On the Possibility of Higher Education Otherwise

by Sharon Stein

Universities are deeply embedded in the larger social, political, and economic system that surrounds them. Today, that system is in crisis. We face not only a global pandemic, but also the cascading effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, economic austerity and precarity, mental health crises, social fragmentation, right-wing political movements, large-scale human migration, and more. We can identify two general modes of responding to these crises. The first and most common response presumes the desirability of the underlying system and thus sees current crises as evidence that this system needs to be reformed and improved. Within this first response, there are actually a range of perspectives about the extent and exact nature of the changes that are needed, but ultimately, they all seek to ensure the continuity and futurity of the system. The second response identifies the system itself as inherently harmful and unsustainable, and thus points to the limits of its reform, and ultimately seeks the emergence of a different system in its place. In this text, I ask how these two responses differently address the role of universities in relation to current crises (see here for another effort to map these responses). But I also address common colonial circularities that arise in the second set of responses, and ask how we might identify and interrupt these circularities in order to gesture toward higher education otherwise.

The first set of responses generally treat crises like climate change and health epidemics as technical problems. In this sense, they expect the university to provide technical solutions, alongside improvements and efficiencies for the system in order to engineer continuous progress, growth, and development. For instance, in the case of climate change, this means supporting research about renewable energy, green growth, geoengineering, and carbon capture, and preparing students to innovate, lead, and seek security in the context of social, political, economic, and ecological uncertainty. This is the kind of response that, for example, envisions a central role for universities in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. This response seeks the perpetuation, improvement, and expansion of the existing form of universities, and does not acknowledge the multiple forms of violence that would make that possible. With regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, some in this set of responses seek a return to “business as usual”, while others view the pandemic as an opportunity to undertake ambitious reforms and reorganize higher education toward greater equity and efficiency.

Rather than treat current crises as evidence that the existing system needs to be reformed, the second set of responses understand these crises as a continuation, intensification, and generalization of the underlying violence and unsustainability of that system. These responses identify the role of universities in contributing to current crises, including through the reproduction of: simplistic, ahistorical, and depoliticized understandings of global problems; unequal relationships between dominant and marginalised communities; and ethnocentric imaginaries of justice, responsibility, and change. Proposed solutions vary, but generally they acknowledge the limits of existing universities and seek alternative, and/or radically transformed forms of the university. While this second set of responses is far less common than the first, we have recently seen a growing interest in this approach and its vision for higher education (Amsler, 2019), including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education for Addressing Ignorance or Interrupting Denial?
In a recent blogpost about the future of higher education, Luis Prádanos asked, “[I]s it really smart to educate people to technologically and theoretically refine a system that operates by undermining the conditions of possibility for our biophysical survival?”. Prádanos is in the second camp of responses to current crises. He argues that it is unwise to approach education in a way that presumes the continuity of our existing system (as the first set of responses to current crises does), because the continuation of that system will ultimately cause us to exceed the biophysical limits of the planet. Instead, he suggests, “higher education would better serve students in particular and all humans in general if our teaching and research methods stop perpetuating the cultural paradigm that brought us to the brink of extinction and start encouraging students to imagine and create alternatives to it.” This framing is useful for interrupting the presumption on the first response that system continuity is either possible or desirable.

However, in my experience, we cannot assume that more critical knowledge and literacy about “the cultural paradigm that brought us to the brink of extinction” will necessarily prompt us to make different choices. As Shotwell (2016) notes, it is common to explain the continuity of harmful systems by assuming “a kind of benign ignorance – people just haven’t been taught the facts of the situation, and so they can’t be held responsible for not understanding how race, poverty, and more, are present in their lives. If this were the problem, just giving people more and better information would correct their knowledge problem” (p. 38). But what if the choice to continue educating people to inherit an unsustainable and unethical system has less to do with a lack of information about this system’s inability to ensure collective well-being, and more to do with enduring affective investments in the promises and entitlements that this system offers? In other words, what if the primary barrier to recalibrating our educational responses to crises is not ignorance, but unconscious attachments and desires? If this is the case, then the task ahead of us is not simply to critique the existing system, or “imagine and create alternatives to it,” but also to foster the uncoercive rearrangement of harmful desires (Spivak, 2004). This is much easier said than done. Gayatri Spivak draws attention to foreclosures (i.e. sanctioned ignorances and constitutive disavowals) that are part of what we could call a “collective colonial unconscious”. If education is to address these foreclosures, then we need to see our problem as originating in denial rather than ignorance, which makes the task of education more difficult, risky, and complicated.

My research collective, Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures, has identified four socially authorized denials that help to keep our existing system and its dominant “habit of being” in place (Shotwell, 2016). These denials restrict our capacity to respond generatively to the crises that not only threaten the continuity of that system, but also continued life on the planet:

  • denial of systemic colonial violence and complicity in harm (the fact that our comforts, securities and enjoyments are subsidized by expropriation and exploitation somewhere else);
  • denial of unsustainability (the fact that our finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth);
  • denial of entanglement (our insistence in seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land, rather than “entangled” within a living wider metabolism); and
  • denial of the depth and magnitude of the problems that we face

Generally speaking, people prefer not to have these denials interrupted, because doing so is usually uncomfortable and unsettling. It is extremely challenging to invite people to sit with what they have been trying to avoid or run away from – especially all four denials at once – and efforts to do so are often strongly resisted or just become unintelligible to those who are looking for simplistic solutions within a known frame of reference, or a secure sense of hope and certainty to hold on to. When people do interrupt these denials, it is usually done in selective ways. For instance, it is increasingly rare for people to outright deny the existence of human-induced climate change, but generally they do so in ways that still assume it will be possible for us to innovate or recycle our way out of climate catastrophe. They rarely engage with the possibility of climate collapse, which would make the continuity of our currently dominant system impossible (Bendell, 2018; Foster, 2015).

In my work, I have found that even those who enact the second kind of response to current crises often emphasize intellectual critiques, but fail to attend to the desires, denials, and affective investments that also contribute to the reproduction of the existing system. Yet it is very difficult to shift a habit of being and the attachments, desires and coping mechanisms that keep it in place with strategies that were developed to shift a habit of thinking. This can also lead people into the trap of believing that because they are saying they are committed to something, then that means they are already doing it. For instance, “Because I am morally and political opposed to colonialism, then this means I am not reproducing it.” Yet, people can have a strong intellectual critique without necessarily enacting a shift in how they respond and relate to themselves, to other beings, and to the world. In this way, what looks on the surface like alternative possibilities can slip into the same old colonial patterns.

The notion of “civilizational crisis” offers an example that illustrates this dilemma. These days, it is common refer to climate change as a “threat to civilization,” but we should be wary about what this framing implies. The concept of ‘civilization’ is not neutral; it not only reproduces human exceptionalism, but it also reproduces the exceptionalism of certain human societies and thus presumes a hierarchy of humanity, with some societies being deemed ‘civilizations’ and others not. Historically, the notion of ‘civilization’ is fraught, often wielded to create and reproduce specifically racial hierarchies – with some (usually Western) societies deemed ‘civilized’ and others (usually non-Western) ‘uncivilized’ (or ‘primitive’). Indeed, no one can forget that European colonization was often justified as a “civilizing mission.” Beyond specific rankings, the very notion of civilization itself presumes that humanity is on a path of linear development and improvement; it presumes that societies start from an (uncivilized) ‘state of nature’ or barbarism, and evolve toward ever greater levels of (civilized) progress and complexity. Thus, when we refer to climate change as a “civilizational crisis” and advocate for a “civilizational transformation”, what kinds of hierarchies are we implicitly reproducing? What kinds of illusions about progress and exceptionalism are we holding on to? We can see how easy it is to slip back in these colonial patterns, even when our intention is to offer a critique and seek change.

Another example of a common circularity is the way that “humanity” is often framed within critical projects. In many of these projects, notions of humanity are mobilized in romanticized ways that suggest humanity encompasses only “positive” characteristics – such as compassion, cooperation, generosity; in turn, they suggest that “negative” characteristics are somehow inhuman. Yet the reality is that each person contains within us the capacity for an entire spectrum of fully human possibilities – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nothing we do makes us any more or less human, and to suggest otherwise can lead us down a dangerous path. Thus, rather than to uphold humanity in an idealized fashion, the task is instead to face the full range of humanity in ourselves and others, without also slipping into the modern/colonial trap of human exceptionalism that places human beings as separate from, and superior to, other-than-human beings.

Higher Education Otherwise
So, what does this have to do with the university? A commitment to imagining and creating an alternative university does not necessarily lead to an interruption of existing satisfactions with the harmful promises that are offered by the existing university. These promises include: certainty and predictability; epistemic and moral authority; human exceptionalism, presumed innocence; and entitlements to hope and unrestricted autonomy. Without interrupting and ‘composting’ these promises and our investments in them, we will likely take them with us as colonial baggage into any ‘new’ form of the university that we can currently imagine. Indeed, this often happens when people are looking for a ready-made ‘replacement’ for the existing system or institutions that will offer the same comforts and securities as the old – and thus, the same problems. Others are also looking to different (non-Western) knowledges and educational practices for inspiration for how to build an alternative university; while there is much that these other knowledges and practices can teach, there is also a considerable risk of approaching them in ways that are extractive, appropriative, or romanticizing. This is also linked to the colonial tendency to approach the world through the mode of consumption – not only consumption of goods, but also of knowledge, relationships, experiences, and difference. We will need to interrupt our own arrogance, presumed entitlements, and habits of consumption if we are to approach engagements with other knowledge systems in ways that avoid the reproduction of these colonial patterns, and that recognize the gifts, limitations, ignorances, and complexities of all epistemes.

In sum, while a growing number of people are fed up with existing universities, and eager to imagine and construct something new, what might be required is rather for us to have patience enough to sit with and be taught by the limits of the system and the institutions we have inherited so that we can learn from their mistakes and work through the difficulties of disinvesting from them, and facing their possible demise. This is why, rather than suggesting an alternative university in the face of current crises, I propose the need for alternative ways of thinking about alternatives – including perhaps alternatives to the university (Santos, 2006). After all, the university as we know it is just one of many possible forms of higher education; although this institution has become globally hegemonic over the past several centuries, largely thanks to processes of European colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2013), other modes of higher education are not only possible, but continue to exist despite colonial efforts to eradicate them. While it can be difficult or scary to imagine the end of the university as we know it, this would not mean the end of higher education full-stop, just the end of a particular (modern/colonial) mode of higher education. And this is a future that we might be facing whether we like it or not.

It may also be the case that as current crises start to make clearer the fundamentally unethical and unsustainable nature of the modern university, other possibilities for higher education that were previously invisibilized and unintelligible will be come increasingly imaginable – creating more space for truly different higher education futures, or what we might call higher education otherwise. Instead of leaping from where we currently stand into something different while reproducing the same colonial patterns, higher education otherwise asks us to prepare to face ‘the end of the world as we know it’ (including potentially the end of the university as we know it) in a generative way, without trying to predetermine what might come after. Higher education otherwise emphasizes the integrity of the process of transformation, attends to the risks of reproducing harm, and seeks to avoid the trap of celebratory approaches to alternatives that prevent ongoing self-reflexivity and critique.

Higher education otherwise has short, medium, and long-term implications. In the short term, it recognizes that we need to work within the existing system and universities to both reduce harm and mobilize resources toward supporting experiments with alternatives. In the medium-term, it acknowledges the value in taking part in and being taught by those experiments (including perhaps alternative universities), but without attachment to their outcomes or to the promise that they will offer something truly different. It also requires us to develop the intellectual, affective, and relational capacities that we will need in order to stay with the difficulties of transformation in the long-term. In the long-term, it invites us to sit at the edge of what is currently imaginable, while also creating space for the emergence of other possibilities without projection or colonial forms of hope, in part by learning to let go of our own attachments to the promises offered by a system that is sick, and now dying. I conclude by offering some questions to think with in relation to the four denials that might enable us to gesture toward higher education otherwise.

Denial of systemic colonial violence and complicity in harm: How are the budgets and buildings of our existing universities subsidized through poverty somewhere else? How do universities benefit from exploitation, expropriation, destitution, dispossession, displacement, and genocide? How are those of us who work and study in universities complicit in harm? Why don’t people talk about this? Why can’t our institutions stop this?

Denial of unsustainability: How do universities naturalize human exceptionalism and modes of relating to the earth premised on consumption and treating the earth as a resource for human extraction? Why do people deny that the current patterns of ecological destruction, consumption, and exploitation are unsustainable, even when we have lots of research that proves that this is the case? How much longer will our universities exist? What kind of (higher) education would we need in order to face the end of the world as we know it without fear, panic, and violence?

Denial of entanglement: How do universities encourage us to see ourselves as separate from the earth and from each other? Which knowledge traditions does this derive from? What are the consequences of thinking and feeling this separation? How might ancestral and Indigenous knowledges and practices prompt us to interrupt this sense of separation and re-sense our entanglement, and how can we engage these knowledges and practices without extraction, appropriation or romanticization? What can activate a sense of responsibility before will, beyond normative ethics or calculated personal benefits?

Denial of the depth and magnitude of the problems we face: How has our existing educational system, including the university, set us in the direction of individualism, consumerism, and infantilization? How can education prepare us to ‘grow up’ and face the many global challenges and crises ahead of us? How can we interrupt and unlearn harmful ways of thinking, feeling, doing, relating, knowing and being? What will it take for us to wake up and do the difficult and uncomfortable work that needs to be done, without expecting it to feel good or make us look good to other people?

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