EfS: separate or integrated? – some readings

Posted on December 17, 2009


Wals and Jickling (2002) argued that there is no universal remedy for the reconstruction of education for sustainability. Some institutions, they said, will choose to add on to existing programmes, others will opt for a more revolutionary approach.

The European ‘Bologna process’ aims to make academic degree standards and quality assurance standards more comparable and compatible. The Copernicus campus initiative (2005) is making use of the Bologna process to integrate sustainability issues into higher education.  For them, the modular structure of the degrees enables the introduction of new study modules as part of a ’studium fundamentale’ (general studies) approach. While the Copernicus campus doesn’t prescribe a curriuculum, one can envisage an “EfS101 Introduction to Sustainability” fitting in to such a system.

Given a choice between a separate course and integration, I believe sustainability should be integrated into the context of the programme rather than a separate “EfS101 Introduction to Sustainability”. This avoids the great danger of students not making the connection between sustainability and the context of their discipline. The worst case scenario is students, having completed a course on sustainability saying ‘thank goodness that’s over, now can we get back to the real work?’. Such responses were common in Carrithers and Peterson ‘s (2006) surveying of students. They report an “educational disconnect” stemming from a lack of integration in a business school, in their example, students perceived the religious studies and economics classes and their content as “entirely independent”. The authors found that the gap between faculty who supported market based economies and those who believe capitalism promotes economic injustice was so great as to hinder learning in both areas. The thesis of this paper is that the gap is so wide and the ideas that are promoted are so disconnected that students are trapped into choosing one or the other position (or neither) and are left unable to link the two sides of the discussion. Such an educational process is not one that produces free and reasoned discernment. Harm is caused as the students realise that “neither faculty group is telling the whole story”. This not only leaves students unable to connect the two discussions, but it also confuses and frustrates them in their attempts to do so.

This flaw, Carrithers and Peterson argued, reduces the abilities of their students in their future roles as citizens and leaders. “Armed with only one side of an enormous, complex issue, or unable to navigate the lines of the debate, they will not be equipped to help design social policy. In a real sense, we limit them to extreme, narrow views, promoting a simplistic understanding of complex economic phenomena”.
Carrithers and Peterson then describe an apparent solution to the lack of integration, a “Business Ethics” course. But they found that this course did not “address these different perspectives either”. While half the course is devoted to moral philosophy (includining morality and religion, virtue-based ethics, utilitarianism, egoism, and social contracts), the application of this is to specific business situations – advertising and product safety. The business ethics course left untouched “the larger questions of economic justice such as the distribution of wealth or the idea of a just wage”.
Considered as a Venn diagram, there are two problems of the overlap between topics: understating and overstating. With understating, both sides recognise the overlap but each claims jurisdiction. The opposite case overstates the overlap, such as when a discipline is perceived as a complete ethical system. Academics might encourage such a perception by failing to announce all ethical assumptions. While a business lecturer might articulate some of the underlying assumptions (eg (e.g. self-interested agents), but not all (e.g. property rights). This shortcoming, when presented alongside the “proudly, almost arrogantly value neutral” business courses misses the opportunity to provide connections for students who are “forced to dismiss one or both perspectives”.

Carrithers and Peterson promote an integrated approach with the aim that students recognise the understating and overstating. Eg: Markets do have virtues. They also have vices. Our goal should be that students appreciate both attributes. Key to addressing this is the clear stating of ethical assumptions and a recognition of dependency: “Alone, neither discipline can answer sufficiently the broader, bigger question of how the persons of this world are to live together on this planet”.

Stubbs and Cocklin (2008) went through a similar thought process to develop a “sustainability framework” for an MBA (Monash). They describe neoclassical, ecocentric and ecological modern approaches to business and describe a process for helping and students to reconcile the different perspectives. They do this in a stand-alone course but are working to integrate into the core MBA units to avoid the disconnect.
Of course, it perhaps shouldn’t come down to a choice between a separate course and integration into the context of the programme rather than a separate “EfS101 Introduction to Sustainability”. Holmberg and Samuelsson (2006) ask the question “Separate courses and programs or/and an integrated perspective throughout the whole education” and answer “The answer is simple: both are needed!”. They argued that a separate course is needed to give the basic understanding of sustainable development; and integrated thoughout the programme to give discipline specific tools and conceptual models for dealing with dynamic and complex systems; and to attain a feeling of how things are interconnected.

Carrithers, D. F. and D. Peterson (2006). “Conflicting Views of Markets and Economic Justice: Implications for Student Learning.” Journal of Business Ethics 69(4): 373-387.

Copernicus Campus (2005). “Further challenges and priorities for the European Higher Education Area: How the Bologna Process should address the principle of sustainable development COPERNICUS Consultation Paper to follow up the Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers responsible for Higher Education, Bergen, 19-20 May 2005.”

Holmberg, J. and B. E. Samuelsson (2006). Universities and sustainable development in a liberal democracy: a reflection on the necessity for barriers to change Drivers and Barriers for Implementing Sustainable Development in Higher Education. J. Holmberg and B. E. Samuelsson, UNESCO Edcuation: 89-95.

Stubbs, W. and C. Cocklin (2008). “Teaching sustainability to business students: shifting mindsets.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 9(3): 206-221.

Wals, A. E. J. and B. Jickling (2002). “”Sustainability” in higher education: From doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 3(3): 221.