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Embrace the ecological university

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For more than two centuries, the distinctiveness of the university has been its emphasis on inquiry, or what leading higher education analyst Ron Barnett calls “an openness of mind and an open society”. It is this that helps us to think with optimism about a new kind of university — which Barnett refers to as an “ecological” one — one that is concerned with a real urgency towards the world and its ethical responsibility.

An ecological university is one that has spaces of agency and remains on the look-out for large deficiencies in its own research and in the wider world. It also has an ethical concern to promote democratic interests to help people to understand one another, coexist and make sense of the world in which they live.

To get a better understanding of how this might apply to today’s universities, especially in terms of core functions such as research, teaching and learning, one has to turn to the ground-breaking work of 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber.

Described as an example of a philosophy of dialogue, this work focuses on how people present themselves and engage with the other. Buber argues that human existence is grounded in relationships. To him, a human being, and hence human existence, is entirely relational — that is, the “I” cannot exist without the other and it is not possible to understand the experience of another from a detached or analytical point of view. Rather, understanding another’s experience can only be achieved through dialogue, because it is through dialogue that one sees and acknowledges the whole person, not just as a collection of attributes.

As someone who reads, analyses, interprets and delves into a particular matter, event or being, the researcher enters into a philosophy of dialogue with the research and all it encompasses, whether in the form of scientific data, a phenomenon or a human being.

Through the research, what is being researched is given a voice and awakened from its silence. Although research often departs from preconceived assumptions and hypotheses, it also often questions those assumptions, yielding knowledge previously not imagined.

Researchers who are embedded in the research live (temporarily) in that research and question, reflect, and examine their own beliefs in relation to the research. Understanding research as a philosophy of dialogue invites and cultivates particular implications for higher education.

Too often, both academics and students conceive of universities as places where only knowledge is produced, implying a gap between the researcher and knowledge — that is, an “I-it” relationship.

It becomes about the gathering of data, the accumulation of concepts or proving this or that hypothesis. But when research is understood and approached as “I-thou”, a relationship may unfold that allows higher education to meet the world and its humanity in totality.

Like research, teaching is an entirely relational practice and is always influenced and shaped by who the teacher is, who the students are and the context of that teaching. These highly complex factors provide us with some idea about why teaching and learning are unpredictable, and why ideas of predetermined learning outcomes are problematic. Indeed, the more teachers attempt to control the dialogue, engagement and outcomes of learning, the less learning will occur.

The question and challenge for teachers and teaching is how to stimulate students’ desire to learn. Often, teachers stifle students’ interest and willingness to learn with closed, repressive and uninviting teaching — thereby losing what education expert Hugh Sockett calls the “epistemic process”, which refers to the unfolding processes of teaching and learning. Teachers need to (re)assert their “epistemic presence”, so that students might not only encounter knowledge but develop their own judgement in relation to knowledge. It is up to teachers to create the spaces — no matter how uncomfortable these spaces might be and become — in which students might interrogate who they are, what they believe, why they believe what they do and recognise the existence of multiple realities, so they realise that their perspective is just one way of thinking.

Teaching, like learning, is a fluid practice, always shifting in response to the world in which it unfolds. What is worthwhile in one year may be insignificant in the following.

When students participate in their own learning, they inevitably come up with renewed ways of thinking, of yet-to-be considered perspectives — establishing the need for more inquiry.

What this shows is that research cannot be conceived of as separate from teaching and learning. Instead, teaching-learning-research exist on a mutually responsive continuum. These three practices are interconnected and have to be understood as such, if universities are to fulfil their multiple epistemological and social responsibilities.

The ethical responsibility of universities can only manifest when research, teaching and learning are conceived of as ethical endeavours. What this means is the very existence and responsibility of higher education ought to be geared towards the cultivation of a public good and, hence, human flourishing. If this is not the case, the ethical realm ceases to be and any teaching, learning and research stand in contradistinction to the parameters of an ecological university.

In turn, it remains the responsibility and potentiality of universities to reimagine their purpose and role, so that they use their 
past as a profound teaching and learning moment of what could be otherwise.

Applied to Stellenbosch University, this would suggest specific paths of remedy and a need to develop conversations between its disciplines, stretching its students into strange places, opening dialogues with the wider society, listening attentively to the world and attending to demonstrable issues, and imagining new possibilities for itself and for the world.

Mere access of previously excluded students, however, should not be confused with ecological transformation. Human ecologies can only be transformed when they are encountered in their totality, and their presence is recognised in their completion.

Universities across the world should reflect on and consider how they might embrace the idea of an ecological university and what they might do to cultivate openness in relation to the other. They should also reflect on what they might do differently so that they take account of the whole of society, rather than only parts thereof.

Professor Nuraan Davids is chairperson of the department of education policy studies in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University. Professor Yusef Waghid is the acting dean of the faculty

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Nuraan Davids
Nuraan Davids is professor of education in the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University.

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