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  • Dr. Short

Education for a world in transition

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks as I have been very busy designing a new lifelong learning climate literacy course for Sterling College. The course will be offered asynchronously online, a-la-carte style; I'll write more about it when it is ready to be released. I greatly admire the work that the people at Sterling do, and have done for decades, based on an educational philosophy that the most important thing for humans to learn starting out in life is that we are inextricably connected to the natural world; it is what keeps us alive on this planet.


An intimate understanding of ecology, earth systems, and our place within them is really what our educational system should be built around. Would we be facing the intersection of human and geologic time in the form of climate and ecological catastrophe right now if government and business leaders had earned degrees in Human Ecology? If they had to, as part of their formal education, learn how to grow organic food and care for farm animals? To harvest or slaughter, store or process, and cook that food for their community? To live in and be accountable to a community? I doubt it. Because every policy or business decision would have to be made in the context of living on a physically finite planet, informed by real, face-to-face interactions with humans, other animals, and the living systems that enable us to live here.


It strikes me that Sterling is a model for exactly what higher education needs to become, and quickly. I don't say this because I am collaborating with them- I am collaborating with them because they are practicing and building the future of education, for a world in transition. Philosophers of education understand this. As Zak Stein writes in his new book, Education in a Time Between Worlds:


"Our world is currently undergoing major transformations, from climate change and politics to agriculture and economics. The world we have known is disappearing and a new world is being born. The subjects taught in schools and universities today are becoming irrelevant at faster and faster rates. Not only are we facing complex challenges of unprecedented size and scope, we’re also facing a learning and capacity deficit that threatens the future of civilization."


Instead of treating climate literacy as a side dish to the main educational meal, as a 'green' caboose at the end of a business-as-usual train to a career in 'smart'-innovation/ investing/ extraction/growth, it must be the focus. Hiring more administrators to create 'eco-initiatives' within the same institutional structures will not aid in preparing students for their futures. Their futures will be unlike anything humanity has ever experienced, whether we in the global north manage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly or not. As Eric Hoffer wrote:


"In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."


Higher education as it stands now is in real danger of going the way of the dinosaurs (sans bolide impact), let alone not doing its professed job of preparing students to contribute to the world. When models for education such as Sterling's are brought up, they are all too often dismissed as utopian, unrealistic, or unscalable to the gigantic, mega-institutional size of many prominent universities today. This is a form of climate denial.


These are excuses to not consider fully the reality of what our world is facing: a literal existential crisis in the near-term, during the lives of those born today. I am not claiming that humans will go extinct in 40 years, not at all- but if the global north continues on its present path of unmitigated extraction and emissions, billions of people, animals, living things, will needlessly suffer and die. Judging by the geologic past, we will be on an irreversible path to extinction. At some point, the unfolding trauma of heatwaves, floods, fires, droughts, violence, and food and water shortages will preclude the desire or need for traditional higher education for many. Ahmed Afzaal describes the response of colleges and universities to our present world in transition as a lack of imagination:


"decision-makers have assumed that higher education’s leadership and management model is basically sound and need not be questioned, let alone changed in fundamental ways. They have assumed that better alternatives either don’t exist at all or, if they do, are too utopian for the real world. Any attempt to modify how colleges are run is futile, either because the current model cannot be improved upon or because the effort required is not worth it."


I would argue that, given what the scientific consensus says about climate science and our present climate and ecological emergencies, we have no logical choice but to strive for the utopian, to make the 'unrealistic' reality, to down-scale education until it fits in the safe planetary operating space for humanity. We need to fire up our sleepy imaginations and get to work. The effort required to move headlong into transformative change is really the only effort worth making.

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