From the climatologists who identified the dangers posed by global warming to the biologists who have tracked the scale of the ongoing sixth mass extinction, academics have been crucial to our understanding of the unfolding environmental crisis.
University-based engineers and scientists have also led the way to cleaner technologies. Thanks to these advances, we associate universities’ contribution to humanity’s survival through this crisis primarily with research in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
But the environmental crisis is a product of cultural and political flaws in our civilisation as well as our reliance on fossil fuels. These include extractivism, insensitivity to our impact on the planet and the absurd ideology of infinite growth within a finite territory. Such ideas are detrimental to our survival, yet they underpin much of what we teach in our schools and universities. When viewed against this backdrop, STEM research often merely documents the damage and suggests ways to treat the symptoms. But universities can, and should, do so much more.
To help us understand the root causes of this crisis and to address them, we must fundamentally change the way we think about higher education. In our current system, the universities’ primary role is to generate workers who will keep the economy going, rather than challenging how the economy works. Students, who often have no choice but to get in debt to finance their studies, frequently view education as an investment that will help them secure a job, rather than an opportunity to ask hard questions about how the world got into the mess we are in, and what we can do about it.
Bringing universities into sync with the challenges of our times requires putting imagination, rather than economic returns, at the centre of our thinking about the role of higher education in society. To bring about a different world, we must first be able to imagine it.
However, our imagination is at present confined to tinkering around the edges. We will allow ourselves to envisage a more environmentally friendly economy as long as our “green” growth remains infinite; we must keep on extracting, mining and pillaging in the name of progress.
To turn our universities into true incubators of imagination, we can start by giving the arts and social sciences an equal stature to that of hard sciences. These areas of knowledge are as vital to our survival as STEM subjects, yet they are not seen as priorities by UK policymakers. We should also stop disincentivising students from studying subjects that help them reimagine the world by doing away with tuition fees, especially for programmes that do not lead to lucrative careers, such as philosophy and literature.
But the shift I am talking about goes far beyond changes in resource allocation and tuition fees. Young people who arrive in universities have come through schools that often educate them out of being imaginative. Standardised curricula, narrow definitions of educational success, and quantifiable measures of academic achievement tend to squash imagination. In this system, visions of future worlds radically different from our present system are seen as “childish”, “utopian” and “lacking in pragmatism”. While this lack of imagination in our schooling persists, universities that want to help solve the environmental crisis have no choice but to engage in what Ivan Illich called “de-schooling”.
This means disabusing young people of the notion that they have no power over the future trajectory of society. It means treating every student as a political agent of change. It means encouraging students to reimagine the world, to reconnect with the radical questioning of society’s assumptions that many instinctively engaged in as children.
In the hard sciences, it means a deep engagement with what ends STEM research enables. For example, will we allow climate change models to justify the intensification of mining – which some scientists see as the prerequisite to green growth?
In the humanities and social sciences, it means going beyond “behaviour change”. We too often think of social scientists as “science communicators” whose role is to convince the public of the urgency of issues such as climate change. While this is important, arguably the main role of the humanities and social sciences should be putting a mirror up to society, helping us imagine different possibilities and making sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past as we seek to bring these different worlds into being.
Hannah Arendt teaches us that there’s a profound difference between “behaviour” and “action”. While the former is predictable and flows out of social and cultural trends, the latter starts something new, something different and unexpected. When we speak of taking action to tackle the environmental crisis, what we often really mean is changing our behaviour from one predetermined pattern to another.
But this crisis demands action in an Arendtian sense – transforming our cultural and political worlds. And such action is possible only if our imaginations are engaged.
The job of universities on a dying planet is to foster, not cripple, our ability to imagine a different future. If we don’t recognise this soon, future historians might well look upon our higher education as complicit in bringing about unprecedented destruction rather than helping to prevent it.
Peter Sutoris is a research associate in the department of anthropology and sociology at SOAS University of London.
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