Green Initiatives

Westmont Takes the Lead in Protecting God’s Creation

Winter HallWestmont takes its role as steward of the Earth seriously. The college is on the cutting edge of environmental practices, continuing to demonstrate leadership by implementing new sustainable strategies. Westmont has an extensive recycling program and offers incentives to its employees to consider alternative transportation. Other practices include high-efficiency lighting, using only Green Seal products for custodial cleaning, waterless urinals, organic gardening and a fleet of electric carts. Landscaping crews have dramatically reduced potable water consumption through more efficient irrigation techniques. Westmont shuttle vans provide more than 50,000 passenger-trips per year, taking more than 30,000 trips off local roads. 

Westmont students approached the environmental committee of the Montecito Association more than 25 years ago to begin what is now known as Montecito Beautification Day. Students have also led participation in the United Way’s Day of Caring. Each May, Westmont volunteers rescue tons of unwanted clothing, furniture and small appliances from end-of-the-year residence hall trash and deliver it to local charities. 

In 2011, the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit trade organization that promotes sustainability in building design and operation, certified four new Westmont buildings as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold. The analysis noted the college’s incorporation of native plants and water-efficient landscaping, restoration of habitats, capturing of storm water and reduction of light pollution. Workers also recycled construction waste and other materials. The college chose carpets, paints and adhesives that are environmentally-friendly. Nearly 90 acres of the 111-acre campus remain as landscaping or open space. Environmentally sensitive areas and three oak woodlands have been enhanced and protected. 

The devastating 2009 Tea Fire destroyed 14 Westmont faculty homes in the adjacent Las Barrancas neighborhood. During reconstruction, homes were prepared for photovoltaic panels. In 2010, the 40 faculty homes in the neighborhood became the first, fully solar community and largest residential project in Santa Barbara County. The college is committed to wise stewardship of the environment and continues to explore new ways to reduce its carbon footprint.

Westmont in San Francisco

A year before its 40th anniversary, the San Francisco Urban program has adopted a new name: Westmont in San Francisco. “The change reflects a new era, new commitments and a new vision,” says Director Brad Berky.“We wanted to acknowledge our liberal arts focus and institutional relationship.”

Westmont in San Francisco will continue to enroll 24 students each semester who study urban issues, participate in a range of internships in the city and live together in the historic Clunie House near Golden Gate Park. New initiatives will include greater emphasis on sustainability, a good fit for the Bay Area, an epicenter for environmental care. Berky says donors will fund a rooftop garden for the building similar to those on Adams Center for theVisual Arts and Winter Hall for Science and Mathematics.

Berky is seeking approval for a pilot program set for the summer of 2012 or 2013 where students learn from emerging leaders and entrepreneurs for eight to 10 weeks.“The idea is to ask academic departments to nominate their best and brightest undergraduates and set them up in internships with businesses and innovative organizations in San Francisco,” Berky says. “Participants will also take a seminar class featuring guest speakers who are leaders in their fields.”

Berky expects to expand the program’s curriculum next year and will invite Westmont and Christian College Consortium faculty to teach intensive courses over several weekends. “It’s been a challenge for us to revamp the program, develop a new mission statement and learning outcomes, and hone our message,” he says. “We find students increasingly interested in getting academic credit for substantial internships, which is what we offer. Alumni often tell us how much these experiences benefit them, giving them problem-solving skills and confidence.”

Limelight Shines on Solar Homes

Westmont’s Las Barrancas project was one of 97 honored by the City of Santa Barbara The Santa Barbara City Council recently recognized 97 projects at its Solar Design Recognition Awards Ceremony, including 40 homes in the Las Barrancas neighborhood. The neighborhood, one of the first completely to become solar in the county, houses Westmont’s faculty.

Russell Smelley, former president of the Las Barrancas Homeowners Association, Reed Sheard, vice president of advancement and information technology, and Ben Siebert, CEO of Planet Solar Inc., accepted the award at City Hall.

Fourteen of the homes in Las Barrancas were destroyed in the Tea Fire. Those homes were prepared for photovoltaic panels during reconstruction, and the other homes were retrofitted with brackets. “I am particularly pleased that the community was able to take this devastating event and turn it into something wonderfully sustainable,” Smelley says.

The city’s program promotes solar energy system installations and encourages aesthetically integrated designs. More information on the Solar Design Recognition Program and Solar Design Guidelines is available at: www.Santabarbaraca.gov/Resident/Home/Guidelines.

New Students Take a Hike Before Class

For 36 years Inoculum has challenged incoming students to push themselves physically, intellectually and spiritually.

This year, 16 first-year students, representing states from Hawaii to Massachusetts, enrolled in Inoculum, a unique orientation program at Westmont. For 12 days in August they trekked through the North Yosemite backcountry, earning several units of academic and physical education credit.

During breaks from backpacking they discussed “Serve God, Save the Planet” by Matthew Sleeth. They’ll also write a paper about the book later in the semester.

Few schools offer courses like Inoculum. “It’s a unique and powerful experience to think about environmental stewardship in the beauty of the high Sierra,” says Tom Knecht, assistant professor of political science.

Alumnus Dave Willis created the program in 1974. The coordinator of Sierra Treks, which builds Christian faith through wilderness experiences, Willis continues to lead Inoculum. Knecht and Eileen McMahon, assistant professor of biology, were the faculty leaders this year. Tom Fikes, associate professor of psychology, has been involved with the program since 1998 and joined the group during the excursion as a trekking guide.

“Eleven days in the backcountry is not for everyone, but students gain so much,” says McMahon, an Inoculum veteran. “You work hard to carry that heavy pack up the mountain pass and are rewarded with the incredible view of snow-capped mountains and crystal blue sky unfolding before you as far as the distant horizon. You struggle to understand thought-provoking readings and are rewarded with rich, deep conversation around the campfire under millions of glittering stars. Students may never get another opportunity like this.”

Many students say the best part of the trip is the solitude and contemplation away from cell phones and social networking.

“One memorable moment for me was watching a student who was afraid of heights make it to the top of the 12,000-foot Tower Peak we climb in Yosemite,” McMahon says. “There are quite a few challenging parts. We were wearing helmets and were roped in. When the student was particularly scared, all the others rallied around her, cheering her on. One took her hand. Another pointed to exactly where she should plant her feet or grab a hand-hold on a rock. Others positioned themselves right downhill so she knew someone could catch her if she slipped. It was beautiful to watch how they all worked as a team and cared for one another. There was much cheering as she made it to the top.”

Out of the Ashes, Faculty Homes Go Solar

A worker installs a solar panel[/caption]Workers are installing photovoltaic panels on the roofs of 40 Westmont faculty homes in the Las Barrancas neighborhood, the first fully solar community and largest residential project in Santa Barbara County. These photovoltaic panels convert solar radiation into direct current electricity, generating more than 157,000 kilowatt hours each year. The panels will satisfy the electrical needs of the entire neighborhood while eliminating more than three thousand tons of carbon dioxide from the environment. Ben Siebert, CEO of Planet Solar Inc. in Santa Barbara, says that’s the equivalent of removing more than 10 million car miles off the roads over 25 years of service.

“Westmont has been an important and valued influence in our community and is continuing its leadership by spearheading this project,” Siebert says. “We’re hoping that other communities will do the same. Together, we really can reverse global warming.”

The 14 homes that were destroyed in the Tea Fire were prepared for the panels during reconstruction, and the other homes have been retrofitted with brackets. Russell Smelley, Las Barrancas Homeowners Association president, says it was an important environmental step for the community. “The people liked the green nature of the project,” he says. “In a year from now the utility company will begin paying people for the solar energy. We wanted to do a great project for the whole neighborhood.”

Seibert says the solar panels will last forever, although the inverters, which cost about $2,000, will need to be replaced about every 15 years. Seibert, who installed his first solar project in 1983, says the Las Barrancas project’s carbon dioxide reduction equates to 52 acres of fully grown trees.

Westmont officials praise Santa Barbara city and county planners and building officials for expediting the reconstruction of more than 200 buildings and homes that were destroyed in the November 2008 blaze. Seibert says the Santa Barbara Community Environmental Council (CEC) has been instrumental in assisting solar projects in this city. “Santa Barbara is the birthplace of Earth Day and has always been an environmentally friendly city — the only city with a Fossil Free by 33 policy,” Seibert says.

The CEC, which runs the Fossil Free by 33 program in Santa Barbara, has set an ambitious goal for the region to become carbon neutral by 2033. Community-supported energy is a major component of the CEC’s detailed plan that includes medium-scale solar, wind and possibly ocean energy projects.

Goats Eat Their Way Through Westmont Brush

Brush GoatsWestmont hired brush-eating goats in August to clear defensible space around the campus, better protecting the college from future wildfires. Brush Goats 4 Hire, a Santa Barbara County company, delivered a herd of penned goats that chewed their way through several areas targeted by the Montecito Fire Department.

Troy Harris, Westmont director of risk management, says the goats have been a success on other fire department-monitored work in Montecito. “Each year the college takes an active role in reducing the brush fuel load on campus, removing large quantities of underbrush,” Harris says. “The recent fires have demonstrated the importance of such efforts.”

Fire officials targeted three areas where the goats reduced flammable foliage: west and north of Page Hall, south of the bridge on La Paz Road, and just above the northwest corner of Chelham Way.

Harris says the goats are an environmentally friendly alternative to clearing brush. “The goats naturally fertilize the soil, assisting with erosion control,” he says. “We don’t have to use chemical weed abatements. The goats are also much quieter than weed whackers, chippers, or bulldozers.”

The goats, kept within electric-fenced pens and monitored by surveillance cameras, will eat poison oak, chaparral and other plant growth. The animals are also protected by predator control dogs responsible for guarding against wild animals entering the pens.

Cooking Up a Winning Plan

David Newton SOLutions Corporation was voted Best New Venture Opportunity before a crowd of more than 70 at the 20th annual Westmont Collegiate Entrepreneurs Business Plan Competition Dec. 10. The company will sell an inexpensive, innovative parabolic-design solar cooker for Third World homes. Eventually, SOLutions hopes to target the U.S. backpack, beach and camping markets.

Four student ventures presented their start-up business plans in front of a distinguished panel of outside reviewers. The winning student venture includes Sammy Acosta of Saticoy, Calif., Michael Giusti of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Garrett Floyd of Anchorage, Alaska.

TripCurrent, which provides real-time, online referral social-networking for students travelling in Europe, won second place. Third place went to City Farm Center, which will launch an inner-city organic farm and produce market with an emphasis on sustainable education. The competition is part of the Entrepreneurship and New Venture Development course at Westmont, taught by Dr. David Newton, professor of entrepreneurial finance, who founded the college’s entrepreneurship program in 1990.

The four-judge panel, which engaged in detailed critique and analysis with the aspiring entrepreneurs, included: Eli Eisenberg of Straight-Line Management in Agoura Hills; Barry Fay, president of Santa Barbara-based Aqua-Flo; Susan Block, an investment banker with Block-Bowman & Associates; and Jason Spievak, principal in Great Pacific Capital and founder-CEO of RingRevenue.

The ventures will now be further refined and updated based on the judging panel’s feedback and then submitted to collegiate business plan events around the country, including the 7th Annual SEED National Collegiate Venture Forum in Santa Barbara in spring 2010. Since the founding of the entrepreneurship program in 1990, 24 Westmont student ventures have been selected for national business plan competitions and venture forums, including one national first place and seven top-10 finishes.

Four New Buildings Earn LEED Gold

Winter Hall is one of four new buildings to earn LEED awards The U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit trade organization that promotes sustainability in building design and operation, has certified four new Westmont buildings as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold. The LEED designations highlight the sustainable construction and energy-saving systems used at Winter Hall for Science and Mathematics, Adams Center for the Visual Arts, the central plant and the observatory.

Randy Jones, Westmont director of campus planning, says the college has always been committed to sustainable construction and energy-savings methods.

“We were pleased by the LEED Gold certifications,” Jones says. “It shows the community that we are serious about being good stewards of the environment. These buildings are very efficient and will have many long-term, positive impacts on the campus for years to come.

Instead of installing huge mechanical systems, Jones says architect Ken Radtkey wanted to design a more natural system. “Our points aren’t based on a design utilizing an exceptionally technical system,” Jones says. “In fact, all the buildings have many spaces that are naturally ventilated and lighted.”

The council’s praise isn’t solely focused on the buildings. The college scored points for its innovative design and development of the site. “It’s a program that sets individual buildings into a larger campus system, incorporating native plants and water-efficient landscaping so that everything works together,” Jones says.

The analysis noted the college’s restoration of habitats, capturing of storm water and reduction of light pollution. Workers also recycled construction waste and other materials. The college chose carpets, paints and adhesives that are environmentally-friendly.

“All those things make Westmont a unique place,” Jones says. “This is a reflection of simply taking care of the land. It’s not a burden — it’s something we’re delighted to do.”

Others are beginning to take notice of the green buildings. Jones spoke to Westmont’s student-led environmental club. Plaques will soon be installed at the buildings, calling people’s attention to the awards. “Because we have four LEED buildings on campus, some design professionals are interested in using them as teaching tools and have asked to come and tour the campus,” Jones says.

Winter Hall is a three-level structure that encompasses 48,000 square feet of classrooms, offices and laboratories. The center of the structure is open so natural light can cascade down to all levels.

Adams Center, which houses the Westmont Museum of Art, is a three-level structure nestled into the hillside just below the library. The 31,000-square-foot building extends from west to east, allowing the classrooms, studios and offices to be naturally lighted and ventilated. Both Winter and Adams feature landscaped roof decks.

Green Energy Partner Becomes a Trustee
Tim Keith, a private equity investor based in New York and a partner in two green businesses, has joined the Westmont Board of Trustees. He has served on Westmont’s Board of Advisors since 2005, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and business at Westmont in 1987.

Until March 2010, Keith was global chief executive officer for RREEF Infrastructure Investments in New York, overseeing investment in transportation and utility infrastructure assets such as seaports, toll roads and energy-distribution and renewable energy generation companies. He has more than 13 years experience managing public and private companies globally and more than two decades of experience in real estate, infrastructure and private equity investing.

Previously, he served as CEO of Cabot Industrial Trust after its privatization and de-listing, and he helped take his first target company public as Meridian Industrial Trust, becoming regional vice president for the Southeast. He worked in real estate companies in Phoenix, joined Arthur Andersen as a real estate consultant in New York and Dallas, and was hired by Hunt Realty to invest venture capital in real estate companies.

“We greatly appreciate the expertise Tim brings to the board,” says Westmont President Gayle D. Beebe. “With his extensive background in investment, finance and management and his broad global experience and exposure, he contributes essential skills to the financial oversight of the college. As an alumnus, he loves the college and understands the heart of the Westmont experience and the qualities that make our education so distinctive.”

“I am passionate about helping Westmont shape its future and thrive in our challenging economic climate,” Keith says.

His start-up firms are environmental infrastructure businesses focused on reducing the volume of waste entering landfills. One, R-GEN Systems LLC, is a waste-to-energy company that uses the residual from household and commercial waste to generate electricity. The other, Green Nation Group, captures recyclable materials from waste headed to landfills.

“Westmont taught me to think critically and solve complex problems,” Keith says. “Those skills have allowed me to see the big picture, understand markets and take advantage of opportunities. I also learned that being a leader involves stepping forward and being willing to take risks and to make decisions in difficult situations.”

Student Seeks Sustainable Stewardship

Outreach on Campus, Connections to Environmental Groups and a Semester Abroad Help a Westmont Student Learn Sustainability

Anthony WaldropAnthony Waldrop ’11 reflects his love for God through his stewardship of the environment, and he is passionate about caring for creation. Professor Jeff Schloss describes him as “one of the most engaged, active earth stewards we’ve ever had on campus.”

A biology major from Bakersfield, Calif., Anthony is spending a semester studying in Costa Rica. He received a Goble Fellowship Scholarship to participate in the program and learn more about environmentalism.

Family outings during his childhood exposed him to many inspiring examples of nature. “Being able to experience the majestic sequoia trees and vast expanses of wilderness instilled in me a desire to see these places preserved for all generations,” he says. “I think some of our strongest emotions surface when we experience God’s power in creation. Hence, it is imperative that we figure out how to live sustainably.”

During his first year on campus, Anthony joined the Westmont Earth Ministry, devoted to encouraging students to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. By the following semester, he had become a leader of A Rocha, which fosters a Biblical view of environmental stewardship through education and service.

In fall 2008, Anthony traveled to a summit at Eastern University held by Renewal, a Christian creation care network for students, which trained him to better engage the campus in discussions about environmental issues. “Westmont has allowed me to connect with many organizations around the country, helping me foster my leadership in this area,” he says.

A Rocha Westmont has established the Westmont Community Garden, promoted sustainable activities, helped restore local habitats, and popularized a recycling video game for students.

Anthony seeks a career that will allow him to foster healthy relationships between people and the rest of creation. “I want to help humans better integrate with nature so we can see how connected we are with all of God’s creation,” he says. “I am leaning toward working as a native plants landscaper, helping people design yards that are not only beautiful, but provide habitats for naturally occurring organisms in the area.”

Anthony says Westmont’s philosophy of being good stewards of all God has given us has supported his development as a leader in protecting the environment.

Video Game Aims to Teach about Recycling

Rudy's Recycling Roundup As part of Creation Care Week at Westmont, staff members Joel Patterson, recycling pickup administrator, and Phil Walton, Web content editor, created an online educational video game about recyclable materials. Rudy’s Recycling Roundup was launched April 7. Sophomore philosophy major Daniel Clotfelter had the high score when the competition ended on Earth Day and won a gift certificate to local restaurant Silvergreens.

Patterson approached Walton in the fall of 2008 with the idea to create a video game as an ongoing effort to find new and creative ways to better inform the Westmont community about what can and cannot be recycled. “Many people on campus are unaware that most disposable coffee cups are non-recyclable,“ Patterson says.

Walton, the game’s designer, uses recognizable Westmont backgrounds and themes throughout, while Patterson wrote all the music. The object of the game is to help Rudy, the recycle bin, collect as many recyclable as possible while avoiding non-recyclables. The game keeps track of player’s high scores in hopes that competition will spur more playing.

The day after the game was released, Westmont’s Physical Plant Web site was the most viewed departmental Web page on campus, helping students become more aware of the other services the department offers. Since then, the game has been played more than 5,000 times.

The game can be found at: http://www.westmont.edu/rudy

Getting Dirty for Day of Caring

Students Serving at Day of CaringA record number of Westmont students spent Saturday morning, Sept. 20, pulling weeds, planting trees, spreading mulch and picking up trash during the United Way’s Day of Caring. More than 140 students pitched in, joined by several Westmont faculty and staff: Lesa Stern, associate professor of communication studies; Laura Wilson, secretary; Joy Johnson, administrative assistant; Heidi Henes-Van Bergen, secretary; and Karen Sloan, administrative assistant. Sloan was the volunteer coordinator for the college for the second year. She says residence directors Jon Young and Daniel Clapp were the ones who rallied the troops.

“They were so enthusiastic and have really embraced the Day of Caring,” Sloan says. “They were very eager and wanted to revisit Dos Pueblos High School where they were last year.”

Other groups went to pick up trash at West Beach, East Beach and Butterfly Beach.

Sloan says the large group at Dos Pueblos was finishing its landscaping assignment when the school’s track coach approached them. He was working by himself to get the football field ready before Friday’s first historic home football game.

“So we went over and helped him weed, water and pick up trash at the field,” Sloan says.

Sophomore Rachel Penner says she enjoyed the work. “I was reminded when we were planting trees how important it is for us all to take care of God’s creation.”

President Gayle D. Beebe attended the kick-off breakfast held at the Page Youth Center, where Westmont received an ovation for once again having the largest number of volunteers, this time a record for the United Way of Santa Barbara County.

More than a thousand volunteers, including Supervisor Salud Carbajal, served at 50 non-profit agencies around Santa Barbara County.

Living Off the Land

Patrick Zentz ‘69 Patrick Zentz ’69 has lived off the land as a rancher and artist. Raised on a Montana plateau encompassed by mountains, he has passed most of his life in that sparse place, herding cattle, driving tractors and creating art that interacts with the natural world. His eclectic sculptures emerge from his environment, translating temperature and wind into movement, sound and design. “The pieces are simple conceptually but hard to explain unless you see them,” Patrick says. The art is purely personal, differing for every viewer. Photographs can’t capture the elements at play; the sculptures require presence for comprehension. Over more than 20 years, Patrick has compiled a lengthy list of commissions, exhibits and professional activities. He is best known for his large, public works, but he also creates pieces for galleries and small studio works for collectors and museums.

A biology major at Westmont, Patrick became seriously interested in art as a student. After studying kinetics, botany and zoology, he realized he was more intrigued with interaction between systems than in systems themselves — and with movement, an essential part of interaction. Professor Tom Soule encouraged him to embrace art to pursue this passion. After graduating, he and his wife, Suzie Hedley Zentz ’69, moved to Montana, where he earned a master of fine arts degree in sculpture at the University of Montana.

After six years of teaching, Patrick returned to his roots and leased a ranch close to his childhood home. Working the land provided profound inspiration for his art. One day, while he and Suzie were plowing, a flat tire forced him to shut down his tractor and wait for her to find him. “I noticed that the wind was blowing in such a way that it drifted the engine noise of her tractor away, but I could hear the cultivator shanks hitting rocks in the field,” he says. “It struck me that the plonking and plinking I was hearing was a translation of the landscape. The natural position of the rocks in the field was like a musical score that the moving cultivator was playing. I had been designing instruments that interacted with the environment in various ways . . . but this little epiphany with sound changed everything. Sound and motion are tightly linked. My work was set.”

One of his early pieces, Heliotrope at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Alumni Center, illustrates his approach. The sculpture tracks solar phenomena (wind, temperature and seasons) and reflects changing conditions with light, sound and images. When a secretary told Patrick the sculpture let her know whether to put on sunglasses or a coat when leaving the building, he knew the piece had become a translator, bringing the effects of the environment inside. Later projects translate pedestrian motion on the street or movement through building hallways into the play of drums.

Patrick says ranching was a great way to raise his sons. “They learn what work is, what matters and the importance of ecology.” The youngest, a bareback bronc rider for the University of Montana, majors in geology and minors in ceramics, the middle son is a sportswriter in Boise, Idaho, and the oldest is a training coordinator for an energy services company. The Zentzes have five grandchildren.

Since he devotes all his time to commissions, Patrick no longer ranches, and he has recreated his land by reseeding it with native prairie grasses, carefully noting the ways it has changed. He hopes to hold symposia there to explore another interaction: the relationship between art, ecology and global geopolitics.

Care of the Word

I was talking recently about stewardship of global resources with a young man who is hoping to make a career in environmental law. We considered the fate of water, soil, animal and plant species, and food systems. In the wake of that invigorating conversation I found myself musing on the similar problems that beset another precious shared resource: words. Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Like any other resource, it needs the protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship.

Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another. We need to take the metaphor of nourishment seriously in choosing what we “feed on” in our hearts, and how to make our conversation life-giving. A large, almost sacramental, sense of what words do can be found in early English usage where “conversation” appears to have been a term that included and implied much more than it does now: to converse was to foster community, to commune with, to dwell in a place with others. Conversation was understood to be a life-sustaining practice, a blessing, and a craft to be cultivated for the common good. A quaint poem by Edward Taylor offers some sense of this large notion of conversation: developing the image of the self as God’s “spinning wheel,” he prays, “and make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee. My conversation make to be thy Reele.” (Taylor, 343) The business of guiding rough strands pulled from the gathered wool gently into the grooves where they may become fine thread suggests a rich idea of conversation as right, skillful, careful, economical use of what God and nature have provided for our use and protection.

To call upon another analogy, if language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it in the way good farmers care for the life of the soil, knowing nothing worth eating can be grown in soil that has been used up, overfertilized, or exposed, infested with toxic chemicals. The comparison is pertinent, timely, and precise, and urgent.

Not that the state of language is a matter for despair: there is much to celebrate in our verbal environment: poets are featured on public radio; dozens of versions of the English Bible are in print; Garrison Keillor is still telling stories and “pretty good jokes”; bilingual poets are stretching and enriching public discourse; Billy Collins and Toni Morrison are very likely at their keyboards even as we speak. Libraries offer programs for preschoolers, bookstores still stock Shakespeare, and every summer there’s a theater festival somewhere nearby. PBS and Pacifica radio still feature articulate analysts. The sheer availability of words, written, spoken, and sung, is historically unprecedented.

But as venues for the spoken and written word abound, so do the varieties of language abuse: propaganda, imprecision, clichés and cant. Warnings about the consequences of language abuse have been issued before. George Orwell in 1946 and George Steiner in 1959 lamented the way language, co-opted and twisted to serve corporate, commercial, and political agendas, could lose its resiliency, utility, and beauty. Their arguments are still widely cited. Orwell claims, for instance, “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 157)

This description, like Orwell’s ominous vision of “newspeak” as part of a program of mind control in “1984,” may have an unsettling ring of familiarity. In a similar vein, but rather more bleakly, George Steiner reflects on what actually happened to the German language under the Third Reich. “The language was infected not only with . . . great bestialities. It was called upon to enforce innumerable falsehoods, to persuade the Germans that the war was just and everywhere victorious. As defeat closed in . . . the lies thickened to a constant snowdrift. . . . ”

He goes on to comment, “Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness . . . . But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during 12 years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. . . . Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.” (Steiner, “Language and Silence,” 100-101)

Steiner makes two other points worth mentioning about the consequences of language abuse: as usable words are lost, experience becomes cruder and less communicable. And, with the loss of subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language — the failure of the social contract we count on when we speak — we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power.

Remote as we may think we are from the horrors of the German propaganda machine, the applicability of Steiner’s concern to the condition of contemporary American English may be obvious upon reflection. The generation of students coming through universities now expect to be lied to. They know about “spin” and about the profiteering agendas of corporate advertising. They have grown used to the flippant, incessantly ironic banter that passes for conversation in the media and many learn to avoid positive claims by verbal backpedaling: “like” before every clause that might threaten to make a distinction one might argue with, and “whatever” after approximations that never reach solid declarative ground. They also recognize, because these corruptions have been so pervasive in their short lifetimes, how much political discourse consists of ad hominem argument, accusation, smear campaigns, hyperbole, broken promises, distortions, and lies. If they’re reading mainstream magazines and papers or watching network television, they are receiving a daily diet of euphemisms, overgeneralizations, and evasions that pass for political and cultural analysis. Though they are being taught in classrooms to be critical of empty rhetoric and unsupported claims, the debased currency of public discourse is overwhelmingly available to them, and so their own access to reliable language is diminished and uncertain. They need our help.

We can help by caring for words. We need to mean what we say. We need to reclaim words that have been colonized and held hostage by commercial and political agencies that have riddled them with distorted meanings. As speakers of English, we are still abundantly equipped for the task. Simply in terms of number of available words English is one of the richest languages in the world. (To point this out is not to suggest there is less value in other languages; we need them; each of them does something English can’t.) My intention here is primarily to address readers who speak and read English most of the time, so I will focus primarily on the responsibilities of speakers of English, though the general challenge to stewardship of language applies to any speaker on earth.

The number of words in English is over a million today. An average educated person knows about 20,000 words and uses about 2000 in a week. More than half the world’s technical and scientific periodicals and three quarters of the world’s mail are in English. About 80 percent of the information stored in the world’s computers is in English. English is transmitted to more than 100 million people a day by the five largest broadcasting companies.

But consider these facts about Americans who speak English:

  • At least 50 percent of the unemployed are functionally illiterate. (U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics)
  • The average kindergarten student has seen more than 5,000 hours of television, having spent more time in front of the TV than it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. (Laubach Literacy Action)
  • 27 percent of Army enlistees can’t read training manuals written at the seventh-grade level. (American Council of Life Insurance)
  • 44 percent� of all American adults do not read one book in the course of a year. (Literacy Volunteers of America)

Evidence for Orwell’s claim that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” (not to mention political and economic consequences) appears to be abundant. Avoiding that decline requires focused and sustained activism.

To maintain usable and reliable language — to be good stewards of words — we have at least to do these three things: 1) to deepen and sharpen our reading skills, 2) to cultivate habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity, and 3) to practice poesis — to be makers and doers of the word. For these purposes we need regularly to exercise the tongue and the ear: to indulge in word play, to delight in metaphor, to practice specificity and accuracy, to listen critically and refuse clichés and sound bites that substitute for authentic analysis. Such deliberate focus on language is not an elitist enterprise. With over 26 million functionally illiterate people in this country, those of us who voluntarily and regularly pick up books, newspapers, and Bibles do, in fact, belong to a privileged group. Our job is not to eschew that privilege, but to use it for the sake of the whole.

I want to suggest some practices that may help to retrieve, revive, and renew our precious language resources; there are effective ways to do so. But if we may postpone the pleasure of positive thinking for a few more paragraphs, it may be pertinent to name more specifically than above the most pervasive problems we currently face in public discourse and mass media. As Thomas Hardy says, “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (Hardy, “In Tenebris,”168).

Think about the kinds of language abuse to which we have become accustomed — perhaps so accustomed, we cease to be offended by them: thoughtless hyperbole, unexamined metaphors, slogans and sound bites, grammatical confusion, ungrounded abstractions, overstatement, and blather. Consider, for example, how often a new product or enterprise is touted as the “best ever,” every program “really exciting,” or every child’s effort “terrific.” Or how words like “wonderful,” “great,” “fantastic,” “incredible” and — most regrettably — “awesome” have progressively lost not only their original meanings, but their precision and impact by dint of a kind of verbal promiscuity. Consider, too, widely marketed expressions that confuse important issues, for instance, the much bandied threat to “smoke” the enemy “out of their holes,” or the appropriation of “family” to describe a corporation’s workforce. Or the description of war as a “job” we have to finish.

The more candid among those who work for network news media will acknowledge that they are driven by the sound bite and by an audience conditioned to a shrinking attention span: many newspapers write to a fourth-grade reading level and so train readers to expect nothing more challenging. This editorial policy entails radical abbreviation of what needs careful qualification and creates a public who take their cues from, and sometimes stop at, headlines. (It might give us pause to remember that 19th century newspapers didn’t have headlines — only columns of print that left the reader to sort out what was important in the course of reading.)

As words fall into disuse, the experiences they articulate become, themselves, less accessible. Think of the wide middle range of experience recalled in Jane Austen’s novels with their rich vocabulary of nuance and fine distinction — words like agreeable, amiable, affable, genial, and kind — all sounding different affective tonalities. With the loss of such subtleties, and of careful grammatical distinctions (slippage in subject-verb agreement, misplaced apostrophes, inconsistency of tenses — mistakes that undermine clarity), we become more confined to the kinds of broad strokes that make us careless and so make us care less. Text-messaging has rapidly eroded concern for spelling and punctuation and trains millions of users to be content to trade subtlety for speed. Movements and policies and points of view that deserve explanation are too often summarily accepted or dismissed by a kind of automatic sort-and-sift response to code labels and words that end with an “ism.”

With all this slippage comes a diminished range of allusion, a loss disturbingly documented in E.D. Hirsch’s controversial book “Cultural Literacy.” (I have found, for instance, that in many undergraduate classes I have to explain the origins of terms like “luddite” or “pyrrhic victory” or even “sacrificial lamb.” Few Americans now take enough Latin or Greek, or modern foreign languages, to have even a vestigial awareness of the etymological layers of meaning that enrich the words they use.

We inflict corrosive kinds of irony even upon the very young: from Sesame Street onward, sarcasm, mild insults, and ironic banter take the place of story or sustained conversation. We allow many of the brightest among us to isolate and insulate themselves behind walls of technical, professional, and academic jargon. Higher education and academic degrees don’t necessarily equip leaders to sustain functional democracy by speaking to the people with clarity, precision, and accuracy. Rather academics often become preoccupied with conversations conducted within and for the benefit of an exclusive guild.

Within the business community and beyond, we have normalized the language of investment and profit. Self-interest and increase pervade not only “motivational” seminars in the workplace, but even churches’ evangelical campaigns. The marketing language that tends to dominate descriptions of human interaction in a capitalist economy makes us all vulnerable to a habit of mind that obscures or decentralizes a much deeper understanding of the gift character of all that is, and our familial relationship to all life and especially to each other. We lose at great cost common expressions that remind us that some things cannot be bought and sold.

Normalizing the language of the marketplace within the academy and the church confuses and ultimately subverts our deepest purposes: in the one case, to promote critical thought and exchange of ideas free from coercion by those in positions of political or economic power, in the other to call people to something so radically different from the terms and paradigms of this world that it can only be spoken of in the variegated, complex, much-translated, much-pondered, prayerfully interpreted language of texts that have kept generations of people of faith kneeling at the threshold of unspeakable mystery and love beyond telling.

So what are the alternatives? Market language is the dominant idiom of the culture. By way of an answer, let me return to the ecological analogy. Like the food industry, the fuel industries, and the high-tech industries that make up the infrastructures we inhabit, the political, economic, and social systems in which the word industry is enmeshed shape its ends and to a very large degree control its means. We are all involved in those systems. Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and intention to find, buy, eat and support the production of organic foods, it is a strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.

The sheer volume of use is a language issue comparable to increased use of electricity, land, and fossil fuels. I have surveyed students regularly over the past several years as to how much silence they experience in the course of a day. Upwards of 90 percent now claim they do all their studying to background music or in the presence of background conversation. Many of them multitask as they study, fielding instant text messages and cell phone calls while at work on papers that too often exhibit the superficial thought and repetitive, imprecise language that is the inevitable result of work done under such conditions. In other words, their environment is glutted with words, sung, spoken, written, to be consumed thoughtlessly like disposable products, often as buffers against the pain of thought or the spiritual strenuousness of silence.

I don’t say this to blame them for these practices. Many of them, despite what I describe, are thoughtfully seeking a way through the morass. But they have been a “target market” their whole lives — literally victims of forces so large, relentless, and skillfully camouflaged, many of them still have no sense that they are being used and abused by those who define and market privilege.

Just as they have never known a world without abundant electrical energy and electronic conveniences, so they have enjoyed less silence in their media-saturated world than any previous generation. When I teach Jane Austen, I pause over a description of the Bennett sisters’ hearing the sound of horses’ hooves a mile away and ask students to try to imagine the ambient silences of the early 19th century where sounds were discrete and distinct, and the sounds of the natural world were not obscured by white noise. The point is this: because these students hear so many words so constantly, their capacities to pause over words, ponder them, reflect upon them, hear the echoes of ancient cadences, and attune themselves to allusiveness and alliteration, are eroding.

This brings me directly to my final point in this darkly diagnostic reflection. Those of us who preach and teach and minister to each other — which includes all of us seeking actively to be the Body of Christ in the world — need to focus on the word — on words — more explicitly, intentionally, and caringly as part of the practice of our trade. It is a kind of activism, necessary and urgent, to resist newspeak, to insist on precision and clarity, to love the bald statement, the long sentence, the particular example, the extended definition, the specifics of story, and the legacy of language we carry in our pocket Bibles and on the shelf in Shakespeare. We are in the business of working for the kingdom, and that means to be stewards of the treasures that have been put into our keeping. We’re not doing too well with fossil fuels and wetlands. I commend those causes to you as well — but along with them, conversation itself — the long conversation that is the warp and woof of civil and communal life.

Peter’s admonition to “be sober, be watchful” (I Peter 5:8) applies to this enterprise. Noticing how things are put, noticing what is being left out or subverted, takes an active habit of mind. But what is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, whose robe is the light, whose canopy space, who also became the “word within a word, unable to speak a word,” has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues.

So let me end by commending to you a short list of stewardship strategies that may make a vital difference in our life together. How to implement them is worth considerable conversation: May all our words, and our silences, be gifts to one another.

This article is reprinted with permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., which will present “Care of the Word” in spring 2008.

Marilyn McEntyre, who earned a doctorate in English at Princeton University, joined the English faculty at Westmont in 1996. She has written numerous books, including three volumes of poetry reflecting on the art of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh.

More Than 100 Pitch In for Day of Caring

KelloggTeam3.jpgWestmont once again had the largest team of volunteers at the United Way’s 15th annual Day of Caring. About 115 students, faculty and staff spent their Saturday morning volunteering at North Kellogg Open Space and Ellwood School.

Last year, Westmont’s team had more than 90 volunteers take part in Day of Caring, Santa Barbara County’s biggest single-day volunteer event.

Resident Director Daniel Clapp and Resident Assistants Lizzy LeRud, Ryan Caddell and Kirsten Holshausen rounded up the record number of students.

This year the largest group of Westmont volunteers helped Goleta Valley Beautiful create a walking path along San Jose Creek. About 100 volunteers filled three Marborg-donated roll off dumpsters with green waste.

The other group of Westmont volunteers painted, landscaped and cleaned Ellwood School. Chris Call, vice president for administration, says Ryan Jorden, assistant professor of kinesiology and assistant men’s soccer coach, provided a big boost when he arrived with the men’s soccer team.

“They did the major work of hauling and distributing mulch for the landscaping all over the school,” he says.

Faculty members included Jorden, Andrea Gurney, Eileen McMahon and Michael Shasberger, who brought his daughter, Rebecca.

Staff members included Call, Darla McDavid, Lori Call, Abbey Fragosa, Joy Johnson and Kristal Keinert.

Westmont Embraces Day of Caring

More than 90 volunteers from Westmont will put on sunscreen and work gloves Saturday morning. They’ll spend the day volunteering at several charitable organizations in Santa Barbara County as part of United Way’s Day of Caring. More than a thousand people are expected to take part in the county-wide effort, painting, gardening and sorting for over 40 charitable organizations. Last year, Westmont sent a team of 52 people. This year, thanks to a huge student response, Westmont is expecting 93 volunteers. Resident assistants Caley Coulson and Jaclyn Grant from Armington and Emerson Halls helped round up 80 students for the Day of Caring.

You’ll be able to find Westmont volunteers: painting shelters for Domestic Violence Solutions for Santa Barbara County; working with Goleta Valley Beautiful at the entrance to Winchester Canyon; sorting donated goods for Hurricane Katrina victims through Operation Pack a Suitcase; washing cars and cleaning the grounds at Alpha Resource Center; and reading aloud at Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic Inc. Volunteers will meet at Page Youth Center at 8 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 17, for a kick-off breakfast and then spend the next five hours at their assignment.