Re-placing the university

October 31, 2011

“My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival…it is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.” –David Orr, Earth in Mind

The world in which the university was founded has, since that time, undergone immeasurable change. Contemporary social and ecological crises present unprecedented challenges to humanity. The university is not immune to these challenges. Many contend that post-secondary education is obligated to act for the improvement of social and ecological ills and contribute to a more just future. This obligation is especially relevant considering that the university has arguably contributed to the instigation of these problems, as well as their perpetuation. As stated by professor David Orr, “This is not the work of ignorant people. Rather, it is largely the results of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.”

It follows that if current post-secondary educational practice has at least played some role in creating these crises, then post-secondary education can at least play some role in renewing resilient communities. Yet, how can this transformation be most effectively achieved? What pedagogical reforms are demanded by the objective of creating education that is relevant and responsive to the world today? I believe it is a question of “re-placing” the university.

The university too often exists in an ivory tower of isolation. Meanwhile, problems happen in places. The university must become a part of its place, its community, before it endeavours to become a part of the solution. This is not to suggest that all institutions explicitly disregard the gamut of ills affecting people and the planet. Universities may teach in earnest the issues of the world with the intention of catalyzing change. But if these lessons remain confined to classrooms, change remains confined to chalkboards. Unless students are given the opportunity to actualize that which is taught, these lessons cannot be actualized into change. And perhaps the most unsustainable form of education is that which stagnates in separation from the world for which it is intended.

Universities must recognize their connections to social and ecological ills, especially those affecting the local community in which the university is situated. It is in this local context that students have the greatest opportunity to meaningfully practice making better places. Universities then must question if the kinds of places students will be able to make as a result of their post-secondary education are places that ameliorate the state of the world.

On a planet that is warming, amongst people that are warring, and in a time that we are wasting, we must rediscover our places. Without place, we cannot belong. We cannot belong, therefore we cannot care, and to not care is to actively, through apathy, cause to deteriorate the already compromised state of our warming and warring world. But to find our place is to find that reason to care. In place, we broaden a sense of belonging to that which surrounds us, people and planet, because we identify with our environments and our communities. In place, we are meaningful and mindful in our actions, because we recognize ourselves as effective actors that bear impacts, and are able to use these impacts positively to make change. And in place, we discover the interrelationships and interdependencies that render us both vulnerable and vital to the survival of our place, and of our world.

When idealizing an ameliorated world, the concept of “utopia” may come to mind: a harmonious co-existence of people and planet with no injustice, no inequality, and no problems. However, utopia also means no place. In Greek, the prefix “u” means no, and thus, this idyllic imagining remains just that. But perhaps it is this lack of place that has strangled such renewal. Perhaps instead, the vision for the future must be topia, must be place, and re-placed universities.