Universities should focus on long-term intergenerational solutions to global challenges (opinion)
Around the world, the COVID-19 crisis has upset countless institutional arrangements and cultural norms regarding the way we work, learn, innovate, solve problems and interact with each other. In colleges and universities, the models, practices and channels by which we create and impart knowledge have been disrupted by lockdowns, travel bans and digital technologies, creating not only unthinkable challenges, but also opportunities. of reimagination.
One of the effects of the crisis is our growing awareness of the problems of intergenerational justice. For example, as we fight COVID-19, we regularly hear about the obligation of younger generations to take protective measures such as wearing masks for older generations more vulnerable to disease. Likewise, to mitigate the effects of climate change, our students are asking older generations to take care of the planet for the benefit of younger generations.
How can an intergenerational perspective accelerate the imagination of new visions of the university that might better produce the most meaningful ideas and reflections, the most impactful innovations, and the fairest and most rewarding lived experiences – and those which are oriented not to the past but to the future?
People generally see the university as a place where thinkers and learners come together, within particular institutional structures, to create and impart knowledge. But universities are not unique in this role. On the contrary, they face competition from the private sector, governments and civil society, all of which claim to produce knowledge faster and at lower cost, and with more original and impactful results.
However, what sets the university apart is its singular long-term orientation. Universities are not beholden to short-term government or corporate election and sales cycles. For this reason, they are in an exceptional position to find lasting solutions to the thorny global challenges that future generations will inherit. The university’s biggest distinguishing factor is its ability to anticipate and care for the long term, beyond economic or political cycles. Universities are essential places of conversation with the next generation. They are also sites of significant generational struggle, as we have seen on so many campuses, in the context of ongoing debates over immigration, climate change activism, calls for racial justice, the movement Me Too and more.
Universities are already organizing themselves in new ways to foster intergenerational dialogue and work together to address critical global challenges for the next generation. Leaders from more than 50 universities on six continents are now members of the newly formed U7 + Alliance of Global Universities, a network of higher education institutions dedicated in part to putting young people at the forefront of efforts to address global challenges which they are about to inherit. . Through a series of intergenerational roundtables, the alliance plays a key role in imparting inclusive leadership skills to students and faculty members. At Northwestern University, we are rethinking our curriculum from the perspective of how it might prepare students to contribute to global sustainable development in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Ultimately, a vision of the university as a space to generate intergenerational justice encourages us to think differently about the research and teaching that takes place within the university: what would it mean to think of knowledge not as an outcome? but more like a conversation with our future selves and future generations? Northwestern recently asked academics from all disciplines and around the world to create “postcards of the present” – a time capsule of notes for themselves, capturing this moment of global crisis and transformation as a record for the future, but also a reflection exercise on what will count in the long term. As evidenced by a recent event hosted by Georgetown University, Northwestern and the University of Cape Town, we are also bringing together students and faculty from around the world for a vigorous discussion and debate on the key challenges facing future generations. , from climate change to sustainable innovation. gender inequality and women’s rights.
As we imagine the future of the university, therefore, we may wish to stress that the work of organizing the university is not only the creation and accumulation of knowledge, but rather the reception, the practice and the transmission of something even greater than knowledge: wisdom through generations.
An orientation towards wisdom puts knowledge in its place: knowledge is no longer an end in itself, nor a product to be sold to ensure the sustainability of the institution. Instead, it’s a way to foster judgment, and it requires real-world engagement. This requires giving students the opportunity to apply their knowledge to deal with global crises in real time and to develop critical skills in intercultural and ethical engagement by working with local community leaders, as fostered by our Global Engagement Studies Institute. In a university geared towards the inculcation of wisdom and judgment rather than the strict transmission of knowledge, the classroom becomes a site of co-creation and inspiration – a place where generations converge and learn from each other. .
The focus on producing savvy students and not just expert students will require different types of learning experiences – ones that help students become familiar with the difference, for example, or faculty members to demonstrate how they struggle with the limits of their knowledge. This will require creating spaces for questioning and tinkering, not just demonstrations of knowledge – forums in which faculty and students can be vulnerable and recognize what they don’t know. We strive to create spaces like this through the Idea Incubation Process and the Meridian 180 Community, which foster dialogue and the sharing of disparate perspectives among global thinkers from different disciplines and professions. We also strive to give students the opportunity to work side by side with faculty and others around the world on social change projects, and there is room to grow in this space.
If a sustainable future is what we want to create, intergenerational wisdom must be the goal of the university of the future.