Memo from the future: Iveta Silova on global education in 2050

 Memo from the future: Iveta Silova on global education in 2050
October 14, 2020
Erik Ketcherside

UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — commissioned a series of background papers for its Futures of Education initiative and “Learning to Become,” a large-scale report on global education to be published later this year. Among the individuals and organizations approached was the Common Worlds Research Collective, an interdisciplinary network of researchers founded by Affrica Taylor, Mindy Blaise and Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw. A newer member is Iveta Silova, professor at MLFTC and director of its Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education. She and the collective’s founders authored the report, “Learning to Become With the World: Education for future survival.

The report is a challenging declaration. It calls for a shift in how we view education — and much more — that is so vast, the authors could only express it by projecting themselves three decades into the future, then looking back on what it will take us to get there.

Erik Ketcherside: The setting of the paper, written as if you’re looking back from the year 2050, is one I’ve never run across in a paper like this. Is it a unique approach?

Iveta Silova: The setting of the paper is quite unique and it made the writing process both refreshing and exciting! We wrote the paper from the perspective of 2050, looking back at our current condition and challenging ourselves — and our readers — to consider the urgent changes we need to make now in order to survive in the future. It is written as a speculative fabulation, a form of an “SF” genre that broadly includes science fiction, science fact, science fantasy, situated feminism, speculative futures and more. While there are important differences and overlaps between these SF approaches, what brings them together is a deliberate practice of “thought experiments” that enables us to explore, question and experiment with the mainstream status-quo, while opening the space to seriously consider alternatives. We were especially inspired by the work of Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, Val Plumwood and other feminist philosophers who use SF as a means of developing a specific mode of attention that gives rise to the possibilities in the making; not only questioning the authoritative distribution between what is possible and impossible (or what is acceptable and unacceptable), but also developing the capacity to see, imagine and articulate viable alternatives to the current status quo. Because such thought experiments are largely missing in the field of education, we thought it was a great opportunity to try it in order to bring attention to what may be possible. 

Writing from 2050 about today’s education context has also allowed us to experiment with the notion of time. By disrupting the linear progression of time, we can bring the “future” much closer to our “present” and thus highlight the urgency of taking action now. We are not talking about a distant time far away in the future, but about a future that is here, now — a future that demands our immediate attention and action.

EK: How did this commission, and your involvement in it, come about?

IS: The Common Worlds Research Collective was one of the organizations approached by UNESCO’s Futures of Education Initiative for this series of these background papers for the “Learning to Become” report. We’re an interdisciplinary network of researchers concerned with our relations with the more-than-human world. I joined the collective more recently than my co-authors, and while our paths have crossed in the past, the connections have intensified in the last few years, in new ways. For example, in 2019, Affrica and I participated in a fantastic symposium at East China Normal University in Shanghai, which led to the publication of a special issue “Beyond the Western Horizon in Educational Research: Toward a Deeper Dialogue About Our Interdependent Futures” (which I co-edited with Jeremy Rappleye and You Yun) in ECNU Review of Education.

More recently, I invited Affrica, Veronica and Mindy to be a part of a plenary panel at the annual conference “Education Beyond the Human,” which I organized in my role as a president of the Comparative and international Education Society. For me, the collective has become an incredible source of inspiration and a much-needed professional network of support. Over a relatively short period of time, email exchanges have spilled over into more frequent interactions and collaborations, involving not only the four of us, but also our graduate students. Then somehow in the middle of all this, we started writing the background paper for the UNESCO report together.

EK: And yet your names aren’t on the cover.

IS: The “official” author of the background paper is the Common Worlds Research Collective, not the individual members. This was an important decision that recognizes the collective effort of “thinking-with” and “becoming-with” each other during the report writing. In the academic culture, such collective authorship is rarely acknowledged and in fact it is often discouraged in favor of a competitive pursuit of individual academic achievement. But for us, this was an important step in signalling the value of interdependence and collaborative thought that has characterized our work and that has been inspired by a much broader membership of the collective.

EK: As you folks up there in 2050 look back on our current approach to education, you’re really pretty hard on us for being stuck in the model of Cartesian education. That doesn’t seem fair since it’s the only kind of education most of us have ever known — I guess 2050 hindsight is 2020 — but have we really been on the wrong path all this time? Would there have been another way to get to where you think we need to be, other than evolving out of the Cartesian model as this paper hopes we will?

IS: The dominant model of modern schooling (at least as we know it in the West) is based on the Cartesian divide between subject and object, nature and culture, mind and body, time and space, self and other, among other divides. It reifes human exceptionalism and (neo)liberal individualism — the core concepts of Western philosophy and the foundations of modern political economy — as a single vision for teaching and learning. This dominant logic of schooling perpetuates the culture that places (hu)man in a steep hierarchy above everyone and everything else, separating the human from the rest of the world, justifying the domination and exploration of the “Other” — whether ‘other’ humans, species, or nature — and ultimately propelling us into a cascade of ecological crises. For those of us schooled within the Cartesian logic, it is difficult to think beyond it, let alone reimagine and rebuild its foundations, because it has been so widely institutionalized in both policy and practice of education worldwide. We often take it for granted, as if there are no other alternatives. 

However, the Cartesian approach to education is not the only way of doing education. Once we step outside of the Cartesian way of thinking and being, we can see many alternatives coexisting side-by-side. For example, my own education in a Latvian school during the Soviet period included all of the Cartesian basics, further fortified by the Soviet modernist logic; but it also contained many lessons in nature-based, animist spiritualities that are an inseparable part of the Latvian culture. Likewise, alternative ways of knowing and being, the ones focused on land-based relational ontologies, exist in many indigenous practices and non-Western thought traditions that presuppose that there are infinite human and more-than-human worlds within worlds. The challenge is to bring all of this diversity into focus, to make education itself more inclusive of different worlds and worldviews. As highlighted in the report, we have much to learn from non-Western and indigenous ways of knowing and being that have been practicing a more reciprocal relationship with the Land and all its beings, both living and nonliving, for thousands and thousands of years.

EK: Our philosophy of education will have to change a lot in 30 years to bring about this new approach. Do you think it can?

IS: The Cartesian philosophy underpinning education does need to change, in education and all other dualistic domains, if we are to survive. But it is not just a matter of “changing” education philosophy. It is also a matter of shifting our focus and priorities. Alternative ways of knowing and being have always existed alongside mainstream education models. There are many philosophies that explain the world and our place in the world in more relational ways, too. They may have been unnoticed or dismissed by the mainstream philosophical traditions — and some have been eradicated altogether — but the alternatives are there. They exist. I believe it is a matter of acknowledging the limitations of our dominant ways of thinking and being, breaking away from Cartesian logic as a single vision for education futures, and opening up to, and re-learning, alternative ways of living with the Earth.

EK: So while the paper has an education focus, it isn’t simply about an approach to education. It’s about humankind’s conceited view of their place in the universe. The problem isn’t only about education; it’s about us.

IS: Exactly! The problem is much larger than education. It is about changing how we understand who we are and reconfiguring our relationship with Earth. Education is directly implicated in the current ecological crisis and our failure to imagine alternatives. But it can also be a space from which we can radically reimagine and relearn our place and agency in the world. Why wouldn’t we start in education? 

Learn more about the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education.