Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
First, many thanks to Cristina Escrigas for the insight, clarity, and scholarship of her overview of higher education institutions (HEIs). I offer here a few thoughts based on my own experiences in trying to broaden HE in accord with twenty-first-century needs and pose a question: Can we wait for HEIs to respond to the massive opportunities and challenges of our time, and if not, then what can we do about it?
I have had forty years working in and fascination with the values and purpose of universities, mostly within the confines of discipline-based teaching and research. But gradually, some close colleagues and I came to believe that what we were doing in education did not really fit the needs of future humanity. We felt that, to some extent, HEIs had lost the plot, the plot being education to allow humans to flourish into the future and, for students, the freedom to question and pursue what they believed really matters. We created new transdisciplinary curricula based on two questions: What does it mean to be human, and how can we promote human well-being within a sustainable world?
We have had quite a few successes. We were able to tap into many like-minded thinkers across a broad base of disciplines and faculties and even bureaucracies (there are indeed many inmates of HEIs who still value education’s higher purpose), we were able to generate graduate and undergraduate curricula of intellectual rigor, and our curricula were well received by students and were viewed by many as transforming in essence and even outcomes.
Our failures were few, but critical. We never obtained reasonable acceptance of our courses from the discipline-based schools and faculties or commerce-dominated HEI bureaucracies. Indeed, many felt our aims did not fit the objectives of an aspirational high-ranking HEI. After ten stimulating but politically frustrating years, we were quietly shut down. I suspect our story is common to many; HEIs have become difficult fields to plough, sow, and reap the harvest of socially and environmentally relevant curricula.
Thus it is heartening to hear of the few who have managed to get a serious foothold for their curricula within the HEIs such as the Big History Project, the Graduate Institute of Futures Studies, and the Fenner School of Environment and Society, to name but three. I am sure there are others, but the real question is why such great ideas and curricula have not been so much more widely adopted and welcomed within the global plethora of HEIs. To put it succinctly, HEIs are stuck in a straitjacket of neoliberal thinking manifested in financial and business control of their directions. This translates to a gradual molding of free-thinking academics into simple servants of the HEI business enterprise. Economic survival and ranking success seem to be the prevailing motivation of HEIs and, in a trickle-down fashion, of their academics, and understandably so given the intense competitiveness and uncertainty of academic careers.
Can change be initiated from within the HEI conglomerate? I would say it is doubtful. But is there another way? There has to be and must be; the world presents too many challenges and opportunities for us to wait in hope. GTI argues convincingly that the business-as-usual model is unlikely to work in many fields of endeavor. A great transition in higher education is needed now. So how can we usher it in? At risk of hubris, I would like to offer some suggestions and welcome others.
(1) At least initially, a great transition in HE must come from outside of established HEIs, although one would hope that institutional academics with the vision and energy to voluntarily contribute would have a significant role.
(2) ICT and the web make a great transition in HE outside of HEIs possible; HE no longer has to be monopolized and constrained by HEIs. It is now up to us, followers of the GTI principles, to make this possibility a reality. The mechanisms and ideas are there; all we need is the will, energy, collaboration, and organization to make it happen.
(3) What could be the next step? We suggest creation of a nonprofit organization (NPO) or, better still, development of a branch within an existing nonprofit. Among its activities would be to create new and promote existing curricula concerned with human and world futures and to offer online delivery of such curricula that might lead to some form of certification or acknowledgement, but far more importantly, to offer a rigorous and interactive education of social and environmental import. Ultimately, these curricula would aim to empower students to envisage and help shape world futures. With well-thought-out and successful curricula, traditional HEIs might then be encouraged to adopt them. That would be a real test of success.