Emancipation or Indoctrination? A Reflection on Education from Disillusioned Students
The following article has been submitted by a group of students who have recently graduated from Utrecht University’s Dutch Sustainable Development masters programme. Unfortunately, the programme left them deeply disappointed on many levels. Our suspicion is that what these students bemoan – the general hostility to students who think critically or adopt an emancipatory political attitude – is not an isolated case but can be experienced in many Dutch institutions of Higher Education. So if you are a student or teacher who’s had similar experiences please come forward and share your experience with our readership. We are happy to provide a platform for such a critical conversation and help make connections between those who want to build alternatives.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness … who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes … who were expelled from the academies for crazy”
- Allen Ginsburg, 1956
“It seemed like I had a sickness. No one wanted to interact or speak to me. I was too much of an extremist. A professor bluntly told me to shut up during one of my classes. Most of my critical comments were not welcomed, especially if the professor felt I was in disaccord with their life philosophy. I started questioning my own mental sanity.”
- Sustainability Student, 2019
Education is commonly identified as a crucial foundation for a better, more sustainable, more just future – but what happens when educational institutions fail to ‘keep up’ and end up sabotaging our very ability to contribute to such a future by educating us in outdated modes and priming us for a failed system? Knowledge is never apolitical: it can either be a tool for emancipation, that allows us to view the world with a critical lens and become active participants in its transformation, or it can act as a mechanism of assimilation, stifling, molding and then inserting us into the current dysfunctional system (1). Unfortunately, the latter has been the experience by many of us.
As recent graduates of Sustainable Development we can say that we have learnt a lot more about how not to do ‘development’ than anything else; a valuable lesson in itself but one accompanied by distress, frustration and outright anger. There is a growing understanding among academics that the development trajectory championed by the ‘West’ is inherently unsustainable, causing destruction to livelihoods and the environment. Achieving true sustainability will require radical changes and a questioning of fundamental beliefs, including the underlying logic of economic growth and development itself. If this is what progressive scholars are telling us, how is it that one of the foremost academic institutions created to address issues of sustainable development is so static and backwards? Can we make the university contemporary, truly representative and open to dealing with the complexities of our time, or will it persist as the necessary counterpart in opposition to which more radical ideas emerge?
No aspect of our program questioned core values of development or created space to contemplate what alternatives to development could look like. The program was in essence organized around the globalized and technocratic Sustainable Development Goals, with an emphasis on measuring them through indicators and statistical regressions and implementing them onto unfamiliar contexts and cultures. Not only was there very little critical education, but more importantly critical thought was more often than not put down and ridiculed.
The questioning and trivializing of students’ desire for change is a particularly serious issue in a field where a lot of students are already experiencing climate depression and are forced to deal with heavy truths on a daily basis - truths which seem to have no effect on the lecturers disseminating them. The institution’s archaism and rigidity came in many forms, some more subtle than others, such as when told that arguing for the Rights of Nature does not align with the faculty’s language policy and thus cannot be discussed; or being told, after an exhilarating realization that the spread of knowledge among a community of students and educators is akin to the spread of information of rhizome networks of trees, that such ideas “do not meet department standards”; or when attempting to make the link between environmental policy and environmental consciousness for an assignment only to be told that environmental consciousness is an invalid concept because there are no indicators for it; or when a student was called a ‘vegan economist’ by a lecturer for questioning the underlying assumptions of carbon capture and was ridiculed for bringing alternatives such as degrowth to the table; or when a student spoke up in class to ask that the professor stop using gender binaries only to be confronted by ridicule, mocking and a defensive retaliation questioning in turn the limits of political correctness; or when the term underdeveloped countries is still used even when identified as disrespectful by students from so-categorized countries; or when a prestigious professor in the department describes Native Americans as being only good at getting drunk and women as only being good at gossiping.
These are just some examples of, at times, an absurd level of insensitivity and the denial of students’ ability to expand their epistemological horizons by searching for new connections and new solutions.
What we are tasking the institution with is not easy, as the French anthropologist Bruno Latour says, “actually knowing how to become contemporary, that is, of one’s own time, is the most difficult thing there is.” All we ask is that the university be aware of its rigidity and encourage those students trying to think outside the box rather than make them feel crazy. We believe that our education needs to be continuously re-examined and reconstructed; it needs to be a source of emancipation, not repression. It seems as though the university today has become one of the institutions that must be unmade and counteracted (2). Only true, deep, uncomfortable reflection encouraged in a conducive environment can lead to solutions existing outside of the status quo, and it is becoming unbearably clear that the status quo is no longer serving our needs or the planets’.