Are eco-versities the future for higher education? (2016)

Transforming learning into a process of liberation sounds great, but what does it mean in practice?

Eco-versity representatives at a meeting in Portugal in 2015.
Credit: Brandon Hay.

“Redefining the way we learn is also about being aware of the underlying patterns that have been imposed on us through our schooling. Many times we are not aware of these patterns, yet we all have them…To redefine the way we proceed with adult learning…was for me one of the most important outputs of this encounter.”

This is Hugo Oliveira from Schumacher College in the UK, talking about a movement that is slowly building all over the world—though often under the radar of formal education and the media. We describe it as a network of ‘eco-versities’—people, organizations and communities who are reclaiming their knowledge systems and cultural imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the needs of their times.

Although diverse in its origins, this network both critiques existing education systems that are broken and cultivates new practices to regenerate ecological and cultural ecosystems: hence the name ‘eco-versities.’ We’ve been engaged in this movement since we left our academic jobs in 2012 to visit and learn from new experiments in higher education right across the world.

As we visited these experiments we exchanged ideas, stories and challenges, and it soon became clear that those involved might benefit from engaging with each other directly. So with Manish Jain from Swaraj University in Udaipur, India, we organized a gathering at the Tamera eco-village in southern Portugal in August 2015. Fifty-five people from 23 countries attended.

In addition to those highlighted elsewhere in this article, the gathering included groups focused on gift cultures and the regeneration of the commons such as Unitierra in Mexico and the USA; others involved in learning around indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing like the Kainai Studies program at Red Crow Community College in Canada and Aloha Pedagogy  in Hawai’I; and organizations experimenting with self-designed agro-ecological learning such as Gaia University (in the USA and worldwide) and Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe.

Other participants came from places that engage with systemic ways of addressing global crises like Mycelium in the USA; artist-activists whose work is centered around experimental learning such as the School of Engaged Art in Russia; communities that want to reclaim their own stories through independent media and spaces for dialogue like barbershops (in the case of Canada’s Black Daddies Club); and individuals who are creating spaces of resistance within the traditional academic system.

We deliberately co-organized the six days we spent together as an ‘un-conference,’ with lots of time for sharing and co-creation, sessions that were self-organized, and open-spaces designed to weave together new friendships and alliances. We were actively trying to avoid reproducing the format of a typical academic gathering. What happened in these spaces wasn’t always easy or comfortable since learning often comes through ruptures or being faced with the unknown and unfamiliar. But it was definitely transformative by enlivening our ways of thinking, feeling and relating. The gathering became a concrete example of higher education re-imagined, offering fresh glimmers of hope and possibility.

One key question we confronted was how to care for each other in deeper learning processes like these, where there’s an explicit valuing of different forms of knowledge and an emphasis on reweaving relationships between people and the non-human world—in sharp contrast to traditional academic hierarchies and the fragmentation of disciplines.

Instead, we wanted to prioritize the ethics and politics of care, and pay attention to the things that are often left out of formal education like the heart, healing, play, and learning with and across different generations.

“I have had many beginnings of conversations I’d like to continue with others. I have a sense of warmth, a sense of trust, a more exercised sense of patience, less scruples, loads of more questions, and all the smiles I saw…in between planes, in between errands, in between continents, in between commitments, visions come with the power of all of you.”  Alessandra Pomarico from the Free Home University in Italy

We used a wide range of knowledge and practices in complementary ways, rather than ranking them in terms of being more, or less, ‘useful’ or ‘rigorous,’ or devaluing some of them just because they might be unfamiliar or unusual. The struggles we had over the meaning and implications of these things provided the friction and then the glue that enabled deeper learning to take place and stronger friendships to develop.

There was also a lot of emphasis on how to learn and be together—how to inquire collectively, in solidarity with one another and in support of the communities and ecologies we inhabit.

“Our entire six days were filled with the pressing question of how we collectively claim our project—are we a community of insurgent learners, a network of de-professionalized intellectuals, and/or an occasional un-conference made up of folks committed to advancing local projects while at the same time trying to imagine…our emergence as an effort to be in, against and beyond institutions of higher education?” Manolo Callahan from Unitierra in California

Another goal was to share different working practices that follow from an orientation towards shared knowledge and mutually-supportive learning. Dina Bataineh of Taghmees   in Jordan and Palestine, for example, talked about ‘social kitchens’ that combine the ingredients of people, food, and fabric to engage in community learning that honors people’s lived experiences.

Manolo Callahan and Edgardo Garcia (from Unitierra in Oaxaca and California) guided us through an assemblea, a Zapatista approach to meeting and hearing the views of those present in the room with the purpose of making decisions. And Manish and Reva Dandage from Swaraj University in India used the methodology of melas (or fairs) to encourage people to pool ideas about their projects.

We started to create a language that went beyond words. I felt the power of abundant friendship and its ability to confront the violence that attempts to maintain the gap between the intellectual, manual, natural,and immaterial (of) life.” Mike Neary from the Social Science Centre in the UK 

We also had moments of visioning during which experiences and insights emerged through intuition, imagination and play and not just through the rational mind. For example, Vanessa Andreotti from the University of British Columbia in Canada steered us through a visioning session that started with a question: ‘What does this land and gathering want from us?’

In response we created an image that emerged within each one of us, and were encouraged to feel our way into drawing what we had seen. These images were then mapped out on the floor collectively alongside a more rationally-driven mapping of questions that we’d created a few days earlier with help from Ian Kendrick from the University of the Third Horizon in the UK. The comparisons and contrasts between the two different mappings were powerful and instructive: for example, in exploring how education can connect us through visual imagery that included representations of tree roots, fertility, waves and water.

Further inspiration came from music and poetry, walks and swims, toasts, jokes and dancing. In other words, we began a process of finding or inventing a language to speak to and learn from each other in order to co-create a new story of higher education.

What was both beautiful and surprising was how healing manifested across diverse people and in very different ways in the group—from those in the frontline of violent struggles (viscerally and physically) to people experiencing violence more subtly but still systemically through educational institutions or in the workplace. Perhaps healing could take place as it did because all of us became vulnerable, so we were able to engage with each other in deep and heart-felt ways.

“The deepest inspiration I got from the meeting was hope, to know that many people around the world struggle daily to build other ways of living….Eco-versities gave me that strength and hope that we are not alone and that we can change this world.” Edgardo Garcia from Unitierra in Oaxaca, Mexico

The impacts of the gathering are still being felt—in terms of new questions and provocations, changed sensibilities and practices, confidence reinvigorated, and perhaps most importantly, new friendships made. Many of us have deepened our conversations since we met by visiting each other, interacting online, becoming more deeply acquainted with each others’ work and life, and exploring collective writing and solidarity-based inquiry. The hope is that later in 2016, this growing network of eco-versities will meet again to deepen these explorations of higher education reimagined and enlivened.

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