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Jonas Andreasen Lysgaard

At the intersection of educative and political spaces: the public role of universities in the face of sustainability challenges.

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Worldwide, a consensus grows that the pursuit of sustainable development is one of the major societal challenges of our times. In 2015 the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: 17 goals ‘to transform our world’ by ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all. All over the world, a variety of both public and private actors are engaged in diverse local, national and global initiatives aimed at so-called ‘sustainability transitions’. Facing the impotence of existing decision-making institutions and routines to tackle sustainability problems adequately, appeals have been made to ‘learning’ as a driver for sustainable development. The transition towards more social justice and ecological sustainability is often framed as a matter of ‘learning by doing’ and ‘doing by learning’ (Loorbach 2007). Thus, political spaces in which people strive for a more sustainable world are considered to be also educative spaces, settings for much-needed non-formal learning.

Besides this tendency to approach political arenas as learning settings, it is obvious that educative spaces such as schools and universities are expected to also function as a political space, i.e. to contribute to solving societal, political problems. Policy initiatives like UNESCO’s Global Action Programme (GAP) on Education for Sustainable Development are set up in order to ‘generate and scale up action in all levels and areas of education and learning to accelerate progress towards sustainable development’. However, the relation between education and societal transformation has since long been the subject of a lively discussion in educational scholarship, which brings about nuanced criticism of the tendency to translate social and political problems into issues that need educational solutions. Recognising that education indeed has a public role, scholars problematize a linear, instrumental perspective on the relation between education, learning and the solution of social and political problems (Biesta 2006, Säfström 2011, Todd 2011, Masschelein and Simons 2013). Important topics of discussion are democracy, freedom, pluralism, citizenship, conflict, equality, initiating newness and creativity, identity, etc. These themes have recently also been taken up in ESE research (e.g. Van Poeck and Vandenabeele 2012, Læssøe and Öhman 2010, Lundegård and Wickman 2012, Garrison et al. 2015).

This symposium is an initiative of a recently established Scientific Research Network of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) that brings together political theorists, educational theorists and environmental and sustainability education (ESE) researchers from Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and South-Africa with a shared concern for deepening and widening our understanding of the public role of education in the face of sustainability challenges. They engage in interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration aimed at providing further theoretical and empirical grounding for the debate on this issue. In this symposium, some of them contribute to this ambition with a focus on the public role of universities in the face of sustainability challenges. Both in public discourse and through policy initiatives universities, too, are positioned on the above described intersection of political and educative spaces. Already in 1994, the Copernicus University Charter for Sustainable Development called on universities ‘to play a leading role in developing a multidisciplinary and ethically-oriented form of education in order to devise solutions for the problems linked to sustainable development’. The UN Decade of ESD as well as the GAP repeated and endorsed this appeal to universities to play a crucial role in reorienting education toward sustainability.

In this symposium, ESE researchers from Denmark, Belgium and Sweden present three studies on this topic (see paper abstracts) which will subsequently be critically discussed by Jan Masschelein from a philosophy of education perspective.
Original languageEnglish
Publication year2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventECER - UCC, Copenhagen, Denmark
Duration: 22 Aug 201725 Aug 2017



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