Upon receiving the invitation to write a contribution on the topic of “Utopias in Higher Education”, my mind went to a happy place. It feels like a hopeful challenge, an exciting call to action for anyone spending a significant part of their daily life in a classroom context. However, as an academic who mainly works on the theme of literature in the context of the Anthropocene, I felt how this excitement is quickly followed by cynicism. Can we justify an education of hope when the generation of students we are teaching is set up to encounter one of the largest global catastrophes in history? As I was writing this contribution, admittedly spiraling into an increasingly pessimistic pool of educational despair, I attended the 2023 conference on Resilience in Times of Adversity. When introducing one of the keynote speakers, Alkeline van Lenning cited the following line from Maria Popova: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.” (n.d.) Although this speech was delivered to an auditorium full of people, I felt personally called out for my pessimistic outlook. In my haste to pursue critical thinking, I might have discarded the notion of hope without reflection. At the same time, I still struggle to imagine a place for hope in this context. What can be the role of hope in preparing ourselves and our students for a future on this planet? How can we create a utopia-informed style of teaching, when our current state leaves so little room to hope for a better future?
In my own educational practice, I make it a point to discuss the topic of climate change with my students. For example, in a course on translating literature, we explore the topic of eco-translation: what role can literary translation play in fostering a more balanced relationship between humans and the rest of the world? For one assignment, I asked students to reflect on this potential. Could they see any place for themselves, as students of literature, in the context of climate change? One of my students started their assignment as follows:1
I found this question surreal. Like if some journalist were to ask American students, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, how they were relating to the larger urgency of ending the Cold War? I feel like those American students. What is the responsibility of American humanities scholars in the light of the Cuban Missile Crisis? I do not know, but if they had any, that is the same responsibility we have.
What stands out to me in this student’s response, is their frank acknowledgement that they feel completely inadequate in articulating a relationship between their work as a literary scholar and the unfolding environmental disaster. The comparison with the Cuban Missile Crisis indicates that temporality plays an important role in this: the student indicates that it is “surreal” to formulate a response to a crisis that you are currently living through. This student finds it difficult, almost indecent, to be asked to look beyond the now and into a possible future that you might be asked to co-construct.
In rereading the student’s response now, I realize that I had put this question to my students without given them the necessary tools to develop a way to connect their studies to a future world. In general, my teaching tends to focus on the world as it is rather than as it might be. One of the consequences of my failure to teach students a sense of futurity might show itself here as a limitation of their capability to foster forms of hope. In the context of climate change, a focus on the present inevitably encourages a highly negative worldview. If we only look at the reality we inhabit today, it is hard to escape a language of catastrophe. Amidst the melting ice caps, the species we lose every day, and the people who are involuntarily displaced due to loss of land and resources, there is very little reason for a positive response to the facts about our present.
In a recent collection of essays, Oziewicz, Attebery, and Dedinová (2022) argue that focusing on these depressing facts harms us (and our students) in preparing ourselves for the future. In fact, the authors argue, by repeating these facts over and over again, we are reinforcing the belief that our current situation was unavoidable, that our current reality is inescapable, and that any suggested change should be considered “too little, too late.” While the “facts & rage formula” (p.5) is often used by people who are generally concerned about the unfolding ecocide and are looking for a radical change, the thought-spaces that are needed for facilitating this change are foregone by the conservative mechanism that is employed. Focusing on the present via a language based on pessimistic facts, the authors argue, mostly works to confirm and reproduce the destructive system we have and forecloses any opportunity to work towards a more optimistic future. Feeling personally addressed in my cynicism yet again, I was encouraged to acknowledge the limitations of my pessimistically conservative approach to teaching students about climate change. In order to make my education more capable of including the future as well as the present, I might need to extend my fact-minded education of the present with a future-oriented “education of imagination”. What could such an education look like?
As a literary scholar, I propose to from the basic observation that our worldviews are structured by the language we use and the narratives we construct with that language. Our understanding of the world subsequently plays an important role in how we act on that world. In his exploration of the merits of an environmental approach to linguistics, Arran Stibbe refers to this function of language and literature as the “stories-we-live-by.” (2020) These are the narrative structures that inform our basic understanding of the world. These narratives form such a constant part of our lives, that we hardly even recognize them as stories anymore:
We are exposed to them without consciously selecting them or necessarily being aware that they are just stories. They appear between the lines of the texts which surround us in everyday life: in news reports, advertisements, conversations with friends, the weather forecast, instruction manuals or textbooks. They appear in educational, political, professional, medical, legal and other institutional contexts without announcing themselves as stories. (p.5)
Examples of these kinds of stories-we-live-by are the ‘prosperity story’ which promotes worship of material acquisition and money, and the ‘story of human centrality’ which outlines the position of humans as a species destined to be lord of all it surveys. These stories encourage our own understanding of the world and the position we (should) occupy in that world. Changing these stories should therefore allow us to change our own positionality and ultimately our actions:
How we think has an influence on how we act, so language can inspire us to destroy or protect the ecosystems that life depends on. Ecolinguistics, then, is about critiquing forms of language that contribute to ecological destruction, and aiding in the search for new forms of language that inspire people to protect the natural world. (p.1)
Based on these widely acknowledged linguistic strategies, an ecocritical approach to education would first include facilitating students to recognize the environmental implications of the stories they are taught in their program, including the aforementioned ‘prosperity story’ and ‘story of human centrality.’ This step should not be too difficult for me, a teacher in a humanities program, as it is based on a form of critical reading that is already built into our research and our educational practices. A next step, however, would be to encourage students to construct new stories that allow them to work towards a different understanding of the world – an understanding that would foster an environmentally friendly position for humans on earth. Moving from this first step to the second step seems to involve a much larger effort. In asking students to do this, I am asking them to resolve the perceived distance between the disastrous facts about the present and a hopeful imagination of the future. How can I ask students to imagine a hopeful future, based as they are in a present that is so catastrophic? How can I ask them to look at the future with hope, when today gives them no indication that their futures might be bright?
This is where the concept of utopia might play an important role. The concept might help me to bridge the gap between the disastrous present and the hopeful future. It could do so by way of the famous wordplay on which the concept is founded, combining the notion of an “ideal place” with that of an “non-existing place.” This combination of desire and virtuality allows us to dream up something we know is not (yet) real. An eco-utopia could be a place that does not exist in the present, but that can be shaped via our desires for an environmentally balanced world we could work towards in the future. By changing the stories-we-live-by now, we might make that future more likely to happen.
Encouraging students to create these eco-utopias would require me to shift my education in different ways. Most importantly, it means allowing space in my curriculum for the development and appreciation of future-oriented imagination. In addition to asking students to develop a critical understanding of the status quo, I would encourage them to create imagined potentials for the future. This will have to be a joint venture, in which I as a teacher learn utopian thinking alongside my students. For all parties, it requires us to “stay with the trouble” (Haraway, 2016), without allowing cynicism to drown us in that trouble. For my literary education, this would mean a shift away from catastrophic facts towards hopeful imaginations. I set students assignments that do not only ask them to study the current state of affairs, but also ask them to imagine possible scenarios of an ecologically balanced and stable civilization. I refocus my teaching to include both the present and the future, the facts and the imagination, catastrophe and hope. When we allow ourselves to imagine an ideal future, we might enable ourselves to move towards that future. And perhaps we do not need to wait for an undisclosed future moment in which this ideal place can be established. Donna Haraway (2016) asks us to resist the common tendency to differentiate between the presence and the future, in which the former is traditionally subservient to the latter:
In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings. (p.1)
When we know what we are working towards, we can start right now to build that place. By installing new stories-we-live-by, we might imagine breaking free from reproducing the destructive systems we have set up and work towards a reality that, for now, is both an “ideal place” and a “non-existent place.” By bringing this imagined futurity into the present, we might discard the “non-existing” dimension of our eco-utopia and establish the “ideal place” in our present. What can we do right now to build this eco-utopia? What would our world look like if we are committed to establishing our future dreams for an eco-utopia right here and now?
While I am finding my way back to the initial excitement I experienced when first invited to reflect on utopian education, and I’m mapping the different directions I could follow up on the potential for eco-utopian imagination in my educational practices, I cannot ignore the indignant voice in the back of my brain – the voice that insists that hopeful literature alone is not ever enough, that ecologically-minded literary education alone is not ever enough. Let me return to the student assignment I quoted above, which asked students to reflect on their potential to impact climate change via an ecologically conscious approach to translation studies. The student ends their text as follows:
I think it is too late for the humanities scholars to worry about eco-translation. I think we keep doing it almost ritualistically, alienated from our own writings. If the environment was our priority, we would not be living the lives we live the way we do.
In this response, we can recognize a broadly spread despair that Haraway refers to as the “game over attitude”: “a position that the game is over, it’s too late, there’s no sense trying to make anything any better, or at least no sense having any active trust in each other in working and playing for a resurgent world.” (2016, p.3) Although I am starting to convince myself that it is not necessarily “too late for humanities scholars to worry about eco-translation”, I cannot disagree with the student’s argument that our academic work, including our education, is often based on a large amount of alienation. We allow ourselves to disconnect our academic work from our personal actions and lifestyles. But what is the use of establishing an academic eco-utopia while we continue to live our high-carbon lives? How can we teach our students the value of eco-utopian thinking when they see us knowingly contribute to ecocide? It seems evident that not all of our teaching is done via curricula and teaching strategies, it reaches beyond our academic work into the way we interact with the world in general. Our continued destruction of the world affects not only the lives but also the learning of our students. Our lifestyle is destroying the world in which we are trying to teach our students to live. In thinking about utopian education, it seems therefore unethical to develop a line of eco-utopian teaching practices without including the necessary steps I take in my daily life to work towards this same environmental utopia. This requires a breaking down of traditional boundaries between our academic lives and our personal lives, an acknowledgement that these lives are meaningfully connected, and an encouragement for students to work from that same premise.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822373780
Ociewicz, M., Attebery, B., & Dedinová, T. (Eds.) (2022). Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene: Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media. Bloomsbury Academic. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350203372
Popova, M. (n.d.) Hope, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves. The Marginalian. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.themarginalian.org/2015/02/09/hope-cynicism/#:~:text=thinking%20and%20hope.-,Critical%20thinking%20without%20hope%20is%20cynicism,without%20critical%20thinking%20is%20na%C3%AFvet%C3%A9.&text=Finding%20fault%20and%20feeling%20hopeless,self%2Dprotection%20mechanism%20against%20it
Stibbe, A. (2020). Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By (2nd ed.) Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367855512