Dr. Benjamin Freud is a learning dialogist, advisor, writer, and podcaster. He is the co-founder of Coconut Thinking, an advisory that supports educators, schools, and learning organizations answer the question: how do we design systems that contribute to the thriving of the bio-collective? Benjamin’s first career was in consulting in Silicon Valley, Europe, and Asia. He then moved into to education and held a variety of leadership roles as Head of School, Director of Learning and Teaching, and Vice Principal Middle & High School. He holds a Ph.D. in History, an MSc in Education, an MBA, and an MA in International Relations.
I’m tired of hearing people ask what is the future of education? It’s not just that over the past few years pundit after pundit has waxed lyrical about trends, visions, and fantasies, all saying the same or completely different things—neither case helps much. It’s not just that these talks often get caught up and tripped up in paradoxes; we need to prepare students for a future that we can’t predict, and we don’t even know the unknowns that will inevitably come into play (this is called objective ignorance by statisticians). It’s not even that there is a certain presumptuousness in assuming that adults are in any position to know how to prepare young learners for what is their future not the adults’.
What I am tired of enduring is the story that “education needs to change because education in its current state will not provide students with the skills they need for the workplace of tomorrow.” So the solution is “we should make sure that every future employee is adaptable, flexible, a problem-solver, creative, collaborative, able to communicate, innovative,” or some other such list. These are the skills that kids will need in the future apparently. This is why schools should change. This is it, folks, anything less and we lose.
Through all of this, only a few people are asking whether the workplace (figuratively) is what we want, or rather, this workplace, with its current values and drives. Only a few people are wondering whether we could harmonize our work and non-work selves around our purposes and passions. There are voices coming out of the wilderness that remind us that we face ecological and societal collapse and that it’s not just education we need to transform. There is an entire system, an entire globo-socio-individual consciousness (that consciousness that entangles the world, the social, and the individual into one, rather than separate them or place them along a continuum) that needs to change for there to be any real change. Education is but one node within the system and, unless there is a new systemic paradigm, we will just get more of the same.
Or rather, we will get more of the not same.
We will suffer more extreme weather, more famine, more socio-economic inequality, more disconnection, more conflict, more all of those things that accelerate volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) because we are all hyperconnected (the H that now appears in VUCAH) to each other and the earth. This is not the same. This is the radical future that we face, and might not like, unless we radically respond to the present, to what has already happened.
Changes in globo-socio-individual consciousness don’t just happen. The break that Thomas Kuhn described might begin as weeds growing in the spaces in between the carefully planted geraniums in the garden of the dominant system; these weeds that are, for the incipient system, beautiful, blossoming dandelions. Dandelions become beautiful when we change our worldview, our consciousness, when we value different things. Values are never static.
So, we take our responsibilities, we look ourselves in the mirror when we respond to climate breakdown, to the Sixth Mass Extinction, to conflict between humans and themselves, between humans and the more-than-human world.
Education is part of the bigger system and will not by itself bring on the changes in globo-socio-individual consciousness that will push back Earth Overshoot Day (28 July in 2022!) down the calendar and off it completely. We need to dive into the radicality of the times, not float above it. 28 July 2023 is fast approaching. Education will play an important role in addressing socio-economic injustice, but only if it does so alongside all the other members of the wider system. Education will contribute to making sure future managers make decisions that heal rather than extract from the earth, but only if entire systemic and cultural priorities shift.
And so, we take our responsibilities and plant weeds so that these weeds grow and become beautiful dandelions as we change our worldview, our values.
Higher education cannot escape its responsibilities.
It’s wonderful that some universities are requiring students to take courses in climate literacy in order to graduate. It’s energizing to see that so many business schools include sustainability in their programs. It’s encouraging to see colleges take stances and adopt policies that are more sustainable. What would it take for universities to leave an even greater mark, beyond themselves?
Changes in education (that respond to climate breakdown) will remain disparate, shallow, and tokenistic unless K-12 schools are required to centralize climate literacy in their curricula, infrastructure, community life, and well-being. This might be mandated by government or accrediting bodies, but recent history with DEI initiatives have not always been encouraging.
No, K-12 schools will only centralize climate literacy if universities have the courage to require that each incoming student have the knowledge, skills, and (some appropriate) experience to respond to climate breakdown. There is fundamentally no difference in requiring an applicant to be proficient in algebra or essay writing and requiring them to be proficient in climate literacy. This is the only way that we will prepare students for the future and for what has already happened. To value climate literacy as essential. To make the statement that we (as individuals, civilizations, and members of the more-than-human world) will not be successful, will not thrive, unless we can respond to what may be the greatest threat to life on earth (even greater than post-Hiroshima) in 65 million years, the time of the Fifth Mass Extinction.
Would this stand really be that courageous? Perhaps, but there is also a pragmatic element at hand. Employers will have to respond (are already responding) to climate breakdown, they will want climate literate staff, they will have to take their own responsibilities. They will want new hires to infuse new energy.
Because employees who are adaptable, flexible, problem-solvers, creative, collaborative, able to communicate, and innovative is not enough. Those who ran the authoritarian machines of the 20th Century were all of those things. What matters behind these skills is intention and purpose. Climate literacy can and should entangle knowledge, skills, and values.
What are the risks in universities requiring applicants to be climate literate? Better question: What are the risks in universities not requiring applicants to be climate literate? (We will figure out what climate literacy might look like when we bring together in dialogue with students, schools, parents, practitioners, experts, government officials—all of the social and ecological stakeholders.)
This is the opportunity for education to play its part in larger systemic change. This change will have to be driven by higher education so long as there continues to exist a linear path from K-12 to university to employment.
The recent move away from standardized testing is a positive step, but it is not enough, nor is having a “holistic” approach that looks beyond grades. This is a matter of responsibility. This is a matter of envisioning the futures. Futures where every young adult is climate literate, valued on the same plane (higher even?) than traditional academic subjects. Universities must require that each applicant be climate literate.
Because these are radical times.