It’s Time for Higher Education to “Get Real” about the Climate Crisis

By Diana Chapman Walsh and Sarah Buie

When Greta Thunberg, then 15 years old, packed up her books last year and marched over to the Swedish Parliament to sit in silent protest of inaction on climate change, she started a mass movement with a moral and emotional resonance that seasoned activists and organizations around the world hadn’t yet managed to rally. She went on strike. She rejected school. Why go to school, her act bluntly asked, when the Earth is becoming uninhabitable? What can school teach me that will be of any use, now that my future is in doubt?

Nearly all of the fissures and fault lines in our 21st-century society are heating to a boiling point as the planet warms. So it is that a simple act by a singular child can tap into decades of debate across higher education about how we are educating our young:

For what are we preparing students, and what are they actually learning? Are we educating them for the conditions they will encounter, tests they will face, hardships they will endure? Will they understand the forces re-shaping our world, and find the resources to engage them meaningfully? And as the world’s wealth and power becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, is our educational system part of the solution — or part of the problem?

At a small university (about 3,000 students) some 30 miles west of Boston in Worcester, Massachusetts, these vexing questions have been drawing faculty colleagues, over the past decade, into collective reflection. And so, this fall, as part of A new Earth conversation, Clark University invited students into the new academic year in “a reckoning with the reality” of what is taking place on the planet. Worlds apart from the traditional opening of most colleges, Clark had on offer a collective process of inquiry, listening and discernment. Having grown organically within the Clark community, A new Earth conversation (NEC) drew on the university’s long history of engagement with human-environment relations, and a more recent commitment within the faculty to a deep community immersion in dialogic practices to envisage a progressive pathway to transformation, through reflection and explorations followed by a turn toward questions of effective action.

Since Greta’s strike sparked a movement, and in part as its result, institutions of every sort, in every sector, have come under scrutiny for inattention to climate change. Increasing numbers of colleges and universities are waking up, but not with sufficient urgency. Many are stepping up their research efforts across the broad field of climate science, pursuing climate action plans to decarbonize their campuses and strengthen their resilience, scrubbing their endowment portfolios of fossil fuel holdings, and expanding curricular offerings across the disciplines, including in the humanities. It remains, though, an open question as to how far universities are meeting the challenge of educating “literate, responsible citizens who are problem solvers and agents of constructive change” that a 1998 review article identified as the “primary mission” of environmental studies. Missing, too, is serious consideration of what we know of the students, of what they are knowing, learning, seeing … seeking. What do our students really need of us in these anxious times?

Every college and university in the United States and around the world is going to have to come to terms with the immediacy of this question, if for no other reason than that their students will insist. Recent polling from Harvard’s Institute of Politics indicates that the generational divisions on issues related to climate change are as wide or wider than partisan ones, and that young people are feeling great anxiety about their future.

Surely it is past time for academia to be transforming aspects of our culture that, given challenges we face, are counter-productive. We can no longer afford the deep-seated tendencies in academic life to isolate and fragment, when we need cooperation and integration; to separate mind and heart, when we need embodied wisdom and compassion to guide us through perilous times. MIT’s Peter Senge has called the climate emergency “the greatest learning challenge human beings have ever faced.”

With its own distinctive history and identity, Clark has been stepping up to Senge’s learning challenge. A new Earth conversation has been summoning energy with an intellectual, moral and spiritual cast. This intentionally radical statement stands behind the work at Clark:

“We have, as a planet, entered a time of profound reckoning,” begins the NEC website. “Given the gravity and uncertainty of our situation, the work of higher education must change.”

The work has roots in Clark’s Higgins School of Humanities and its “difficult dialogues” initiative, funded in 2005 by the Ford Foundation as part of its national program to foster dialogue across difference on college and university campuses. Difficult Dialogues (DD) asked faculty and staff not only to interact in new ways with one another and with students, but also to risk activities and modes of teaching new to them; faculty across the disciplines rallied in significant numbers, and with creativity, to the DD challenge. Within the context of semester-long dialogue symposia on specific issues, the climate crisis began to emerge as the issue, once glimpsed in its gravity, from which it was impossible to look away.

So, in 2012, with support from the Mellon Foundation, one of us (Sarah Buie), who as Higgins School director led the DD project, asked the other (Diana Walsh) to join with a third, Susanne Moser, in convening a small group of women who were ready to “get real” about the future. We would use a group process with indigenous origins, “the way of council”, to review the science on global warming, explore the cultural, political, economic, psychological and spiritual causes, face the implications, lean into the loss and uncertainty, and feel out possibilities for our individual and collective behavior. Finally, we would ask ourselves how we choose to live now, given what we are coming to know. We called ourselves a Council on the Uncertain Human Future (CUHF), met in three two-day sessions spaced apart in 2014, continue to meet periodically, and have grown into a network of councils across the country and world (New England, Santa Fe, San Francisco Bay area, Edinburgh, Kathmandu, and more).

Back home at Clark, the council practice became the foundation of A new Earth conversation. Beginning with a faculty-based CUHF in winter 2015, and then a campus-wide climate change teach-in, a working group of concerned faculty began to ask more questions. Given that the planet has entered a process of profound change, can we face it together? Given its gravity and uncertainty, how will we as educators show up? Can we re-envision the work of our community, as we confront these realities? More councils followed, and another teach-in led by more than 50 faculty and staff participants with Naomi Klein as the keynote speaker, and concurrent public events to increase awareness across campus. Gradually, A new Earth conversation took shape. It embedded the CUHF practice into an innovative curriculum model called the “Collaborative”.

Each NEC Collaborative starts with a Council experience, which builds trust and connections to support a more horizontal classroom practice. As participants explore climate-related issues, their collective insight and understanding advances through dialogue and inquiry in a flow of reflection, exploration, discernment, visioning, and action. These NEC offerings cultivate creative exchange on campus through relationship-building between faculty and students, among students, and toward shared insight and action.

As of now, more than 30 members of the Clark faculty (of 190), as well as a number of staff members, have participated in six CUHF circles; new Councils are launched once or twice a year, in addition to those now incorporated in classrooms, so far involving more than 200 students. At a recent retreat, a small group of senior faculty leaders observed that the initiative has bridged both disciplinary and generational boundaries to a degree they have not before seen in their years of teaching at Clark. It has encouraged some young faculty members to live their highest hopes for the kinds of engaged teachers they can be, and infused senior faculty with a new sense of excitement in their work.

Students express gratitude for spaces in which they can enter or continue a real and honest conversation about the full truth of what we are facing, within a community skilled at holding spaces for encounters that may give rise to confusion, fear, and grief, on the way to insight and re-connection. All of this beyond anyone’s expectations for the project. One of Clark’s distinguished geography professors, summed up the group’s sentiments toward the end of the retreat. “This is who we are,” he observed. “This is a way to be Clark”.

A way to be who we are. Not to the exclusion of other visions for the university, but a way to be a version of Clark that is faithful to its history, values, student passions, ambitions and worries, faithful as well to the yearnings of many among its faculty. A way to address the depth of the challenge we have entered. A circle of inclusion in which those who choose to join — faculty, students, administrators, alumni, guest speakers — can bring their real concerns, their most inchoate questions, their closely-guarded foreboding, their creativity and sharp thinking, infused with their love, attention, and best energy.

It seems to us that this approach — engaging deeply and honestly with our students in the face of the existential threat that clouds so much of their present and future — is a way to be American higher education in the Anthropocene.

________________________________________________________________

The Christopher Reynolds Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation helped support both the Council on the Uncertain Human Future and A new Earth conversation; Clark’s Office of the President provided NEC seed funding; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported the original CUHF; and the Ford Foundation supported the precursor program, Difficult Dialogues.

DIANA CHAPMAN WALSH, Ph.D., president emerita of Wellesley College (1993-2007) has also been a trustee of leading organizations in education and health.