Over the past two decades, much of the global conversation about universities, and education more broadly, has revolved around ‘21st century skills’. Enabling students to harness the potential of communication technology, critical thinking, improving media literacy or effective teamwork has been among the mantras dominating the higher education landscape since the turn of the millennium.
But the significance of the 21st century pales in comparison to another milestone reached by humanity – the Anthropocene.
The idea that human beings have become the dominant force shaping the geology of our planet should give us pause. Entering the Anthropocene has put unprecedented responsibility on those currently alive for the fate of our planet, with educational institutions in the spotlight.
The Anthropocene is not merely a threat to the natural environment; it is an existential threat for humanity itself, and therefore to all our accumulated knowledge as well as technological and cultural achievements.
In other words, the multiple environmental crises we are facing have brought us to a crossroads unlike any before – we are in the process of deciding whether we sacrifice both our history and our future for the sake of the present.
What is the role of universities at such a moment of heightened collective and individual responsibility? Many would argue that universities simply need to keep on doing what they are already doing: innovating, coming up with new technologies, looking for solutions to the climate crisis.
This view, however, relegates universities to a position in which they simply help fulfil agendas decided elsewhere, reacting to developments as they unfold rather than actively re-shaping humanity’s trajectory. This is a far cry from living up to the demands of the historical moment we are in.
Re-imagining the world
The Anthropocene is a bit like the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Hannah Arendt, who studied these regimes, has argued that totalitarianism was possible because of the bureaucratisation of entire swathes of population. People who unquestioningly follow in the blueprints designed by others, who unwittingly become cogs in bureaucratic machineries, make for docile subjects that authoritarians need to succeed.
Arendt famously wrote that most people who commit evil never consciously decide to do so, and this is certainly true of our era. If there are still historians writing centuries from now, they might well see our generations as culpable for the greatest violence, greatest evils in all of human history – and yet, few of us wake up every morning and decide to destroy our planet.
Against this backdrop, the role of universities must go far beyond coming up with new technologies or even teaching critical thinking. What is needed is a wholesale re-imagining of the world, and this requires education that helps us envisage alternative futures, gives us tools to communicate our visions and agonise with others over their visions, helping us realise our agency as political beings.
Critical thinking might be a helpful skill, but if it is restricted to thinking about a limited set of issues in limited ways, it will not save us from becoming cogs in Anthropocene’s destructive evils, just as the many academic accomplishments of universities in Weimar Germany did not save millions of Germans from becoming complicit in the Holocaust.
This might sound like abstract, disconnected-from-reality, wishful thinking. After all, isn’t it too late to agonise over alternative futures? Don’t we need to urgently train armies of engineers who will come up with workable solutions to capture carbon from the atmosphere?
Perhaps we do. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that technology alone is unlikely to get us out of the mess we are in.
Increasing our control over the natural environment has led us down the path of global warming, mass extinction, ocean acidification and other crises, and it is hard to see how an obsession with further ‘mastering’ nature through technology can solve these colossal challenges.
Educating for Anthropocene skills
In practical terms, an anti-bureaucratic vision for higher education in the Anthropocene can take different forms. Many social movements and environmental activist groups, for example, have for decades been wrestling with questions of historical responsibility, imagining different futures and helping young people become effective political actors.
By recognising informal spaces of education and dialogue where ‘Anthropocene skills’ are already practised, universities can find sources of inspiration in unexpected places. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.
While education systems remain largely depoliticised around environmental issues, universities wanting to practise ‘education for the Anthropocene’ might find themselves in effect practising remedial education.
In my research with young people, I have noticed that children often have a natural drive to re-imagine the world and this gets gradually suppressed as they progress through education systems based on mainstream notions of ‘success’, consumerism and infinite growth.
By the time they reach university, imagination of alternative futures might be just a dim memory.
Rather than building on some of the aptitudes cultivated by primary and secondary education, universities might have to engage in ‘deschooling’. Universities might also be best placed to rethink teacher training, preparing new generations of teachers for the challenges of teaching in the Anthropocene.
None of this is new. What is new, and unprecedented, is the urgency and the magnitude of the responsibility universities now face. They must act so that young people are equipped to chart new collective trajectories. The alternative is unthinkable.