A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
April 13, 2006 Volume 36 / Number 7


Barry Lopez: One Man’s Difference

“The stakes have never been so high for Homo sapiens,” said renowned nature writer Barry Lopez during his March 30 visit to campus. Lopez was here as the first speaker for the On the Creek lecture series. He met with students, faculty, and deans, in addition to delivering an evening lecture.

In 2001, Lopez and E.O. Wilson, a Harvard biologist, designed a new undergraduate major for Texas Tech University’s Honors College. It combined studies in the sciences and humanities into a single degree program, the BA in Natural History and the Humanities.

In a meeting with deans and other program directors, Lopez talked specifically about the development of the major, its philosophical and scientific underpinnings, and its success thus far. The first 25 majors will graduate this spring.

Wilson had been approached about developing a program for TTU and requested that Lopez be invited to work with him. The program they set out to develop was in comparative epistemology, said Lopez. “Science is a way of knowing, and metaphorical knowledge is a way of knowing,” said Lopez. “I needed to be assured that metaphorical knowledge would not be treated as a lesser kind of truth before I committed.”

The purpose of this innovative major was to train students to be whole human beings—to be citizens that could enter the job market, not as someone’s employees, but as individuals who could speak to the ethical, social, political, and environmental ramifications of a corporation’s or institution’s policies and practices. It was to equip students to deal with the sustainability and environmental issues they would inevitably face as they entered the world of work.

TTU had administrative backing for the program: Texas Tech President Jon Whitmore said, “I want to make this university a citizen of this piece of land.” In addition to administrative backing, TTU provided faculty backing and financial backing, the three things needed to make a significant institutional change, said Lopez.

According to Lopez, TTU also made a commitment years before to keep their science programs grounded in the empirical world. The trend in biology had been toward molecular biology, said Lopez, with many research institutions giving up collections of species, eggs, and other biological artifacts. TTU bought these collections and now has one of the largest collections of such specimens in the world.

The importance of this commitment, said Lopez, is that it is a commitment to equip students to “promulgate policy and law” based on what is going on in the environment.

Lopez and Wilson worked to eliminate barriers to looking at science and humanities as more different than they are, said Lopez. Science, he asserted, is as “fully imagined” as creative work in the humanities. And, likewise, the humanities should be grounded in empirical experience and knowledge of the natural world.

The program was formed around four initiatives:

  • Natural history, so that students would have an understanding of the biological implications of human behavior
  • Ethics, so that students would have the tools to approach ethical questions surrounding the impact of decisions and behavior
  • Water, as it is a primary environmental issue in the Lubbock area (as in the world), pitting farmers against hydrologists
  • Southwestern history, to acknowledge the importance of the historical relationship of human beings to the land, including native people and generations of ranchers and farmers

As part of his agreement to help Wilson develop the program, Lopez, who credits his apprenticeship to people of wisdom in indigenous cultures for much of his education, asked that young people from the Kiowa and Comanche tribes be able to attend the university at no cost. All it would take would be the approval of the elders in their tribe.

The importance of the program at TTU is that it is part of a movement to literally rebuild Western civilization, said Lopez. “The involvement of native peoples is critical—they offer tremendous social power and hope,” said Lopez. He thinks that the changes that are necessary to restore the landscape, create justice, and develop the right relationship to the land depend on “breaking down resistance that keeps destructive systems institutionalized. The humanities—dancing, painting, theatre—often serve to break down this resistance to changes needed for human survival.”

Lopez’s involvement with TTU is multifaceted. In 2003, he was appointed as the university’s first Visiting Distinguished Scholar, a position that formally organized a variety of projects he was working on. One project is the creation of a presentation for fall 2006 with Whitmore and others to promote reconciliation with the Kiowa and Comanche. The point, said Lopez, “is to dramatize the power of our conviction and the sincerity of our motives in effecting change and recognizing the injustices of the past.”

The university holds Lopez’s archival materials and its Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library has created a 26-panel traveling exhibit, The Working Writer, based on the materials.

Lopez visits Texas Tech twice annually and meets regularly with students majoring in the Natural History and Humanities degree program.

—Kathleen McPartland