Public Higher Education as the Pathway to Resilience

I have recently been looking back on my first year as a Futures Initiative fellow, on all of the amazing things we accomplished in 2014-2015—our inaugural year—and also looking forward to the challenges and opportunities we face both as an organization promoting innovation and equity in the classroom and as part of a broader movement fighting for continued support and funding for public higher education programs and for making quality higher education ever more equitable and accessible to all.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “It is highly interesting to our country, and it is the duty of its functionaries, to provide that every citizen in it should receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life.” Jefferson may have been talking about a different tiered system of education and learning that separated out laborers from the “learned”, but from other writings he and other early founders of our government exchanged, it was clear that education really was seen as one of the cornerstones of a healthy and functioning democracy. By “functionaries” Jefferson is referring to those entrusted by the people to hold and carry out the duties of government office. Public education, provided by the government to the people, was seen as the pathway out of tyranny. As Jefferson says in another paper “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.”

When we think today what it means to “receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life”, we are faced with a much different world than political philosophers of the 18th century were surrounded by. We live in an age of rapidly changing economic conditions thanks to the globalizing forces of the Internet and the neoliberalizaiton and deregulation of global trade worldwide. The skills and knowledge that any person needs to succeed and thrive in today’s world are such that digital literacy is as important as reading or writing. Creativity and the ability to be a life-long learner of new skills and knowledge (and unlearner of old skills, behaviors, and outdated knowledge) are critical for success.

As a geographer and ecologist, I spend a lot of time thinking in terms of “systems”—social-ecological systems, for example, and how communities and governments react to flooding or environmental degradation or extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy. My dissertation work continues to evolve but focusses on how social-ecological and social-technological systems adapt to climate change through transitions to low-carbon energy production and consumption. An important part of “systems” thinking over the past decade has been the concept of resilience—that is how systems are able to adapt to and recover from disturbances or forces of change. How they are able to withstand these challenges and continue after large shocks—for example, the resiliency of New Orleans in terms of how the city has adapted and changed in the years following Hurricane Katrina and the steps the city and people have taken to try to learn from that disastrous event and to plan for future storms that may threaten the city.

In my own work, I’m especially interested in issues of environmental justice and vulnerability to environmental stressors such as environmental degradation and pollution—communities around polluting factories, waste transfer facilities, power plants, and mines, for example, tend to be poorer and sicker than those who are more affluent and have the economic and political means to ensure they live in healthy environmental conditions. Those that live in degraded environmental conditions also tend to have fewer educational opportunities. So, in addition to having fewer resources to influence planning boards when they are deciding where to locate a polluting facility, these communities may not be fully aware of the dangers to their public health over time. Moreover, we live in a reactive regulatory environment where chemicals, products, and processes are allowed until they are proven unsafe—by the public, or by some agent or non-profit representing the public. Lacking education and the knowledge necessary to demonstrate to regulators that something is unsafe, many vulnerable peoples are exposed to harm simply because they have neither the financial or educational resources to fight back.

The idea that public education and especially public higher education are necessities not just for a healthy and functioning democracy as Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the United States political system thought but that they are crucial for the resiliency of both communities and individuals is something that I’ve become more and more convinced of recently. See, systems thinking is not just about environmental systems. A computer is a system. A community is a system. A human being is a system. We as individuals operate under conditions that can be understood by the way we process things—information, calories from food, the water we drink and the air we breathe—by the inputs and outputs to our bodies, and by the internal and external shocks and disturbances we are faced with in our daily lives—a personal or family illness, an economic hardship, a divorce, loss of a career to outsourcing. How we as people are able to bounce back from and continue on after all of these life events is a reflection of our own resilience. How can we adapt to our environments and to our personal challenges to thrive even as we are sure that there will be new challenges and transformations we must undergo in response to future disturbances in our routines.

The skill of learning how to learn is I think one of the most important products of higher education that can benefit our individual capacity for resilience in life. Being able to adapt to a major life disturbance, whether it is a personal one, one facing a community, or even one facing the environment, is about learning how to overcome the challenge—learning new skills, learning more about the problem, learning how to adapt and move forward with new understanding. Learning how to learn is not unique to higher education, but I think that it is formalized in liberal higher education that includes not just a narrow focus on a particular knowledge area, skill, or trade, but that includes a broad introduction to different ways of thinking about the world through art and culture, the humanities, and the social and harder sciences. Diversity and difference are some of the most crucial factors not just of understanding the world but even of ecological systems. Ecological systems thrive when there are a diversity of species and habitats to continue on even if one species or one habitat is lost. Similarly, being able to see different perspectives on reality and to communicate with others who may see the world in a different way than you is, I think, what builds an individual’s capacity for resiliency and allows us to bounce back from or overcome the challenges we will all face in life.

Given that higher education is such a crucial pillar to enable both individual resiliency but even the resiliency of our communities, of our economy, and even of humanity’s continued existence on Earth more broadly, support for and funding for liberal public higher education is one of the most important investments that can be made for the future. Moreover, equitable access to higher education, which is often enabled by public support and funding, is really about giving equitable chances at survival to all people—individual survival and the survival of diversity and difference through strong and resilient communities.

Last year, research work I had the opportunity to complete with the Futures Initiative team emphasized equity in public higher education by highlighting the racial and ethnic diversity of New York City and the City University of New York with The CUNY Sociodemographic Map of NYC Part I and Part II. We observed that CUNY has one of the most diverse student bodies compared with private higher education institutions in New York City and that CUNY’s colleges tend to serve diverse racial and ethnic communities similar to the diverse communities that the colleges are proximate to.

This year is going to be an exciting year in which the Futures Initiative will continue to advocate for equity in higher education with The University Worth Fighting For workshop and discussion series. We are also planning research projects that will continue to explore both innovation and equity in higher education. One of our projects will examine different digital ecosystems throughout the CUNY system to highlight how online communities are used in a diversity of ways to foster learning outcomes. We will also be exploring the history and equity of public education at CUNY with longitudinal research analyses of enrollment and achievement. In line with our fight for higher education and the university worth fighting for, we will also be looking at patterns of labor and faculty diversity and contingency both within CUNY and in other university systems. The research work that we do this year will, I think, serve to underscore the continued need to fight for public higher education that is equitable and that fosters resiliency for all.

Continued reading on resiliency and education:

A literature on resiliency in education and for the environment and life more broadly is already fairly well developed. For those interested in this topic. I have compiled below a few resources that have helped to shape my own thinking on the importance of education for resiliency. I’d love to hear what kinds of other sources may be available on the topic.

  • Benard B. 2004. Resiliency: What We Have Learned. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.
  • Brown JH, D’Emidio-Caston M, and Benard B. 2001. Resilience Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.
  • Henderson N and Milstein M. 2003. Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.
  • Reich JW, Zautra AJ, and Hall JS. 2010. Handbook of Adult Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Walker B and Salt D. 2006. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  • Zolli A and Healy AM. 2012. Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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About Michael Dorsch

Michael is a doctoral student specializing in geography in the Earth and Environmental Sciences program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He teaches in the Department of Geography at Hunter College, CUNY and also conducts research with the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay. His research interests include using tools from geographic information systems and techniques from analytic cartography to visualize social and environmental inequities related to negative environmental exposures from energy production and industrial/post-industrial sites. Michael blogs on issues related to society/environment interactions, and his full CV is available at