Re-imagining higher education

Learning takes place in the heart, the hands and the home, not just in the head. What does that mean for the universities of the future?

Students from Red Crow Community College visiting Omahkakihtakssin (Majorville Medicine Wheel) in southern Alberta, Canada.  Credit: Narcisse Blood. All rights reserved.

Situated within the same walls that once housed St. Mary’s Residential Missionary School, Red Crow Community College lies in the Blackfoot First Nations Reserve of southern Alberta. Up until the 1970s, First Nations children across Canada were removed from their families and taught the European culture of the settler-newcomers in these schools as part of a policy of assimilation that aimed to destroy indigenous ways of life.

Many of the staff working at the College had been forced to attend St. Mary’s as children. But by re-taking control of their own education, they’ve been able to create a “Kainai Studies” program to reclaim their culture. “Kainai” (or “Blood” as it’s more commonly known) is one of the four bands of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The Kainai Studies program is teaching a new generation of Blackfoot and non-Blackfoot students the language, knowledge and life practices that have sustained people in this region for thousands of years. In the process, the philosophy and practice of higher education are also being challenged and transformed.

The aim is not just to learn indigenous knowledge. Kainai Studies goes much deeper than that. The goal is to encourage students to engage directly with the world outside of the classroom, and to build relationships with the land and the community that were destroyed by traditional schooling.

Narcisse Blood, a Blackfoot Elder and co-founder of the Kainai Studies program, explains further:

“The basis of our relationship with the newcomers was fear. The fear was in the form of the forts and those big walls that they put around themselves, to keep them safe from the Natives and thus the environment. That metaphor of a fort, for me, is really played out with universities. Universities think they know everything. They are afraid to go out of those walls, especially here in North America. Hey, there’s knowledge out there [too]!”

By contrast, in the Kanai/Blackfoot worldview education is a life-long process of “becoming fully human…to learn how to adapt ourselves to our ecological surroundings, not the other way around,” as Ryan Heavyhead put it to us, another co-founder of the program.

Students spend time sitting in a particular place on the land, two hours a day, three days a week, right throughout the year, to learn the nuances of the seasons. Little by little, this enables them to relearn everything about the place and all of the plants and animals that live there—most importantly, to build relationships with the land and “let the land learn who we are again.”

Red Crow Community College is one of many experiments around the world that are actively re-imagining higher education to meet the social, economic and ecological crises of today. Many of them have emerged from social and ecological movements, and indigenous communities. They represent something of a ‘silent revolution’—silent because they’re ignored by the mainstream of education and the media.

That’s important because the inability of societies to deal with the multiple crises they face is closely linked to education systems that stultify the imagination and encourage narrow thinking. The solution is not simply to expand access to education (the dominant policy narrative), but to transform it and broaden the kinds of knowledge that are considered useful and legitimate.

“It is difficult to imagine a future that is humane, decent and sustainable,” says Professor David Orr, “without marked changes in the substance and process of education at all levels, beginning with the university”

But those working in higher education are experiencing the opposite reality: increasingly bureaucratic, non-democratic and managerialist leadership as these institutions become part of the ‘global knowledge economy.’ Fees, debt, and competition for places are increasing, while prospects for employment are in decline. This has lead a growing number of young people to question the purpose and viability of a university education, especially one that purports to know the world from a distant and abstracted position severed from our relationships to each other and the world around us.

We’ve both spent a long time in this kind of academic system, and have felt increasingly constrained and frustrated. So in September of 2012 we left our jobs to head out on a self-funded learning journey designed to document innovative approaches to knowledge and self-discovery.

Over the past 12 months we’ve travelled to North, Central and South America, Australasia, South East Asia, and South Asia, visiting places along the way like Red Crow; Brazil’s Popular School of Critical Communication in Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela; the Latin American hub of Gaia University in Chile; Australia’s Aboriginal Mulka Project; the Adivasi Academy and Swaraj University in India; and Mexico’s Unitierra in Oaxaca (the “University of the Earth”).  We’re making a series of films along the way.

At Unitierra, learning is an activity that takes place between friends, meaning it’s conducted in a non-hierarchical way that’s deeply rooted in place, as well as in the historical and contemporary challenges faced by urban and indigenous communities in Mexico. Thinking and doing are intimately connected, and one of the key goals is to re-weave the social fabric of the region by nurturing people’s collective autonomy and creativity, so learning activities are directed by people’s needs.

During our two week visit to Unitierra, we attended two workshops on urban tree and fruit propagation and another on how to build a compostable eco-toilet (following a critical discussion about the sacredness of water). But we also participated in theoretical discussions about gender that involved more than 30 people from across Spain and Latin America via tele-conference; planning sessions on the production of local media; and a seminar on ‘What is Zapatismo today?’ in response to the nineteenth anniversary of the emergence of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas.

During an interview for our film, Gustavo Esteva, a writer, ‘de-professionalised intellectual’ and founder of Unitierra, told us that: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Unitierra is one very small space, a component of a very general attempt in Mexico and other places to create a new society, in the womb of the old society. The old system is destroying everything, the environment, mother earth, culture, society, everything.  A new society is being born and we are part of these kinds of initiatives trying to do experiments that can produce this new society”.

Although vastly different in their ecology, history, culture and place in the political landscape, each of the places we’ve visited emphasizes transformative learning that prioritizes connections to ourselves, our relationships to each other and the environment.  Learning takes place in the heart, the hands and the home, not just in the head.

Self-directed learning, social and ecological entrepreneurship, indigenous ways of knowing and artistic expression, permaculture, local media production and alternative energy and sanitation technologies all have a role in pedagogy.  Most importantly, these practices are a part of daily life for the people who are learning in these places. We were constantly inspired by their self confidence, compassion and hospitality toward us and each other, and how they spoke of their own experiences of transformation and healing.

Within this silent revolution, knowledge is not pursued for profit, or just for training students for jobs in the marketplace. Instead, real wisdom is being nurtured—the potential for people to transform themselves and their communities. Learning in these places is alive, because it is linked to what’s most important to each person.

The multiple crises facing communities are being met head on, with creative solutions that inspire the confidence to learn and live in ways that are meaningful and empowering. This enables and encourages people to become “more fully human” as Ryan and Narcisse taught us when we visited them among the fading grasslands of the Blackfoot Reservation.

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