The Intergenerational University

Institutions should work to surface long-term solutions to the vexing global challenges future generations will inherit, with a focus on generating wisdom, not just knowledge, writes Annelise Riles.

August 23, 2021
 
 
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Around the world, the COVID-19 crisis has upended countless institutional arrangements and cultural norms around how we work, learn, innovate, solve problems and relate to one another. In colleges and universities, the patterns, practices and pathways through which we create and transmit knowledge have been disrupted by lockdowns, travel bans and digital technologies -- creating not only unthinkable challenges but also opportunities for reimagination.

One impact of the crisis is our growing awareness of issues of intergenerational justice. For example, as we battle COVID-19, we routinely hear talk of the obligations of younger generations to take protective measures such as mask wearing out of care for older generations more vulnerable to disease. By the same token, to mitigate the effects of climate change, our students are asking older generations to care for the planet for the benefit of younger generations.

How can an intergenerational perspective speed the imagination of new visions of the university that might better produce the most meaningful ideas and reflections, the most impactful innovations, and the most just and fulfilling lived experiences -- and ones that are oriented not toward the past but the future?

People commonly view the university as a place where thinkers and learners come together, within particular institutional structures, to create and transmit knowledge. But universities are hardly unique in this role. On the contrary, they face competition from the private sector, governments and civil society -- all of which lay claim to producing knowledge more quickly and more cheaply, and with more original and impactful results.

What’s distinct about the university, however, is its singular orientation toward the long term. Universities aren’t beholden to the short-term election and sales cycles of government or corporate institutions. For this reason, they are in an exceptional position to surface sustainable solutions to the vexing global challenges future generations will inherit. The university’s greatest distinguishing factor is its ability to anticipate and care for the long term, beyond business or political cycles. Universities are sites of vital conversation with the next generation. They’re also sites of important generational struggle, as we have seen across so many campuses, in the context of ongoing immigration debates, climate change activism, calls for racial justice, the Me Too movement and more.

Universities are already organizing in new ways to foster intergenerational dialogue and work together to address crucial global challenges for the next generation. Leaders of more than 50 universities across six continents are now members of the recently formed U7+ Alliance of World Universities, a network of higher education institutions dedicated in part to bringing youth to the fore of efforts to address the global challenges they’re poised to inherit. Through a series of intergenerational roundtables, the alliance is playing a key role in imparting inclusive leadership skills to students and faculty members alike. At Northwestern University, we are rethinking our curriculum from the point of view of how it might prepare students to contribute to global sustainable development in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Ultimately, a view of the university as a space for generating intergenerational justice encourages us to think differently about the research and teaching that goes on within the university: What would it mean to think of knowledge not as an output but rather as a conversation with our future selves and future generations? Northwestern recently asked scholars across disciplines and around the world to create “postcards from the present” -- a time capsule of notes to their future selves capturing this moment of global crisis and transformation as a record for the future but also an exercise in reflecting on what will matter in the long term. As exemplified in a recent event organized by Georgetown University, Northwestern and the University of Cape Town, we’re also bringing students and faculty across the globe together for vigorous discussion and debate on the major challenges confronting future generations, from climate change and sustainable innovation to gender inequality and women’s rights.

As we imagine the future of the university, therefore, we may wish to insist that the organizing work of the university is not just knowledge creation and accumulation but rather receiving, practicing and imparting something even greater than knowledge: wisdom across generations.

An orientation to wisdom puts knowledge in its place: knowledge is no longer an end in itself, nor is it an output to be sold in order to secure the institution’s sustainability. Instead, it is a means of fostering judgment, and this requires real-world engagement. It requires giving students opportunities to apply knowledge to addressing global crises in real time and develop critical intercultural and ethical engagement skills through work with local community leaders, like what our Global Engagement Studies Institute fosters. In a university oriented toward instilling wisdom and judgment versus strictly imparting knowledge, the classroom becomes a site of co-creation and inspiration -- a place where generations converge and learn from each other.

A focus on producing wise students and not just expert ones will require different kinds of learning experiences -- those that support students in getting comfortable with difference, for example, or faculty members in demonstrating how they struggle with the limits of their knowledge. It will require creating spaces for wondering and tinkering, not just demonstrations of knowledge -- forums in which faculty and students alike can be vulnerable and acknowledge what they don’t know. We’re striving to create spaces like this through the Idea Incubation Process and Meridian 180 community, which promote dialogue and the sharing of disparate views among global thinkers in different disciplines and professions. We’re also working to give students opportunities to work side by side with faculty and others around the world on projects of social change, and there is room to grow in this space.

If a sustainable future is what we want to create, intergenerational wisdom must be the goal of the university of the future.

Bio

Annelise Riles is associate provost for global affairs and executive director of the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs at Northwestern University and leader of the secretariat of the U7+ Alliance of World Universities.

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