Liberal Education for Sustainaility

Benefits and Limitations of Utilising Liberal Education (LE) to Promote Sustainability Ideology in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)

A Research Paper by Ceara Webster
UNESCO (2016) Graphic 1: The Whole-School Approach to Climate Change. [Graphic] In: Gibb, N. (2016) Getting climate-ready: a guide for schools on climate action. Online: Available at, p.3.

This discussion covers the incorporation of sustainability education, and what some environmental educators refer to as “environmental citizenship” (EC) (Orr, 1991 in Clayton & Myers, 2009: 182), into Liberal Education (LE) models. As such, this paper focuses on the ‘teaching and learning’ aspect of the whole-school approach to climate change (see above). It also acknowledges how sustainable ideology translates itself, through education, into the business sphere, and manifests as corporate sustainability (CS) practices of UK corporations. The paper reflexively acknowledges that corporations value sustainability education, lending evidence to the notion that promoting sustainability in LE and education in general is valuable. This could lead to inferences for the form further sustainability education should take in teaching and learning in HEIs. Whilst my research focuses on a UK sample, it should be noted that sustainability is a global issue. Therefore, it is imperative to consider both the national and international context; something which the scope of this paper does not allow. This research provides insight into LE’s role in facilitating the process of disseminating sustainability ideology in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), and evaluates why this new ideological association is imperative for global society. It also considers how LE may in fact hinder the promulgation of sustainability in order to be self-reflective. This research is informed by a Liberal Arts (LA) approach and evaluating the limits of LE’s utility in this context allows suggestions for improvements in LE.

This research takes a transdisciplinary perspective and utilises perspectives from sustainability and education to address contentions within LE. Thus, the research question under investigation is: “In what ways can LE benefit or hinder the promotion of sustainability ideology in UK HEIs?” The initial discussion is defining LE, with the result being a working definition to which I will refer. After this, LE for sustainability in HEIs is discussed. This establishes the link between sustainability and education. Analysis then briefly addresses the university as a business (the school governance aspect of the whole-school approach). Thus, introducing the hypothesis (generated from the research question): LE for sustainability in the business and educational sphere is reflexively influential, as it reinforces a sustainable workplace ethos and individual engagement in sustainability. This facilitates greater sustainable behaviour through addressing underlying attitudes and behaviours, and reshaping them to incorporate sustainability. To test this hypothesis, I utilise the case study of the impacts of LE for sustainability in UK HEIs, both in the curriculum, and as businesses. Then a review of how LE can facilitate or hinder the promotion of sustainability ideology is conducted before concluding.

What is Liberal Education?

LE is a transgenerational process, with more ‘advanced pupils’ (professors, tutors) teaching less advanced pupils (Strauss, 2003: 31). Thus, it encourages the practice of pedagogy. LE’s goal is to generate a cultured human being (Strauss, 2003: 31) and therefore works to provide freedom from ignorance (Strauss, 2003: 33). For Strauss, education in the highest sense is ‘Philosophy’, a quest for wisdom or knowledge regarding the “most important” things (Strauss, 2003: 34). However, this wisdom, Strauss claims, is inaccessible to man and, therefore, virtue and wisdom will always be imperfect (Strauss, 2003: 34). What can be derived from this is that education in general provides a means for which we can pursue wisdom or knowledge, but this quest can never reach completion because – in a certain sense – there will always be ‘more’ to learn. In this way, education as quest is rather apt because we are never ‘done’ learning. LE is useful for preparing us to be perpetual learners. Strauss outlines two key features of LE that are applicable today.

The first is the universal capability of LE. LE has a significant history not only in the Western world, but also in South Asia, and the Middle East. Strauss does not explicitly state this. Instead he laments that “it is merely an unfortunate necessity which prevents us from listening to the greatest minds of India and of China: we do not understand their languages, and we cannot learn all languages” (Strauss, 2003: 35). However, as a consequence of modern globalisation, we are fortunate enough to have developed the means of communications to engage with multiple perspectives occupying different intellectual intersections. Thus, LE prepares us, through its transdisciplinary methods, to engage with different intellectual and cultural knowledge, literature, and experience.

The second is a feature which encourages the development of an imperative skill. Strauss highlights that “great minds” do not always agree – and we must transform their monologues (theories, arguments) into dialogues (Strauss, 2003: 35). This encourages critical thinking which is a large part of LE and is a skill academics and students alike utilise and deploy.

An alternative view of LE comes from Wilson, who views LE as a conceptual tool. He is critical, seeing it is a disadvantage that LE is practised by liberals who do not have “well-defined views about the human condition” and promoting the freedom or liberalism of LE, leaves the concept without any serious content (Wilson, 1996: 245). Whilst this may be easy to refute, it can be conceded that promoting LE as entirely fluid could perhaps be detrimental not only for its students, but for LE in and of itself. Related to this notion, Wilson does raise a significant point: education is value-laden. Wilson outlines that intuitions of value are what is important in determining the content of teaching in LE (Wilson, 1996: 246). This is important when considering what an individual values because it will manifest itself not only in the final product of a research project, but in its methodology and delivery. Whilst this may not be an inherent drawback, there are potential issues with such research. In sum though, LE is tied to pedagogy and the structure of problem-based learning (PBL), which is solution-focused and transdisciplinary. Equally it can take the form of a “Great Books” programme, such as those that exist at Bard College Berlin. Regardless, knowledge that we attain (conceptually) can be used to free us from ignorance, with increasingly complex levels of knowledge being made accessible only by the utilisation of critical thinking, persuasive techniques, and broad contextual engagement that the LE structure provides. This is because it allows students to explore, understand, and engage with multiple fields of study. Successful students of LE will be able to synthesise such subjects in order to make compelling research contributing to extant literature and society at large, that provides a comprehensive view of complex problems because of its consideration of views, perspectives, data, and information that may be neglected by traditional disciplines.

Sustainability and Education (including curriculum)

So, how does higher education (HE) engage with sustainability? Education facilitates deeper reflective thinking to encourage higher quality analysis of messages and arguments. To improve knowledge regarding sustainability, education must educate and demand reflective and critical thinking of students to create more ecologically literate students. Ecological literacy itself has a variety of cognitive requirements, such as awareness of environmental problems (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 182). For sustainability education, this would translate to awareness of sustainability problems (which are not limited to ecology, but also span the spheres of sociology, politics, and economics). It also has affective (emotionally motivational) requirements and behavioural requirements, including private-sphere behaviours such as green consumerism and land management choices in business (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 182). The logic is that the establishment of a large body of people with environmental (or sustainability) education encourages a positive feedback loop by countering disempowerment and promoting action. It is imperative to highlight that research does not support the assumption that if people have more information they will be more motivated to act responsibly (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 183). This is due to the distinction between information and knowledge. Knowledge becomes incorporated into people’s daily lives and behaviours (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 183), and is what should be emphasised in education to further sustainable literacy and its discourses.

But how is this discourse disseminated within HEIs? A practical way environmental education (EE) can take place is through the integration of place-based education. This allows students to feel attached to their place in the world (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 187). This can be beneficial for students in HE as they may have moved into new (unfamiliar) localities and it can generate an engaged relationship between them and their new context. This approach is effective because they increase the affective and motivational variable of environmental sustainability (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 187). This method is also better than “infusing” sustainability knowledge into classes, as the environment comprises a more “extensive integrating context for learning” (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 184). The role of teaching here involves training tutors with the knowledge of sustainability education as well as the methods, such as placed-based education, with which to deliver it. From the learning perspective, liberal education in sustainability teaches students to think about the multiple dimensions of environmental problems and encourages collaboration when generating solutions (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 193). This improves other skills such as collaborative research skills, intercultural communication, potential qualitative or quantitative data generation and evaluation, and critical thinking. This is a good strategy for teaching sustainability in HE because adult learners are more inflexible than children. LE must provide adults with viable ways of pursuing their own interests and encouraging the generation of individual original analysis of a common sustainability problem. This could be done through having mandatory classes in EC. This way, everyone has a grounding in sustainability that not only provides them with knowledge, but is meaningful in that it provides students with a connection to the subject matter that is personal and tailored to them and their experiences.  EE is thus a high investment, high yield strategy (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 197) which should be implemented broadly to facilitate behaviour change, and liberate individuals from sustainability ignorance.

These strategies target specific elements of learning that may already exist. For example, that may be a good teaching method for a sustainability module. However, reinventing the curriculum requires an even more intensive restructure. The Curriculum Toolkit, promoted by Forum for the Future in combination with the Higher Education Partnerships for Sustainability (HEPS) initiative (Scott & Gough, 2004: 238), was developed for such restructuring. The toolkit uses a seven-stage approach. The first stage is establishing a learner (student) profile, where the organisations, and/or environmental aspects with which the learner interacts most, are placed at the centre of their own map, with less interaction/weaker knowledge placed further out. The second stage identifies prospective course content, identified by listing skills/knowledge required for managing new interactions in ecological, social, and economic categories. The third identifies knowledge and skills scored in terms of their ability to contribute towards a pre-established (by the tutors/teachers) criterion for a sustainable society. Stage four enables the specification of desired learning outcomes and stage five designs the delivery mechanisms (Scott & Gough, 2004: 238- 239). In LE, this can take the form of place-based classes, workshops, group work, and pedagogy as opposed to traditional lecture-seminar structure. The sixth phase is a values audit to assess the fit of the course with the values of students and staff, and the final stage is preparing a course guide (Scott & Gough, 2004: 239), which students and teachers have input in creating. This strategy for social change (sustainability in this case) must account for learning that happens outside of teaching programmes also (Scott & Gough, 2004: 239). This pedagogy ensures self-discovery and reflexivity when drafting, acknowledges the strength and weaknesses in one’s own knowledge, and is an area where LE models would benefit HEI curricula. Exploring sustainability is a collaborative, re-framing process (Wals & Corcoran, 2004: 223-224). Practically speaking, when changing institutional practices, it is important to consider the purpose for taking on sustainability as an institutional challenge; roles of multiple stakeholders, particularly can lead to a shared framework for institutional sustainability (Corcoran, et. al., 2004 in Wals, et al., 2004: 347-348) which develops promising avenues for institutional and individual (sustainable) practice (Wals, et al., 2004: 348). This kind of revolutionary restructuring will only work in LE programmes that are small enough, because this level of personalisation requires dedication from tutors and students alike to curate a tailored plan for the student’s particular personal and intellectual interests. This is why certain ways of learning cannot occur in all education systems. With the current increasing marketisation of university, it is simply impossible to do this for every student who attends university.

Despite this research, Scott and Gough argue sustainability has not become a major strategic parameter of university life (Scott & Gough, 2004: 243). HEPS, the initiative mentioned previously, appear inactive in 2019. However, I recreated their experiment which they conducted in 2003 where they search for “sustainability” on HEIs websites. They did not specify which number of hits corresponded to the specific HEPS HEI, but I searched on the original HEPS members website for “sustainability” and the results were astonishingly different from Scott & Gough. Given that my research only focuses on sustainability, I only compare HEIs that were HEPS members and search for “sustainability”. They only used 9 HEPS out of the original 18 institutions involved (Scott & Gough, 2004: 241-242). So, I randomly selected 9 HEPS also. Below are the results comparing the 13 th January 2003 experiment and the 15th April 2019 experiment:

Figure 1

The total number of hits for searching the keyword ‘sustainability’ in the HEPS HEIs search engines in 2003 was 1416; the total number of hits for sustainability in 2019 for HEPS HEIs only was 69,026 (see figure 1). There were two anomalies included as, with the growing popularity of sustainability, it is not unusual to presume a significant growth in available material has occurred. However, as these figures were unusual compared to the rest of the sample, these figures (39,500 and 18,659) have been removed, and I have generated a new average controlling for potential outlying values for comparison of the 2003 and my 2019 study:

Figure 1.1

The new figure is 10,867 hits in 2019, compared to 1416 hits in 2003. The average number of hits from the 2003 experiment was 157.3 hits. The average number of hits from the 2019 experiment was 7,669.6 hits (including outliers) and 1,552.4 hits (excluding outliers). The average number of hits increased almost ten-fold. The findings positively suggest that even when compared to less HEIs in 2019 (see figure 1.1), sustainability discourse is increasing in HEIs. One could infer that sustainability in the UK context can be considered more of a priority within academic settings contrary to Scott & Gough’s rumination in 2003. What is evident is that there is more information available on sustainability, but the question remains about whether this information is effecting change.

In sum, a revised curriculum requires communicative and reflexive information generation from multiple pillars of sustainability. It also demands consideration of individual experiences in the facilitation of social learning (Scott & Gough, 2004: 246) which is encouraged through pedagogy in LE. Utilising the seven-stage structure, whilst incorporating psychological and cultural perspectives, may be useful in developing guided, but flexible, course structures for sustainability education. Sustainability education may also have a basis in cognitive development theories, with a focus on biology and ecology; affective factors related to the connection to nature and self-efficacy and environmental behaviour, involving participation and problem-solving (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 189). This could be done in specialised lessons of EC classes, to enhance the synthesis of scientific ecological literacy, social knowledge and skills, personal evaluation, and action skills (Clayton & Myers, 2009: 195).

What is clear is that sustainability discourse has increased significantly over time and, if we can utilise this discourse effectively through a reconfiguration of the education system, this could prove very fruitful for preparing for a sustainable global future. That being said, education tackles long-term issues in sustainability by providing the tools and skills to individuals who will later enter the professional sphere, where they can effect change on individual and corporate levels. This is not just optimistic thinking. Companies identify education and climate change as the two most critical sustainability issues (Lacy et. al., 2010 in Hörisch & Windolph, 2014: 31). The International Corporate Sustainability Barometer (ICSB) confirms these findings, with further education being among the three most important sustainability issues companies manage (Hörisch & Windolph, 2014: 31). However, the critique stands that we need immediate change as well as the long-term solution – this can come from individuals or institutions. Organisations (including universities) do comprise a certain institution in society, and institutional change can sometimes be a lot more challenging than instigating individual behaviour change. Nevertheless, corporate sustainability (CS), in combination with the long-term intervention strategy of education, can yield significant benefits for global society and the biosphere we live within and, if that does occur, there has truly been an ideological shift regarding how we perceive the environment, particularly in regard to the economy.

Popular ideology, however, perceives companies as caring only about profit and the economy. Research, on the contrary, reveals in terms of the integration of sustainability in business: 81% of CEOs stated “sustainability issues are fully embedded into the strategy and operations” of their organisations (Lacy 2010 in Hörisch & Windolph, 2014: 31), which may be because of the imperative of sustainability for “top management” (Kiron et al., 2013 in Hörisch & Windolph, 2014: 31). Indeed, in terms of implementation, certain sustainability management tools are employed in more than 75% of all companies and qualify as international corporate practice (Hörisch & Windolph, 2014: 32). However, the standard deviation on the international average is relatively high (Hörisch & Windolph, 2014: 32). This could indicate that different companies have different priorities, and perhaps there should be some core global tenets. For example, universities worldwide must invest in cleaner technologies. Corporate responsibility has grown and become more institutionalised within the UK, evidenced by the emergence of business initiatives such as Business in the Community (BITC) as its framework covers community, marketplace, environment, and workplace (Ghosh & Herzig, 2014: 200). Another common ideological confrontation in the sustainability-economy dichotomy is that it is simply not financially beneficial to be sustainable. However, even during the recent economic downturn, UK business gained from investing in sustainable innovation – clean production technologies – registering a growth of over 24% since the financial crisis in 2008 (Balch 2013 in Ghosh & Herzig, 2014: 200). The UK sample has sustainability integrated into their core business in over-three quarters of the cohort, with 77.8% of UK sample linking sustainability commitment to most or all segments of their core business (Ghosh & Herzig, 2014: 208). In terms of implementing this commitment, there is minimal direct participation of stakeholders in corporate advisory boards or decision-making processes (Ghosh & Herzig, 2014: 210). Similar guidelines are known and adopted by businesses in the UK and international sample (Ghosh & Herzig, 2014: 216). This is good because this suggests there is a level of standardisation of implementation strategy which can help companies globally become more sustainable. This provision of new sustainability methods should extend to all departments in a business, including departmental strategies in HEIs.

How can LE facilitate and hinder the promotion of sustainability in HEIs and their curricula?

It is apparent LE can facilitate the dissemination of sustainability ideology in education and business and, once this education exists within these institutions, their inherent relationship reinforces the ideology without direct educational engagement. In education, the summarised requirements for adaptive sustainability education were; generating communicative and reflexive information, consideration of individual experiences to facilitate learning, incorporating a 7-step structure with psychological, cultural, economic, and structuralist approaches to education, and finally introducing a sense of EC in HE. LE can be useful in satisfying these requirements. The transdisciplinary nature of LE means that it is possible to engage with an inherently multifaceted research area, as does the capacity for LE to produce skills in problem-solving, and embedding solution-focused thinking in its structure. Transdisciplinary study also helps to facilitate the development of the 7-step structure, the various bases of education, and the development of identifying what it takes to become an environmental citizen. The pedagogical aspect of LE means that individual experiences are encouraged into the working environment, become valuable sources for learning material, and help the individual relate to their space in a meaningful capacity. Sustainability becomes tangible initiatives (such as HEPS in education or BITC in business) which reinforce the workplace ethos and individual ideology of sustainability for the individual and institution.

LE can also have limitations. Thompson provides an interesting, radical, critique of modern LA education. His first critique is that the traditional liberal arts have collapsed internally rather than from external influence (Thompson, 2015: 421). This is an interesting insight and, perhaps, indeed a blessing in disguise. The evolution of knowledge would be nothing without updating, revising, and altering existing modes of teaching in the LA. It is these paradigmatic shifts that create the liminal space for radical restructuring to take place in education to improve the learning of students. Thompson is only concerned with an American context. However, drawing on experiences from UK LA, LA is being reconceptualised. So, the death of old LA structure provides room for a relevant and effective contribution to LE. He makes such a claim because he believes the quest for knowledge and truth has been undermined by Kantian philosophy (Thompson, 2015: 424). His conjecture is that Kant’s rejection of objectivity for subjectivity as the standard of truth results in a “form of subjectivism that opens the door to the irrationalism, mysticism…” (Thompson, 2015: 424). It can be disputed strongly that this development has led to the destruction of LA. One can be on a quest for knowledge and truth but recognise there are not infinite “truths”, rather there are multiple ways of experiencing and perceiving the same “truth”. This is not the loss of rationality but the gain of compassion. In fact, the ways of reasoning suggested in this critique would not be conducive to the functioning of comprehensive solution to complex problems that LE is becoming more adept at solving. Thompson’s first critique however (not his reasoning behind it) is rather poignant and reminds us that in order to solve complex real-world problems, such as constructing a sustainable global society, we must remain vigilant to the reality of the issue, including its boundaries and requirements for specialist knowledge where necessary.

In conclusion, LE can facilitate sustainability ideology on the level of the individual and the institution. Education is powerful as it intervenes in our mechanisms of communication and development. The reinforcing benefit of promoting sustainability in education and in business, even though not everybody will prioritise sustainability, is that the actions of the majority will benefit global society. This can take the form of a collaborative process between companies (including HEIs) and stakeholders (investors, students, funding boards, regulatory bodies). The figures depict that in business sustainability is becoming a major concern in the way corporations function in British society. The case is similar in education with increasing amounts of information available for the individual to access. This makes it possible for me to confirm my hypothesis – LE does encourage reflexive literacy in sustainability in the business and educational sphere on personal and professional levels. The research attempts to challenge assertions that are held in the general public about sustainability and its viability for incorporation in social institutions. To finish, Strauss concluded his conjecture on LE, with the statement that “liberal education is liberation from vulgarity.” (Strauss, 2003: 36). “The Greeks had a beautiful word for “vulgarity”; they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful” (Strauss, 2003: 36). LE truly does supply us with experience in things beautiful and hopefully this research can contribute to the reconfiguration of the older models of LE and LA to a study conducive for promoting a brighter, more sustainable global future.

Header Image: Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash


Clayton, S. & Myers, G., 2009. Conservation Psychology: understanding and promoting human care for nature. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Corcoran, P. B. & Wals, A. E. J., 2004. The problematics of sustainability in higher education: a synthesis. In: P. B. Corcoran & A. E. J. Wals, eds. Higher education and the challenge of sustainability: problematics, promise, and practice. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 87-88.

Ghosh, B. & Herzig, C., 2014. Managing responsible and sustainable business in the UK. In: S. Schaltegger, S. E. Windolph, D. Harms & J. Hörisch, eds. Corporate sustainability in international comparison: state of practice, opportunities and challenges. Cham: Springer, pp. 199-222.

Hörisch, J. & Windolph, S. E., 2014. Overview of the aggregate results of the International Corporate Sustainability Barometer. In: S. Schaltegger, S. E. Windolph, D. Harms & J. Hörisch, eds. Corporate sustainability in international comparison. Cham: Springer, pp. 21-33.

Strauss, L., 2003. What is Liberal Education. Academic Questions, 17(1), pp. 31-36.

Thompson, C. B., 2015. On the decline and fall of the liberal arts. Academic Questions, 28(4), pp. 417- 427.

UNESCO (2016) Graphic 1: The Whole-School Approach to Climate Change. [Graphic] In: Gibb, N. (2016) Getting climate-ready: a guide for schools on climate action. Online: Available at, p.3.

Wilson, J., 1996. Liberal Education: the concept and its justification. Oxford Review of Education, 22(2), pp. 243-246.

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