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The primary goal of education in general and higher education in particular has been human flourishing. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to this goal, this telos, as Eudaimonia. For Aristotle, the Eudaimonia is the goal of every human being and entails cultivating our moral and intellectual virtues as means for living the good life as persons within a community of other persons. Education is the cultivation of these virtues, these good habits of human living. The key question for higher education today is: “How can it contribute to human flourishing and cultivate the moral and intellectual virtues needed to address the great global challenges we are facing?” For higher education to be effective in contributing to human flourishing in our global community, it must first recognize the need for expanding our notion of community and hence our notion of what it means for that community to flourish. Human flourishing is not just the flourishing of human persons in human community, it is the flourishing of human persons within ecological community. We know that human persons cannot flourish for long unless the ecological community of which we are all a part is also flourishing.
If human flourishing within the context of a flourishing ecological community is seen as the goal of higher education, then it is imperative (a moral responsibility even) for higher education to address the global challenges of peace, poverty, social justice, and sustainability that directly affect human flourishing within our ecological community. These challenges are not peripheral to higher education; they are at the very core of education that promotes human flourishing. They are at the very core of education that contributes to the good society within the broader ecological community.
The crises of violence, injustice, poverty, and ecological devastation in our world require an urgent response from higher education as well as from all other sectors of the human community. The current ways that human communities are living in the world are not sustainable, and it is the task of higher education to contribute to finding sustainable ways of flourishing with each other within the ecological community. To borrow from Martin Luther King, Jr., the “urgency of now” has never been greater. Each day, year, and decade that passes without systemic change in the human community contributes to less peace, less justice, and less flourishing for present and future generations of all life. The reality of climate change and its effects on the ecological community make the need for systemic change the greatest moral challenge in human history, for we are affecting the very context in which any flourishing is even possible.
The sense of urgency in higher education must be focused on finding effective, organized, strategic, and systemic action to address the global challenges that threaten persons-in-ecological-community. University and college communities can become models for sustainable human flourishing in their curricular, co-curricular, and operational initiatives. University/Community Partnerships, research, and advocacy for sustainability are all a part of morally responsible higher education in our time. The energy, intellect, and creativity of the entire university community are needed.
As Bill McKibben recently pointed out through the analogy of American football, we are down three or four touchdowns in the last part of the fourth quarter when it comes to addressing the systemic problems that threaten human flourishing within ecological community, especially when it comes to climate change. McKibben says that we cannot afford to be satisfied with a few solid ground gains through the line. Rather we need to “throw some long, unlikely passes.” http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jul/10/climate-will-we-lose-endgame/ It is the moral responsibility of higher education and all of us to throw these passes for the sake of all persons-in-ecological community. The passes should not simply be thrown up for grabs. The routes taken and passes attempted should be strategic and planned for maximum success. Not all of the passes will be complete, but our children, grandchildren and future generations of all life are depending on our making strategic, creative, and effective attempts.