The Arts: An Educational Revolution

Written by Edwin van Meerkerk

‘Any serious fundamental change in the intellectual outlook of human society must necessarily be followed by an educational revolution.’

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and other Essays (1932).

Education is, by definition, a future-oriented activity. Students learn to prepare themselves for the things to come. Teachers teach to help their students and contribute to tomorrow’s society. Whether one thinks that requires deep knowledge of traditions that give you a solid footing, or whether the future is seen as fundamentally incomparable to today’s society is immaterial: education deals with the future.

One thing we can say about the future, is that we will be facing the greatest challenges humanity has ever encountered. The fact that even on the highest political level, governments have agreed that by 2030 all nations must have achieved the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is a clear indication of the urgency expressed by the SDGs. These challenges, which range from poverty to pollution and from gender equality to clean energy, are the result of what up until recently was referred to as ‘progress’: economic growth, capitalism, meritocracy, etc. The SDGs are more than a document with signatures from presidents and prime ministers. They reflect what is happening in the real world. They confront us with the fact that we have a world to answer to. Education can no longer be about us; it must be about the world.

Education has a central role in preparing pupils and students for the challenges they will face in their futures. Educational systems, however, are modelled on the logic of nineteenth-century western industry. In other words: the current educational system is part of the cause, rather than the solution of sustainable development. Research has indeed pointed out that several attempts at integrating sustainable development in (higher) education can actually be counter-productive when it fails to address the entangled nature of the goals (Salīte et al. 2021).

In my Comenius Leadership project we will be working on Higher Education for Sustainability. We will develop teaching materials that address the complexity of sustainable development and that can be integrated in all of our bachelor’s programmes. We will be looking at the SDGs as a typical form of a ‘wicked problem’, i.e., a problem that defies immediate solutions, or even clear understanding. Interestingly, wicked problems are at the heart of the way art schools are working. Rather than the traditional academic, neo-positivist approach in other universities, art schools train their students in lateral and divergent thinking, in reading against the grain.

That means that we cannot ‘solve’ the SDGs by adding a course in, say, climate science, to every programme. On the contrary, education for sustainable development must help students understand how they, as students of psychology, history, politics, culture, or modern languages, can contribute to the wicked problems they will all be facing in their futures. Higher Education for Sustainability therefore helps students to do what artists have been doing for a long time: think creatively, come up with impossible solutions, dare to make mistakes, and to see the whole in a detail. The future starts in the classroom.

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