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Edutopia: the educational utopia that is not!

Six synergistic approaches can help us realise a shared vision of educational sustainability

By Asad I Mian |
PUBLISHED August 01, 2021

A few weeks back I received an invitation to present a keynote at the Iqra University for a conference on education. When I first received the email, my first thought was that it was either spam or sent to me mistakenly. For three reasons. (1) I’m a doctor and researcher, (2) what do I have to do with pedagogy of education; in fact, I shudder whenever I am faced with something like that, and (3) the exit route – not to get involved in more things when you are already doing two full time jobs.

Anyhow, on reading the email further, I was hooked: I came across phrases like ‘Covid-19 has changed our assumptions’, ‘rethinking education and learning spaces’, but above all, ‘sustainable education and educating sustainability’. Although, to be honest, I had to remind myself that the latter wasn’t just a tongue twister!

Once reassured that I indeed was the intended recipient of the invitation, and that I indeed would be the right person for this, I started with drafting a brief outline for the keynote. I could present on the hackathons and other initiatives executed through the co-innovation and incubation hub that I direct at the Aga Khan University. Through that, I could make a solid case for sustainable informal education that is creative, innovative and entrepreneurial –a unique mindset for a medical university, but of great value to learners far beyond medicine. However, I felt that something was still lacking in the above approach. I had to somehow bring into it educational sustainability, and since we are far from any such sustainability, the title, ‘Edutopia: the educational utopia that is not’, was coined. In this article, I describe six synergistic approaches to achieve a shared vision of edutopia. I end by making a strong case for educating environmental sustainability as sustainable education’s raison d’etre.


Deschooling and reschooling

Several years back I wrote an article with the title ‘a purposeful education’. It started off with lyrics of a famous song sung by the band Pink Floyd in1979, in which upset and angry school kids are chanting “we don’t need no education we don’t need no thought control”. Those poignant lyrics inspired me to create the word EDUTOPIA, to describe an educational utopia. In said article I made the point that although edutopia was not a word recognized by Webster’s or Oxford dictionaries, that shouldn’t stop us from striving even harder for that elusive utopia. One of the most important issues the aforementioned article delved into was education in the 21st century being a ‘deschooling-reschooling process’. This premise was based on a scathingly provocative and evocative book called ‘Deschooling Society’ published by Ivan Illich in 1971. Illich was a South American, Roman Catholic priest, theologian, philosopher, and social critic. Deschooling Society was hypercritical of modern society's institutional approach to education, an approach that ‘constrains learning to narrow situations in a fairly short period of the human lifespan’.

Although we are far from edutopia, in order to progress towards it, we need to empty ourselves of the rubbish in our heads (so deschooling from that perspective) before we can be reschooled in what should be best practices for education. The same applies to reimagining our learning spaces and learning methodologies (virtual and real). Therefore, deschooling and reschooling shall help us align with our journey towards edutopia.


Examining assumptions, confronting prejudice

Let’s jump ahead 50 years from Illich’s book and we are looking at Harari’s brilliance as a historian and author. In his work, Harari, like Illich, is hypercritical of contemporary institutionalized practices of education and health – but he also throws in politics, religion, and popular science/culture into the mélange. I was so inspired by his work that I ended up reviewing and reporting on two of his books for the Express tribune. The more recent of those was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The bit that I must share with you from the latter is about modern schooling. Harari states that to ‘hack education’ we need to alert children in modern schools to the adults around them and their parochial viewpoints. He postulates that rather than practical wisdom for contemporary living what the younger lot is likely to get from adults is biased/prejudiced worldview.

We have our prejudices about everything and we really don’t understand the world the way we claim to, especially in this pandemic. Yet, how many of us are going to be honest in acknowledging that? This honesty within that we can embark on shall align us with edutopia.


Resurrecting creativity in schools

I gave you the examples of brilliant social critics/philosopher-teachers like Illich and Harari. Let me add another. Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity expert, and well-known educator/author, who in his exceedingly popular TED talk states that kids fundamentally are not at all afraid of being wrong or making mistakes. But many of them lose this capacity. And he uses the example of creativity to make that point. He goes on to state how, unfortunately, it is schools themselves that do this. He raises the point that we are educating people out of their creative abilities – things that people are excited or passionate about become liabilities in their minds and they stop nurturing those creative skillsets.

Do schools kill creativity? Yes! Hence, acknowledging that as a first step, we can actively move towards creativity and its resurrection in our schools, colleges, universities, and workplaces, as another path towards edutopia.


Pursuing creative happiness

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk will certainly get you to think about your school years. When we think about those wonder years of schooling, we may want to ponder whether we can recall them as the happiest times of our lives? How many can actually claim that? And what about now? Are our kids happy with schooling that has been disrupted by Covid-19? I bring to you as an example the case of John Lennon of the Beatles. In school he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said happy. The response from the school was that he did not understand the question, to which he replied that they didn’t understand life.

To understand life, we’ve got to be happy, so aligning our schooling (no matter at what stage of life) with pursuit of creative happiness is edutopia.


Confronting educational orthodoxy

To support the points above I have given you examples of a few individuals from the Western world. Moving to our own nation, the example that is more pertinent to our circumstances can be highlighted through a recent article by Pervaiz Hoodbhoy. It makes a cogent case for the archaic nature of the single national curriculum. Linked with the latter is regulatory oversight handed to religious scholars to supervise content of science schoolbooks. With that carte blanche the religious right has gone trigger happy warning biology textbook publishers, as just one example, to refrain from printing human figures without clothes. Rather than progressing towards 3D-Printing, Virtual/Augmented Reality techniques, and such, to study human anatomy, physiology and pathology in the 21st century, it seems like we are being aided and abetted towards human biological repression in Pakistan. This absurd obsession with enforced modesty is a travesty of sustainable modern education.

Collectively realising this and creating a strong counterculture to such outdated viewpoints is edutopia within our own national boundaries.


Environmental sustainability

While working on the ending to the keynote, and keeping it relevant to edutopia, I wondered what book would help me articulate it best. The book that I brought forth from my memories’ archive was ‘Ishmael’ – a piece of fiction that explores the interplay of ethics, sustainability and environmental catastrophe. It is largely created as a Socratic conversation between two characters. The Socrates in this case happens to be a gorilla in captivity. In the conversation, Ishmael highlights several widely accepted assumptions of modern society, the most detrimental being human supremacy, a cultural myth with catastrophic consequences for humankind and the environment. I first read this book when I was 15 or 16 years old; and I was disturbed. It has now been more than 25 years since the publication of the book. The environment has worsened in the interim: the pace at which environmental degradation is occurring has grown exponentially. Why am I highlighting Ishmael? Because it’s intimately linked to education of all sorts, not just primary schooling, college or higher education. The kind of messages that nature (plants, animals, and the environment) is giving us has already made it clear that neither sustainable education nor educating sustainability will be of much use with huge environmental unsustainability brought about by human intervention - deforestation, impure water/air/soil, extinction of species with its concomitant lack of biodiversity…need I go on?

“If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”

This was said by Jonas Salk, an American researcher, virologist, and educator, who developed the first successful polio vaccine. Given its Covid-19 with its rampant vaccine nationalism, perhaps quoting a virologist is not a bad idea - however, this quote of his, decades’ old, isn’t flattering for human beings.

Edutopia will be when we educate ourselves and every human being around us, irrespective of age, gender, global South or North location, about valuing the environment. That was simply Ishmael’s lesson, that I internalised a lifetime ago, but my ‘busy life’ got in the way.



Before concluding this essay, I would like to posit something: Why do we want higher education and going past that why do we want education at all? What is higher education? How are we defining it? Is it higher relative to something lower or lowly/inferior? Do we want higher education because it’s somehow linked in our psyches to information, data or dataism – a neo religion; because data is king or data is God in some circles? Or do we want higher education because we are seeking knowledge or wisdom or higher purpose? Are we wanting higher education to obtain job security, money, fame, spouse; all the above or none of the above? Or for some other reasons? Perhaps for some of us it’s a lifelong pursuit, a journey versus a destination, and thus it’s an intangible?

The above are not merely rhetorical questions. I think we have the responsibility to ask of our faculty, students, leaders, community – but above all of ourselves. Because what is the impact of that higher education that we are seeking? What is the change that we wish to seek?

While thinking about change, the question that comes to my mind is: do you or I want to hear myself merely spout educational philosophies followed by ineffectual attempts at educational reform? My answer would be no, because I don’t have the answers to the educational crisis, we find ourselves in; yet I’m also cognizant of the brevity of time. I think we have run out of time for such intellectual debates. The world is not in a good place. Our planet is dying. We are killing plants and animals exponentially, and we are tampering with biological ecosystems with utmost disregard. Thus, educating about environmental sustainability becomes crucial. If a happy and thriving world isn’t there, then any education we do is pointless and just a band aid.