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.

Slow Fashion

by Anneke Smelik

Admit, do you ever buy fast fashion? After all, it is difficult to
resist buying that incredibly cheap t-shirt or jeans that makes you look so
fashionable for this season. Yet, are you aware of the enormous cost of cheap fashion?
As the filmmakers of the
documentary The True Cost say: ‘The
price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and
environmental costs have grown dramatically’. The American fashion industry magnate, Eileen Fisher, recently exclaimed
that ‘the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world—second
only to oil’. While this may be a hyperbolic claim, it is well-known that the
fashion industry excels in waste, pollution, and exploitation of human labour
and natural resources.


Fast fashion emerged at the
end of the 1990s and is characterized by rapid changes in style, ever faster
cycles of global production and consumption, and ever cheaper products. Fashion
is one of the biggest and most
rapidly growing industries that is currently valued at 3 trillion dollars and employs
about 75 million people globally. 90% of the clothes is produced in low-wage
countries, mainly in Asia, while in the price calculation for a piece of
clothing a maximum of 1 or 2 % is accounted for by the wages of mostly female
(80%) textile workers. The fashion industry is a thirsty business, requiring a
lot of water to produce its goods. The manufacturing of a pair of jeans
typically requires about 11,000 litres of water and involves highly toxic dyes.
Due to systematic overproduction, however, the jeans may end up unused on a
waste heap: a staggering 30% of clothes in shops remains unsold. These are
astounding figures.

It is quite a big challenge to make the complex
fashion system more sustainable and more ethical, yet we need to stop the spiralling cycle of
producing and consuming ever more and ever faster. If the problem is a 24/7
society ‘in which producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause,
hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources’, as Jonathan Crary
writes (2013: 17), then the solution is to slow down. ‘Slow’ fashion focuses on
creating ethical and sustainable relations between people and their
environment. You don’t have to look far, because some fast fashion chains like
C&A and H&M now feature ‘green’ clothing lines with recycled fibres and


There are many initiatives
of creating slow fashion in the Netherlands. To name just a few: the Dutch
jeans brand G-star and singer Pharrell Williams launched together ‘RAW for the
Oceans’, a project that uses recycled ocean plastic to create a collection of
fabrics, including two new sorts of denim. Studio Jux produces the
majority of garments in its very own garment factory in Kathmandu, Nepal. Each
garment made in that factory contains a numbered label, which corresponds to
one of the Nepali tailors that buyers can ‘shake hands with’ on the company
website. At MUD Jeans you can lease your jeans and at
Oh My Bag you can buy fair trade bags. There are clothing libraries where you can
borrow or exchange clothes
. Finally, there are of course the developments to
recycle old clothes and textiles—on a more industrial scale at Texperium where for
example KLM uniforms are recycled and made into new products. Marjanne van Helvert recycles
in a more artsy way for her Dirty Design project. So
many inspiring examples!

Let’s displace today’s cult
of speed and start a movement of ‘slow’ fashion!