Teaching the Anthropocene from a Global Perspective

In memory of Yehuda Elkana. By Manfred D. Laubichler and Jürgen Renn.

The Anthropocene is a geological epoch defined by the consequences of human activity. As such, its reach is global, even planetary. Yet, despite the dramatic impact of human activities, which themselves are a consequence of human knowledge, but also a lack thereof, most educational practices remain fragmented and discipline-bound. We train our students in specific domains, we organize research activities according to disciplinary questions and standards and we evaluate students and researchers on how well they fit into the traditional system of academic specialization.

At the same time, we are well aware that all real world problems do not fall within the boundaries of disciplinary separation. They require inter- or transdisciplinary approaches, and in response, broad research projects are organized to tackle these issues. But whenever researchers are involved in a project, they have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to understand each other and to meet different sets of expectations, concerns and standards. If they do succeed, and this is still a big “if,” they face the additional challenge of communicating their findings to a public who is even less inclined to understand and appreciate the complexities of today’s problems. We need only point to the regular ritual of misinterpreting the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports to make our case.

While the research system is slowly moving toward transdisciplinary approaches and researchers are learning to work together in interdisciplinary teams, our educational systems are lagging behind. In the midst of the dramatic changes in knowledge dissemination afforded by the digital revolutions, our universities are faced with an intellectual crisis. It is a crisis of purpose, focus and content, rooted in fundamental confusion about all three. In consequence, curricula are largely separate from research, subjects are still taught in disciplinary isolation, knowledge is conflated with information and more often than not presented as static rather than dynamic. Furthermore, universities are largely reactive rather than providing clear, forward-looking visions and critical perspectives. The crisis is all the more visible today as the pace of social, intellectual and technological change both inside and outside the universities is increasingly out of step.

How, then, can universities respond to the challenges of today, the challenges of the Anthropocene? Here we report on ideas that emerged from several discussions, including those of a working group of scholars organized by the late Yehuda Elkana who met at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin during the academic year 2009/10. This group initially proposed a set of eleven overlapping principles designed to inform an international dialogue and to guide an experimental process of redesigning university undergraduate curricula worldwide. Given the huge diversity of institutional structures and cultural differences amongst universities, there can of course be no standard formula for implementation of these principles, but these principles, we believe, provide the foundational concepts for what needs to be done.

  • As a central guideline: teach disciplines rigorously in introductory courses together with a set of parallel seminars devoted to complex real-life problems that transcend disciplinary boundaries.

  • Teach knowledge in its social, cultural and political contexts. Teach not just the factual subject matter, but highlight the challenges, open questions and uncertainties of each discipline.

  • Create awareness of the great problems humanity is facing (hunger, poverty, public health, sustainability, climate change, water resources, security, etc.) and show that no single discipline can adequately address any of them.

  • Use these challenges to demonstrate and rigorously practice interdisciplinarity, avoiding the dangers of interdisciplinary dilettantism.

  • Treat knowledge historically and examine critically how it is generated, acquired and used. Emphasize that different cultures have their own traditions and different ways of knowing. Do not treat knowledge as static and embedded in a fixed canon.

  • Provide all students with a fundamental understanding of the basics of the natural and social sciences, and the humanities. Emphasize and illustrate the connections between these traditions of knowledge.

  • Engage with the world’s complexity and messiness. This applies to the sciences as much as to the social, political and cultural dimensions of the world. This will contribute to the education of concerned citizens.

  • Emphasize a broad and inclusive evolutionary mode of thinking in all areas of the curriculum.

  • Familiarize students with non-linear phenomena in all areas of knowledge.

  • Fuse theory and analytic rigor with practice and the application of knowledge to real-world problems.

  • Rethink the implications of modern communication and information technologies for education and the architecture of the university.

It is maybe uncharacteristic for academics, but we did not stop with the formulation of these principles. We took them back to our institutions and, together with like-minded colleagues, initiated a phase of curricular experimentation.

At the center of many discussions has been the subject of the Anthropocene. Is this concept just a fad, or an attempt to find a more appealing word to talk about the threatening environmental catastrophe? Or can it be an organizing focus for curricular innovation, a concept that opens new perspectives for natural and social scientists as well as humanists to come together and design new and integrated curricula? Humans are intervening in the course of nature to a hitherto unknown degree. The constant hunger for more energy and the exploitation of natural resources make humans as a whole—and highly industrialized nations in particular—responsible for the processes that are known as climate change and are at the focus of current debates. This is clear. But what else do we have to know? And how can fields like the history of science or knowledge contribute to our understanding of these processes? By simply defining new epochs and new epistemic objects?

Concepts such as “resources” and “sustainability” have their own long histories, of course, based originally on eighteenth-century ideas of how to manage German forests. Similarly, the attempt to understand historical processes from the perspective of their interdependency with nature is also not new. Environmental historians have been telling these stories for some time. But how did the current situation come about? Is the Anthropocene really a recent historical epoch, which began with the “Great Acceleration” of the modern period? And what does the history of knowledge and science have to do with it? What is there for us to learn from previous experiences with changes in how we deal with resources? Looking at the long history of the Anthropocene, we see a protracted series of co-evolutionary events intertwined between human societies, their knowledge economies and the environment: a global history of constructing the ecological, technological and cultural niche in which we live today.

With these considerations in mind, we designed one experiment in particular that focuses on the global dimension of teaching the Anthropocene. The Global Classroom Experiment began with a collaboration between Arizona State University (the largest public university in the United States) and Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. Both universities are among the first to focus on sustainability as a subject for both research and education. In this context, we designed a three-semester, research-based curriculum on the topic “Sustainable Cities: Contradiction in Terms?” It involved faculty at ASU (led by Manfred Laubichler and Robert Page) and Leuphana (led by Daniel Lang). The program took full advantage of the new technologies to facilitate learning, discussions and research collaboration. Online resources, generated by us and by others, provided multiple perspectives on issues of urbanization and its problems. Video conferencing enabled us to conduct joint seminars (across a nine hour time difference), and the international student teams were able work on their projects, also using social media, and, depending on the collaboration, to conduct face-to-face meetings in form of exchange visits. The students were able to design and execute research projects of the highest quality.

Although these projects yielded impressive results, they are not the most important educational accomplishments to emerge from the Global Classroom. Over the course of three semesters, the students developed a number of skills (from time management to teamwork) that will continue to help them throughout their careers. They also gained first-hand experience with differences in the values, assumptions and cultural norms that influence what is considered to be knowledge and what is considered to be an acceptable solution to a problem in various contexts. In other words, they gained a deeper understanding of the global dimensions of the Anthropocene.