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Although we are trying to become more effective by making bigger units, ultimately man is just one organism and one among others. Physically, we work in the same rhythm as everything else on this planet, says Anja Heikkinen.

Learning & teaching

The most important issues of the planet

Authors: Laura Pörsti Published:

Although we are trying to become more effective by making bigger units, ultimately man is just one organism and one among others. Physically, we work in the same rhythm as everything else on this planet, says Anja Heikkinen.

Adult education should help us live the rest of mankind’s time with dignity, says Professor Anja Heikkinen.

Adult education should be a peaceful terminal care for humankind, says Anja Heikkinen, Professor of Pedagogy at the University of Tampere at her desk. Totally calmly.

The afternoon sunlight illuminates the room when Heikkinen explains what she means.

– I am a believer in natural science, she says.

She thinks that we already know enough about the impact humans have on earth and its natural resources. She wonders why the active forgetfulness of the truth seems to be mainstream.

– As we know what we know, it’s crazy to get involved in constant competition and efficiency. Instead, we should look for ways to live the rest of mankind’s time with dignity, Heikkinen says.

She is known as an advocate of science for empowerment. She believes that adult education and science have a lot to give in the most difficult issues in the world.

– Science cannot save the world, but it can provide information and tools and promote the emergence of a critical mass. This is how we can avoid things that deepen crises, disasters and nausea.

Anja Heikkinen

  • is Professor of Pedagogy at the University of Tampere;
  • was the editor in chief of Journal Aikuiskasvatus (Adult Education), 2001-2006.

A crisis that must be recognized

In June, Anja Heikkinen and Aaro Harju published an online publication Adult Education and Planetary Condition, based on conference submissions. Its 13 articles discuss the key issues of adult education and nonformal education in the 2010s.

They relate to our planet’s state.

– In the pioneer phase of nonformal education, in the middle of the 19th century, the most important mission was the construction of nations and nation states. Many of the tasks of that era have already been completed, Heikkinen points out.

She thinks that we can no longer concentrate on national issues, nor on the human race alone. Our planet is in a constant economic, social and ecological crisis.

Adult Education and Planetary Condition discusses this issue from many angles: from the system of education in developing countries, to the role and responsibility of nonformal education in solving the problems of the planet as a whole. Does equality mean just gender equality, or should we, for example, consider it in relation to the consumer goods that are manufactured in developing countries?

– Adult education and nonformal education should think profoundly what their mission is today. To what end do we most need a civilized attitude?, the professor asks.

Injustice must be addressed

Since a child, Anja Heikkinen has been the type who finds it difficult to close one’s eyes and ears from injustice.

– An urge to improve the world has always been in me, whether it turned into concrete action or not, she admits.

Even as a high school student, Heikkinen was shocked by the destruction of biodiversity, and she went on to join nature conservation organizations.

When she started studying at the University of Tampere in 1970, she did not properly know what kind of path she was taking. The world of science was a stranger to the young girl. Nevertheless, she found like-minded people in the student politics.

– There was this communist-minded idea that something revolutionary should be done. Nevertheless, I have always had a suspicion that there is no definitive solution to human problems. Parliament cannot force everyone to go and improve the world, Heikkinen says.

She first studied philosophy, science, sociology and a minor in adult pedagogy at the university. The intention at some point was to move to biology, “more towards the rescue of the world”.

– I was very interested in the significance that my studies had for the future of the world, she recalls.

In practice, she familiarized herself with pedagogy when the university years were followed by a career as a teacher in mathematics and science. However, she knew all along that it was not her final place.

– I wanted to ponder things even further, so I went as an adult to study pedagogy.

It swept her away totally. Her PhD thesis was about the history of vocational education.

Since 1999 Heikkinen has been a professor in Finnish universities, first in adult education in Jyväskylä and since 2005 in her current position in Tampere.

– I did not specifically aim at a professorship; life just went so. I hold a certain suspicion towards the competition and self-selling of today’s world.

Scientific attitude is needed

At least one thing sticks from Anja Heikkinen’s career in natural science: she is annoyed by the negative stance towards natural sciences in adult education circles.

That is, in the texts that have gained authority in the field, nature and culture, or human and animal, typically are seen as opposites to each other. Education means “leaving the state of wilderness”, to paraphrase 19th Century Finnish philosopher and statesman Johan Snellman.

– I do not think that Snellman meant that a person should be reckless with the environment, even though he used such vocabulary, says Heikkinen.

The current problem of adult education is an excessive anthropocentricism.

–  If scientists want to promote a less brutal world, natural sciences have the tools to do so. Science can show human limitation at the individual level and as a species. This warning message could be taken even more seriously in adult education instead of going along with promoting acceleration of competition.

Now, in the professor’s opinion, it is time to ask questions about the conditions of human being and the construction of society, just as philosopher Hannah Arendt asked in 1958 in her book The Human Condition. Today, however, the whole planet must be taken into account. Therefore, the term Planetary condition is chosen as the name of the conference edition, as a reference to Arendt.

–  Today, many things appear as deterministic forces: globalization, neoliberalism, managerialism… For some reason, it is mainstream to unproblematise these forces. As if they were forces to which we cannot do anything.

To Heikkinen, it is worrying and would require educational action.

–  It’s about self-education, trivial things that everyone can do for their own part. We have to choose whether we want to ponder how our collective actions affect myself, my relationship with other people and nature. Do we care what we are becoming?

Sometimes it feels that in the midst of all progress, this self-education is forgotten.

Civilized people carry the responsibility

Why then is it so difficult to grasp the great questions of mankind, even though we know how necessary it is?

– At the same time as society has been academized, our understanding of our cultural responsibility has become thinner, Anja Heikkinen estimates.

This phenomenon manifests itself, for example, in the fact that many leading politicians, globally, seem to be oppressive to scientific information.

–  Even after the Second World War, in the leading posts in politics and economics there were people who were not ashamed to put forth civilized values, ​​with cultural visions.

Heikkinen ponders what a civilized elite might mean these days.

–  Maybe it would mean just that, that the world leaders would internalize our planetary responsibility.

In politics, one should also remember the laws that make up science: that man is an animal, part of nature. This will affect what kind of solutions are genuinely effective.

– Although we are trying to become more effective by making bigger units, ultimately man is just one organism and one among others. Physically, we work in the same rhythm as everything else on this planet. We cannot escape this evolutionary fact, says Heikkinen.

Herself, she longs to live regularly in the rhythm of nature: to make fire, to carry water, to manage her own waste.

–  That way I see where things come from and where they end up. It does good to people to be aware of their environment.

Critical questions for handicraft courses

University corridors have become silent. The light fades, it is almost six o’clock.

Still, there is an urge to challenge the professor for some practical tips on how the worsening condition of the world should be taken into account. How should the fields of adult education and nonformal education react to the social, economic and ecological challenges that surround us?

–  I think the question of why we do what we do should be posed in all adult studies. What forces are we joining and what are we promoting, Anja Heikkinen begins.

Then, more questions for critical thinkers start pouring from her mouth: how, at what expense, what’s next? We should ask these questions everywhere and everytime.

–  If a person is studying to become a nurse, it is not enough that he or she can lift a man and bustle here and there. They should understand what their own role in the whole means: where is the elderly they are taking care of coming from and where are they heading.

The same is true of everything. In the handicraft course, one should reflect on the origin of the materials and their final disposal.

– When it comes to hobbies, it would be important to think about why we are engaged in that particular activity and what it is about what we are doing, Heikkinen says.

She hopes that the means to tackle such issues could be found by the researchers and practitioners together. It would be nice to include politicians as well.

– At the level of adult education practices, the challenge is whether we have the vitality, patience and the backbone to take the planetary condition seriously. After all, we paid a certain price for creating our exquisite and exemplary nation states too, Anja Heikkinen smiles wryly.

The text is translated and edited from Finnish by Karoliina Knuuti.

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Laura Pörsti is a Finnish freelance writer. Contact: laura.porsti(a) Show all articles by Laura Pörsti
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