The future of higher education and climate change: part 3

Bryan Alexander
Oct 16 · 3 min read

Posted on October 16, 2019 by Bryan Alexander

In this post I continue my series on higher ed and climate change. Here are the previous posts: 1, 2.

3. On campus: the academic mission

Academic research can play many roles in transforming higher ed in the age of climate crisis. To begin with, university scholarship can contribute to the entire process of civilizational response, offering improved knowledge of the event, providing mitigation options, and helping us reflect on our experience. Many fields are involved, starting with the Earth sciences, oceanography, meteorology, and agriculture, obviously. Others can offer their particular benefits: the psychology of climate change; the sociology of how societies transform or maintain; the literature and other cultural artifacts of the process; the political and governmental dimensions of adaptation; the micro- and macroeconomics; computer science for handling simulations and sensor data; etc.

When it comes to academia’s teaching mission, at the top level we may see academia reconsidering the purpose of education. To what extent is it to prepare people, including young people, for a world redone by climate change? Will colleges and universities conceive of the goal of teaching to prepare students to mitigate carbon-fueled disasters?

In terms of academic programs, curricular changes seem likely. Certain programs will draw greater numbers of students, resources, and attention, like climate and Earth science, computer science (simulation), oceanography, certain area studies. New courses, minors, and majors seem likely to appear. Imagine a climate change finance class or a climate mitigation macroeconomics sequence in business or econ, for example. New programs and degrees seem likely to appear: a bachelor’s in climate change studies, a master’s in climate mitigation, etc. Indeed, we should not be surprised to see climate-focused schools (graduate or under-) appear within universities, or to see something like Climate Change College appear, perhaps online.

There should be a drive from many faculty to revise their current courses to include climate change topics. Literature classes may include more writing about climate change, historians include articles or books about climatological variation in their topics, and philosophers introduce mitigation and climate knowledge problems for students to explore. This can take the form of new degrees, majors, minors, core classes, classes required for majors, and electives. And we should expect some of those to be mocked on-campus and nationally, both by traditional and new media.

Changing curriculum and research will not come easily. Obviously there are questions of funding as well as politics, both national and local. We should also expect political arguments within campuses, as different schools of thought clash. For example, science studies and Earth science faculty might disagree about fundamental problems. The generation of nuclear power is quite divisive in some nations. What one group of faculty, staff, and students celebrate as necessary and innovative large-scale geoengineering can appear as a neocolonial recrudescence to others.

How will the method of teaching change? We could expect more distance learning and other forms of remote collaboration, as travel becomes more challenging through flightshaming, taxes, or infrastructure disruption. The nature of climate change activism might also spur pedagogical experiments, like this use of gaming to teach the topic at the University of Chicago. Interdisciplinary topics might elicit alterations to how we teach and support instruction. Will cultural changes brought about by climate change responses drive new pedagogies? Could we see, for example, a turn to heutagogy?

…and on to the next post, which concerns higher education and the rest of the world.

(thanks to John Kellden for a pointer; thanks to Tom Haymes for reading; many thanks to my Patreon supporters for thoughtful conversations; originally posted to my blog)

Bryan Alexander

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Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of The FTTE report, THE NEW DIGITAL STORYTELLING, and GEAR UP FOR LEARNING BEYOND K-12.