Time and space for a sustainable higher education

by | Jul 16, 2023

his article was inspired by a lecture given by Anne Snick and Michael Winter on learner-driven education at The 50 Percent’s intergenerational skill-share session. If you are interested in joining the upcoming lectures, feel free to follow The 50 Percent on social media.

I’m sitting in front of a textbook recommended to me for this semester, but my eyes keep wandering away from it. They prefer to wander around the huge gray room, to fall on the faces of the other young people, all silently engrossed in books. We are sitting with our books under the bright neon lights. No one is laughing. I don’t even see a smile. I only see rings under eyes, bowed heads and hands on foreheads or tussled in hair. It is the cold gray of the library, and my mobile phone that sends me a notification from the daily news: “Millions of people are losing their homes due to a flood in Pakistan”, that prevents me from thinking of anything positive. I look back at the textbook, stare at the words I cannot perceive, then at the clock. I feel pressed for time, and finally, close the book. I feel small. I feel powerless. I feel too much and too fast. Then I feel alone. I feel too small and the threats of the future (and the present) too big.

Luckily, because of the feeling of not being able to learn today, and the book having been closed far too early, I have time to listen to a lecture by Anne Snick and Michael Winter hosted by The 50 Percent.

On Anne’s first slide you can see a diagram. The gist of it is: the more developed a country’s education system, the more universities and degrees, the higher its ecological footprint. Basically, countries with more education are destroying the future of life on our planet. Is education destroying the future?

Source: diagram shared by Anne and Michael in their talk to the 50 Percent

I start to feel confused and astonished. For 20 years I have been on an educational path to prepare myself for the future. I thought the feeling of powerlessness that crept up on me in the library today was mostly to do with the mood of the neon lights. I was kind of confident that this feeling would disappear with my next degree, which promises to prepare me for the future finally. Perhaps, Anne’s chart confirms that my feeling stems from a deeper-rooted problem? Perhaps, it confirms Lauryn Hill’s lyrics: PhD is an illusion, master a mass confusion, bachelor past illusion?

Nadira Husain, ‘Dessin dans la prairie’

Anne does not explain her diagram directly. She makes us reflect on the fact that the more educated people are, the bigger environmental problems they create. She asks us: Why have antibiotics become the biggest threat to human health according to the WHO? An invention made by highly educated people offering us unique bacterial resistance?

We compare a few ideas: It is our limited technical capabilities preventing us from discovering more and more antibiotics against new, already more resistant bacteria. It is the idea of infinite progress. The belief in progress in general. It is the power of pharmaceutical companies and of capitalist mechanisms. It is our patriarchal, colonial relationships that do not allow all voices to be heard equally and therefore not all consequences to be considered. It is the mindset that humans are superior to nature and nature is nothing but a resource.

Anne says: This mindset also underlies our education system. I feel the anger rising inside of me. Is the reason I feel unprepared for the future a system that does not know how to think about the future in a sustainable way? Do I feel too small because of a system whose underlying worldview, I don’t even share?

Our educational system understands the world as a collection of linear, stable facts (Newton thought of the world in mathematical formulas, as a machine), all of which can be understood by a human being, the highest of creatures (Descartes: I think, therefore I am).

Mankind collects these assumed facts of the world, arranges them like clothes into drawers. Then older humans explain previously collected facts to the younger ones, until the younger ones choose a drawer to specialize in and, in the happiest cases, find new facts that contribute to this drawer and save the future. This is what education looks like. I feel the memories of my younger self with one big question in my head: environmental engineer? Environmental law? Politics? What do I have to study to save the future?

How does one save the future? Is the world a collection of linear, stable facts? Is humankind superior to nature? Is our world simply a resource? I know that Newton has become obsolete nowadays, at least in some areas of physics – quantum mechanics have replaced facts with possibilities. And that man is superior to nature is constantly being disproved, not least by the recent floods in Pakistan.

What quantum mechanics tells us is that there are no facts, only possibilities. Michael gives us an exercise that makes me feel…. He has us write down terms. Work, nature, money, school, pride. We write down the very first ways in which we understood these terms in our lives. Then how we understand it today, now. What do we feel? Judy feels excited. Nolita feels like the exercise is a form of therapy. I feel liberated. I feel space, space for newness.

Nadira Husain, ‘Beugen Strecken’

This exercise gives us hope that we can change the concept of education. Change the underlying mindset that determines the word “learning”. So, how can we imagine an education system that is not based on the idea that humans live in a world of linear, stable facts that are inferior to them that does not dictate how we should understand things, but makes room for us to understand things ourselves; to understand ourselves?

I feel the questions arise in me. I feel, thanks to the previous exercise, that there is also space for new answers. I feel the desire to pursue the questions in this space. I feel the desire to experience, to know, to learn: what does such an education system look like?

A space for questions? Where is such a space, where I can find answers to my questions? I am reminded of a text by Leanne Simpson, Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg – Intelligence and rebellious transformation. She writes that theory always has a space. That there is no abstract valid theory, only anchored in the mind which is simply true, no stable, linear theory.

It is interwoven with emotions, with the present, and with the learner. She writes, one such space is the land, which in a lot of places is still in desperate need of decolonization and appropriate responses to the effects of colonization. Furthermore, she argues that answers always have a space and that everyone has to go and find them for themselves.

Nadira Husain, ‘No English Translation’

And Anne suggests a travel guide for the search after the new education system. She wonders if education can mean to learn to adapt to life and if sustainable education can mean to adapt to life. Hence her metaphor of a travel guide is a book that makes you want to explore the space in question. To explore life? Learning as coming to know, finding out, education as a travel guide. In other words, a book that tells you the probabilities of what you will find, but does not dictate what you will find. It tells you the structures and laws of the place but leaves you with the choice of where to drift. A guide that would suggest alternatives and offer perspectives.

I feel a sense of joy spreading through me. I feel how this vision inspires me, the same way I feel like traveling. It is like I am re-discovering what learning means.

I feel how great it would be if we had an education system that put a guidebook in your hand and encouraged you to travel. Learning as “coming to know”, exploring spaces, exploring the future, places and presence as classrooms. I feel euphoric. I feel space. I feel possibilities.

But how do we get there?

I ask, “and how do we get to that kind of education, Anne?” And then Anne flips a switch in my head – she throws the question back at me: “What can you do to make higher education sustainable?” The space is already there, after all.Explore it, learn from each other, write travelogues for each other, work to create space for all, work to decolonize the land. She says, “We’re not going to wait for the institutions, we’ll do it with our own resources, our own minds.”

Now I’m sitting in the gray library again, but instead of the textbook, which, I have decided, is none of my business today, I’m looking at Nadira Husein’s pictures, which have turned my ideas of space and time upside down, as much as Anne and Michael’s lecture has turned my idea of education. My head is full of colours and words, and I want to share them with you. I look out the window and see the tree whose leaves bear all the colours of autumn. I believe in change because it is already here. We are not superior to nature and the world is not made of linear facts. We don’t need to have more knowledge to live in the future. We can travel, change mindsets and come to know what learning means, here and now. Or maybe there, tomorrow.

Search the chapters, check the verses

Recapture the land

Remove the mark from off of our hands,

raps Lauryn Hill.

Get free, be who you’re supposed to be

Freedom, said it’s freedom’s time now, she sings, and I feel empowered.

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