Connecting a UNESCO Report on the Future of Higher Education with a wild swimming habit

After a short but sweaty bike ride last weekend, I lowered myself onto shallow rocks under the rushing cool waters of the Chattahoochee River, luxuriating in a nature fix. My partner Nick and I started this wild swimming habit last summer, born from the need for a change of scene during lockdown and the pure allure of the river. We pack a few cans of cold beer and water, lug our bikes down the rocky bank, and let the healing begin. Technically, we’re breaking the law by not wearing life jackets; the water level of the river here is raised and lowered daily, and the current powers the largest urban whitewater course in the world (“sending up to 13,000 cfs of adrenaline-pumping whitewater towards our class III-V rapids,” according to the Rush South site). We chose the spot for its shallow entry point and close access to a deeper pool away from the main current, so the degree of risk feels pretty tame compared to, say, free soloing El Capitan.

The soothed, cleansed sensation I feel after a dip in the river offers me personal evidence to support research on the porous boundaries of our skin and the environments of our surroundings. Writers like Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Robert Macfarlane, and William L. Fox have beautifully articulated their own observations about the profound interrelation between environments and human cognition. Scientists are probing the effects of green spaces on human behavior1, documenting the ways that well-designed or naturally pleasing spaces appear to reduce human stress and violent crime and improve physical health. There’s not (yet) an exact prescription for nature fixes, although we’re identifying specific elements of natural environments that boost most people’s well-being.

Memorable and healing experiences with the natural environment can happen even in “uncomfortable” weather conditions. A few years ago, I got drenched by a summer rainstorm that interrupted the final relaxation pose of a summer solstice yoga event. No one there jumped up and ran for cover (because, c’mon, savasana is everyone’s favorite pose), but just remained on our mats, laughing and soaked through the skin. I reflected on the fact that modern humans almost never allow ourselves to just lie down and be rained upon, although it was surprisingly delightful. Rain, wind, snow: each of these can bring us intense pleasure and produce distinctive cognitive states.

Having developed a keen awareness of our connection to the planet, I was thrilled to discover the new report on the Future of Higher Education by UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC). The report asked a diverse range of experts, “how could higher education contribute to better futures for all in 2050?” Framed within the UNESCO Futures of Education initiative, the report highlights four key messages for higher ed:

1. To take active responsibility in the development of the potential of all humans;

2. To promote wellbeing and sustainability, oriented towards justice, solidarity, and human rights;

3. To draw strength from interculturality and diversity, respecting cultures and identities, and creating spaces for dialogue;

4. Finally, to create and uphold interconnectedness,  forging collaborations between local and global communities, and bonding higher education with other levels of education, including non-formal and informal learning.

As the report’s summary characterizes its recommendations, higher ed can become “education with a soul,” which will benefit from integration among disciplines to produce innovative new knowledge and prepare students not just for earning livelihoods, but for life. I’m encouraged by the bold vision put forth here by a major global organization. I hope other faculty will feel empowered to start moving through porous boundaries between disciplines, between classrooms and “non-academic” spaces for learning, and between minds and bodies.

IESALC invites the public to contribute our own thoughts about how higher education can contribute to a better future for all. A short questionnaire is available in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese (https://www.iesalc.unesco.org/en/futures-of-higher-education/public-consultation/), with the results to be published later in 2021. I added my own two cents, and you can, too!

1Engineer, Altaf; Ida, Aletheia; M. Sternberg, Esther. 2020. “Healing Spaces: Designing Physical Environments to Optimize Health, Wellbeing, and Performance” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17, no. 4: 1155. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041155

Yet another reason to dance and play poker in class

(Were you taught how to square dance in school phys ed, like the smiling faces at the Jones School in 1949 Ann Arbor, MI?)

Moving together connects us cognitively. The fascinating science exploring interpersonal synchrony shows that social cohesion is built and maintained through coordinated movement, including internal and involuntary movement like heartbeats and breathing. Humans are built to tune in to each other, and to work collaboratively. (Dogs can tune into our movements, too: check out “The Family Dog is in Sync With Your Kids”)

Improving team work and a sense of belonging — looking ahead to our chance to do this again in person — gives us a great excuse for trying some unorthodox activities as preparation for collaborative projects. Be transparent about these activities as intentional for improving cognitive performance. Moving to music (creating it together, like Matthew Marsolek demonstrates in this TEDx UMontana Talk), building a model, walking outside, playing cards: what kinds of shared movement activities would you like to try with your students?

Place attachment

Along my bike commute yesterday, this Humans Outside podcast episode had me yelling “yes!” right out loud. Host Amy Bushatz and guest Melody Warnick (author of the fantastic book This is Where You Belong) hit on all the big principles of embodied cognition: why our lives are enriched by moving together with others outside — walking, hiking, biking, even jumping up and down in a stadium — noticing specific sensory aspects of our environment, and even experiencing “Type 2 Fun” when we get lost or caught in a downpour.

Warnick’s interest in place attachment applies to the challenge of relocation, which is an interesting way to frame the experience of college students, who are inhabiting a new space. We can help them to feel at home as rapidly as possible by infusing academic learning with movement, sensation, and a memorable experience of place.

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