19 February 2014

We Don't Need Permission

could wait forever for permission. I work in higher education. There’s a lot of waiting…for the i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed. But I just can’t wait. They’re too slow.

Why are colleges and universities so slow to change? Higher education institutions have an ethical and public obligation to further our communities. And by ‘further’ I mean designing and delivering education for the purpose of sustainably balancing economics, environment, society and culture in our world. Higher education institutions have to change as our world changes. It is our responsibility; yours and mine, to ensure higher education institutions fulfill their obligations. No matter what your role is in any institution, community, club or chapter, if you know and believe that something is not fair, ethical or honest, you must try to change it. It’s common sense. Doing anything less is merely acceptance, denial or apathy.

I think something has to change in higher education and it has to change immediately. I believe that sustainability needs to being taught to all learners in higher education, not just as an add-on and not isolated in specialized programs.  Unfortunately, in many disciplines sustainability is seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ or the latest trend. To make matters worse, sustainability is viewed as something you ‘do’ not something you ‘are’. This is wrong

Sustainability is a mindset, a way of thinking. It is how you approach something, how you understand, how you study, how you learn and act. It is big picture thinking merged with microscopic understanding. It is two-eyed seeing. It is a holistic approach to learning not only about the world, but also about yourself.

What message is higher education sending when it spends millions of dollars on sustainable infrastructure and energy management while disregarding sustainability in the curriculum, professional development and higher learning? I think it is teaching us that sustainability is vocational, but not academic. This won't do.

Grace Hopper once said, “It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” She also said, “Humans are allergic to change." And she’s right on both accounts. We resist change out of fear; those who try to make change have not only to overcome their own fear but the fear of others as well. Much like David and Goliath, one small entity has to confront an extremely powerful and intimidating force. Incidentally, fear is often speculative and a small crack in the foundation of fear has the potential to bring down an assumption built on shaky ground.

I’ve been chipping away at the great wall of higher education for a number of years. I’m not in a position of influence but I am persistent. And that is key. Like a weed that breaks through concrete, persistence is essential. Authority, control and dominance are not the most significant forces; might does not make right. Integrity is boundless. Authority is not.

Permission is a top-down arrangement too, isn’t it? Who really has the authority to tell you what to think and how to think? Who has the authority to deny you the right of discovery and personal growth? Well, at this time in history, the education system exercises that right because we let them. Many people know that institutional deconstruction is necessary but the flawed higher education system remains intact. Why? Fear.

Our education system (primary, secondary and post secondary) has been designed to teach us to accept authority and behave according to cunningly crafted authoritarian and industrial-age rules and regulations. The CLOCK, another industrial invention that helps us to compliantly work on average 35 hours per week, RULES our lives. We are taught to fear change, fear the unknown and fear one another.

If you believe this to be true, as I do, then please recognize the education system for the illusion it is. Metaphorically, throw a rock at it: your fears, the wall, the clock, the inequality, the control. It is only as real as you allow it to be. When you know change is necessary, you have to change how you think.

Here are some works by marvelous changemakers that have helped me to overcome some of my fears, insecurities and doubts:

1.     Exopedagogy (Education Out of Bounds, by Tyson Lewis and Richard Kahn)
2.     Eco-feminism (Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva)
3.     The Ascent of Humanity, by Charles Eisenstein
4.     Walden, by Thoreau
5.     MOOCs (take as many as you can. I like Coursera)
6.     The Great Work, by Thomas Berry
7.     Earth in Mind, by David Orr
8.     Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken
9.     A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
10.   The Earth Charter

I could write about the little things I’ve tried to change…some successes, some failures; different ways I’ve been trying to chip away at the wall. But there is no point in talking about what has been done by one person in one place at one time. The entire higher education system in my country, and in the ‘Western’ world, is a flawed, broken system and its pigeon-holed approach to sustainability is glaringly inadequate. This has to change. It will take a lot of effort from many individuals and groups to change the education system, transforming how we live and learn sustainably. Change will never come from the top. Goliath wears a lot of armour and has other plans for us. Change will come from people like you and me who don’t wait for the permission we’ve never needed. 

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