Students who now enter the university enter the lecture hall with the idea that the world is on fire. Education should do something about that, says cultural researcher Edwin van Meerkerk. In the coming years, he will investigate how sustainability can be incorporated into all of Radboud University’s degree programs.
What if teachers are told from above that they need to adapt their teaching? ‘Then the door closes,’ says Edwin van Meerkerk. ‘I know that trend all too well. After all, the lecturers do not have time for that. ‘ And yet Van Meerkerk, who himself teaches art and culture pedagogy, hopes to initiate changes in the field of education in the coming years.
Last year, during Radboud Impact Day, the university announced that from now on, all of its students will receive sustainability education – whether you study environmental science or pedagogy. It was the starting signal for an education that would prepare prospective students for the challenges of the future. But how does one do that?
Van Meerkerk is looking for the answer to that question. The Associate Professor of Cultural Studies will start in September on a project bearing the same name as Radboud University’s latest marketing slogan: You have a role to play† With a Comenius Scholarship from the NWO worth € 500,000 in his pocket, he will work for at least three years to integrate sustainability into education. His arrows are aimed not only at his own study program or faculty, but at the entire university.
This should lead to tangible and less tangible results. ‘I want a depot filled with modules, knowledge clips and course descriptions in three years that teachers who want more with sustainability can flip through. In the meantime, things need to change in the field of education. Little things – even if it’s just an assignment from an exam that has been adjusted – but that’s where it starts. It’s about planting a seed. Then the ball starts to roll by itself. ‘
‘What certainly does not work is to impose changes from the top down,’ Van Meerkerk continues. ‘It should be the other way around: from the bottom up.’ He will therefore ‘drink many cups of coffee’ from September, he says. Not only with teachers, but also with students.
After all, it is students who scream for education that provide answers to social questions, Van Meerkerk says. “This is the Greta Thunberg generation. These students enter the lecture hall with the idea: the world is on fire. Tell me, teacher – how should we put out this fire? They will not only become art historians or German teachers, but also want social problems. In the classroom.’
‘What do you want in your backpack when you enter the job market?’
Van Meerkerk uses the UN’s goals for sustainable development to concretize the concept of sustainability. These are not just about climate or biodiversity, but also about equality, education, economic growth and more. The dot on the horizon is 2030 – by that time the goals should have been reached, is the idea. “But we are going to fail deeply in that regard,” Van Meerkerk says. “And that means we’re facing some really big problems.” As a graduate, you should rather be prepared for that, he believes. ‘What do you want in your backpack when you enter the job market? That is the question that matters. ‘
All of these goals – from reducing poverty to promoting international cooperation – are linked, Van Meerkerk emphasizes. Students must learn to acquire the broad vision. ‘Each student must explore the relationship between these goals from his area of expertise. As an education, therefore, one can not say: we focus on one or two of those goals. No, it’s about complexity as a whole. ‘
What’s wrong with a biologist knowing all about biodiversity but less about poverty reduction?
‘By playing on one of the goals you risk causing damage on other goals. Let me explain it with an example. There is discussion of a new US law banning the import of hunting trophies from Africa. That law was created to protect wildlife. However, Tanzania is protesting against this, because the management of nature parks is financed by the proceeds of hunting. If that is no longer possible, poachers will have free rein and many Tanzanians will lose their main source of income. ‘
How do you see this interweaving of development goals reflected in your own field, the cultural sciences?
‘I have colleagues who are involved in fashion. It’s no longer just about what a dress looks like. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries on earth. Where the lectures started with Victor and Rolf, they are now also about transport, production costs and the fact that we make money on fashion made in developing countries. ‘
Or take the question: how western are museums? And I do not mean that in the tenor of what has come to be called ‘wokism’ in right-wing conservative circles, but of a genuine interest in the choices that have been made. What do they make visible in our society? ‘
‘Turning the education system upside down is completely impossible’
“In the field of cultural studies, in short, it is impossible not to be preoccupied with goals for sustainable development. We look at art, but we can still say something meaningful about the environment, the economy, and other things. It has strengthened me in the idea that the complexity and interdisciplinarity of sustainability can be brought into any education. Why should it not apply to communications scientists or physicists? ‘
Does education need to be radically different for this?
“That is the pitfall of such discussions. That after half an hour of brainstorming, the entire education system has been turned upside down. I must admit that I am also tempted, but it is completely impossible. Educational leaders are right to point out restrictions imposed by the Examination Board. Or that a visitation committee will visit next year. Not only can we throw everything overboard, but we have to start small. ‘
What is the first thing you want to do in September when this project starts?
‘I want to talk to students and teachers about what they are already doing in the field of sustainability. And why does it happen like that? What do students and teachers miss about this? Then we must start building: what is appropriate in this education? Some educations will say that they already have a course on sustainability. Or that they are already doing a lot. Then I will discuss it further, maybe also pick up people from other faculties, and then you will see that not all goals are covered yet.