic of water and its relevance into her philosophy classes has resonated with a large number of her students.
“I think that they have been really receptive to having a theme that has crossed so many disciplines,” she said. “This is a way to provide another opportunity to reconsider the value of water in our lives.”
The photography department is planning a photo show and contest late in the semester that will feature water, and in December, the dance department will perform a water-themed dance concert at the Performing Arts Center’s Broad Stage.
Lorenz sees the global initiative as a central part of the community college’s future and hopes it will be a feature that the public will soon consider to be synonymous with Santa Monica College.
“Ultimately, I envision global citizenship becoming something that SMC is known for,” Lorenz said. “When you say to someone at a cocktail party, ‘I work at SMC,’ the response will be, ‘Oh! number one in transfers and the home of global citizenship.’”