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I applied for the position of Director General at my former college. This is my cover letter

Some readers of this blog will find some portions of this letter familiar, but I'm hoping that this will reach a larger audience and raise awareness about the urgent need for transformative change in higher education. You can find an edited-for-print version in Canadian Dimension. Please share both.

Photo by Z, Unsplash

Director General John Abbott College Cover letter, 16 Feb 2024


My vision for this CEGEP is guided by one question: What do students need from higher education at this extraordinary time to be a young human on this planet? If we base the answer to that question in scientific consensus, preparing students for their futures requires nothing short of “transformative systemic change in all aspects of society”(IPCC 2018). To put it perhaps more simply, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson has said: “There are now no non-radical futures,” and if we, as adults and educators in young people’s lives are to meet their needs, we must embrace and build radical systemic change, collective action, and emotional support into higher education.


I propose three initiatives to begin this scientifically- necessary transformation: 1) Mandatory climate literacy training for all employees, including the science behind the climate, ecological, and allied emergencies and what actions will meaningfully address them, with specialist psychological support and training. 2) A re-structuring of college governance to mirror the kinds of societal-level systemic change that needs to happen in order to address our multiple overlapping existential crises, such as participatory democracy and citizen’s assemblies that enable direct teacher and student involvement in all decision-making. And 3) A reorganization of the curriculum to centre a deep understanding of the Earth and ecological systems that allow us to live on this planet, how the industrial activity of a very small number of privileged humans has caused the boundaries of those systems to be spectacularly breached for all, and how our global economic/political system that extracts, subjugates, transacts, and accumulates by design is the common cause of our present climate-ecological crisis and our profound economic-racial-gender-social inequalities. Additionally, courses, departments and programs that train students to explicitly contribute to growth capitalism and the violence that sustains it will be eliminated, such as mainstream economics, marketing, and police tech, to be replaced by courses and programs in collective political action, change-making, and building communities of mutual aid.


More than just double-peer-reviewed physical science consensus demands these changes. Students are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety about their futures. Young people need the adults in their lives to meet them with honesty, openness, and courage in regard to the defining challenge of our time: the rapid and preventable breakdown of Earth’s climate and ecological systems. This is the message that I’ve heard from students through the 15+ years that I’ve taught them about Earth Systems and climate change. In my experience, what young people fundamentally need for their well-being is a framework of climate-literate support from all of the adults in their lives, and that especially includes their teachers. The message needs to be consistent and integrated across the curriculum and the college experience. Teaching students piecemeal about existential crises that they did not cause and that they will be most affected by, while absolving adults of the same education amounts to institutional gaslighting of the very people we are meant to serve, while we model the structures that have caused these crises, and prepare students for a future that will not exist.


This conclusion is supported by large-scale data from several recent studies looking into ‘eco-anxiety’ in young people that showed a majority of them were very or extremely worried about climate change (59%), and 84% were at least moderately worried about it. Perhaps more telling, is the source of young people’s eco-anxiety. A Lancet study found that climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses are widespread in young people in countries across the world and impacts their daily functioning. A perceived failure by governments to respond to the climate crisis is associated with increased distress. In this study ‘government’ referred to elected officials at the national level, but adult decision-makers in young peoples’ lives also fall into that category, because we have more agency to take meaningful action than they do. In a Canadian survey, young people rated governmental responses to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. 76% of young people reported that they believed that people have failed to take care of the planet – that means us adults – not them. The authors conclude with [emphasis mine]: “The data show that young Canadians need a diversity of coping supports and believe the formal education system should be doing more to support them.”


The implications of these studies are profound, and should inform our decisions about how to transform higher education to meet the needs of our students. The conclusions of the Lancet study summarize the data well [text in brackets are my additions]:


“Distress about climate change is associated with young people perceiving that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, …and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults. Climate change and government [adult] inaction are chronic stressors that could have considerable, long-lasting, and incremental negative implications for the mental health of children and young people. …The failure of governments [adults] to adequately address climate change and the impact on younger generations potentially constitutes moral injury.”


We cannot address young people’s distress about their futures if we have an educational system that is operating in the mold that cast it over 50 years ago. The world was completely different then. If we had transitioned off of fossil fuels and to a steady-state economy and private-sufficiency-public-luxury society then, we wouldn’t be facing multiple existential crises now. We wouldn’t be leaving the prospect of a planet unfit for human habitation to the young people we teach every day, explicitly or implicitly, that everything will be fine if they just work hard and get an A+ on their calculus exam, or get into a good university program, or plant some trees on campus or reduce their personal carbon footprint.


This transformative, radical re-building of education begins with the institution of higher education acknowledging its own part in the polycrisis, teaching about how the privileged of humanity got us into it, and educating for how to live within safe and just planetary operating space. This is how we, as adults who have benefited from the present fundamentally unequal and destructive system, help students face their future and thrive in it. This is the job of higher education.


In summary, young people know about climate change and are very worried about it, whether they voluntarily vocalize that or not. They need us to be guides for them in what is shaping up to be an increasingly uncertain and volatile future, and we cannot rely on our past experiences of what worked for us to inform us how to help them. We need to be honest with ourselves and them about the challenges that they will face in the future that we are bequeathing to them, and to talk about it openly. Skirting the issue, silo-ing the climate crisis, relegating it to optional learning by young people only, or plastering it with incremental ‘green’ band-aides – is essentially lying by omission and shirking our responsibilities as adults in their lives who are supposed to prepare them for their future. We need to be brave during this extraordinary time, and vulnerable enough to learn, so that we can be the guides and advocates that our students need us to be.


As longshoreman and philosopher 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."


My vision for John Abbott, and for all higher education, would be to transform it into exactly what young people need right now. In a time of profound uncertainty and transition, we need learning to be guided by what the latest physical and social science consensus, as well as non-dominant cultures, tell us is needed to weather the radical shocks that are coming, and to build the world that comes next. 



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