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Humans need "rescue" from our own excess that has unbalanced the global climate system. Higher education is the only human institution with the resources and orientation to change human civilization deeply enough to "rescue" us from the excesses of the past few centuries.
The extreme individualism at the expense of a strong society that we see in the United States today is, ironically, perpetuated unwittingly by higher education in profound ways: we in higher education inculcate in students a default view of the world that is blatantly individualistic with almost no gestures toward the needs of society: students are in college to get a job, so say they, and so says the institution.
The divisions in the country and our inability to deal with climate change, inequity, and social injustice in any effective way – leave us facing extinction. These divisions are a result of urbanization and our dedication to the individual that is built into the higher education experience. Our country conditions millions of college students to compete against other students and to understand that success in life is making more money than others. We call it “career” in the higher education world but we really mean “making money.” Our whole society views wealth as a badge of success.
Since this orientation – or “madness” we could also call it – bred in the heat of the industrial revolution and oil spree – has led us to the brink of extinction, we need to stop and “re-orient” ourselves, or, to put it more clearly, return to sanity. Individualism came to mean individual wealth and having our entire 4,000 U. S. institutions of higher education producing graduates devoted to individual wealth – as they do even now as you read this – is a calamity. It is a calamity made worse by the fact that higher education leaders don’t realize what they are doing.
Partly, this ignorance is maintained by the fact that higher education is rife with sustainability initiatives. It must seem to my colleagues in higher education that their institution is doing the right thing because they have a sustainability officer and they are offering courses and maybe even a major course of study in sustainability.
And, yet, we in higher education still educate students as individuals and grade them as individuals and tell them their purpose is to get a job and earn money – with no mention of their responsibility to society, no training in how to help society if they wanted to, and no ethical orientation to lead them to question profit as an unquestioned good.
We are not going to save ourselves if we are blind to the fact that 20,000 institutions of higher education in the world with 50,000,000 students enrolled is keeping the individualism/industrialism juggernaut going. If we want to survive as a species, we have to turn off the spigot of graduates who propel that juggernaut, and change it into a spigot of cooperative humans (as we used to be).
Instead, students must be taught in groups, graded as a member of a group, and work on group problems that are related to sustainability. They must be trained in cooperation and in their responsibility to society; the institution must be explicit that its mission is to create a sustainable human civilization. The goal of college must be to be successful in life in an equitable, just, and sustainable civilization.
Once this goal is activated and incorporated into all aspects of higher education, and it can be done within months, humanity can get on to the business of creating a sustainable human civilization that is equitable and just. We can be the humans we were for millions of years.