Escámez-Sánchez, J., & Peris-Cancio-J. A. [et al.]. (2021). La universidad del siglo xxi y la sostenibilidad social [The 21st century university and social sustainability] (Ramón Mínguez-Vallejos)

Escámez-Sánchez, J., & Peris-Cancio J.-A. (2021).
La universidad del siglo XXI y la sostenibilidad social [The 21st century university and social sustainability].
Tirant Humanidades. 281 pp.

This book represents a firm commit­ment to the vigorous and potential ethi­cal engagement that should be driven by the university in response to the unstop­pable process of degradation of the Earth and the life that inhabits it. For several decades now, considerable scientific evi­dence has shown that the future of our planet is in serious danger: the threat of destroying biodiversity and the risk of being destroyed.

Not surprisingly, there is an uneasy sense of discomfort, and public opinion polls quite often remind us of the fact that environmental deterioration is one of the most urgent concerns of the global popu­lation in this century. Meanwhile, as an institution that promotes a better future, the university cannot stand by and do nothing, allowing the matter to progress along such a dangerous path.

The contributions contained in this book are inevitably the result of a humanistic vi­sion inspired by a different paradigm for the relationship between human beings and nature, which entails a way of civilisation that is more loving, respectful and fraternal to Mother Earth. Inspired by Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, this book empha­sises a preoccupation with caring for our shared home, deemed to be a mother and sister, with which we share our existence; it is a mistreated home that is demanding greater attention, along with all those who are excluded and rejected in this world.

From this perspective, the book focus­es on three basic, but intimately related, scenarios: the conservation of natural re­sources to ensure life, the decent develop­ment of nations and the profound social inequality gap.

Given that we are not facing two prob­lems, one human and the other natural resource abuse, but rather one single hu­man-environmental problem, the authors of this book are aware that a profound change is needed in our minds and hearts, because ensuring a sustainable lifestyle is only possible within the framework of a new sense of inter-dependence and global responsibility.

In light of the overriding need for gen­eral sustainability that will ensure a social agreement between humans and nature, and because the issue is so serious that it has become a matter of life or death for both parties, this work turns to normative ethics as a general criterion for determin­ing when an action is correct and when it is not in response to the cries of the Earth and of the impoverished in today’s context of uncertainty, diversity and inequality.

Thus, with the intention of driving real change at this decisive moment in our most recent history, the book’s authors ex­pound on certain crucial topics. One such topic is as follows: What is the mission of the university in this century and in rela­tion to the environment? (chap. 1). Prof. Escámez, in a fruitful dialogue with the writings of Ortega y Gasset, argues that the most pressing mission of the univer­sity is to educate individuals in “lively ide­as”, that is, “the repertoire of convictions about what the world and fellow man is” (p. 22), including an assessment of what is more or less worthy. In sum, to train professionals to judge the culture of their moment in history and to decide whether they respond to its vital needs. It is also important to teach a type of normative ethics (deontological, consequentialist or utilitarian) that promotes the common good so as to fulfil their role as citizens. This chapter ends by establishing new lines of research on the university’s mis­sion in this century.

Closely linked to this chapter, prof. Peris-Cancio discusses the commitment that the University must make with re­spect to social sustainability (chap. 2). Academicism or an openness to personal development? This is one — perhaps the most endemic — dilemma that persists at this honourable institution. In these pages, a critique is made of the excessive self-ab­sorption of the university, which must ac­cept the challenge of abandoning academi­cism that breeds resistance to change, and the impossible task of training competent professionals who are abreast of the times. Instead, the proposal here is that the uni­versity needs to determine the values, attitudes and knowledge that university students must possess in order to devel­op adequately as professionals, as well as the promotion of students that are “active, with critical thinking skills, involved in so­cial transformation” (p. 56). A call is made to the moral rearmament of the university toward social sustainability geared toward the common good of everyone that inhab­its this planet.

Chapter 4 is devoted to human rights and social inclusion. According to the au­thors, the university is an ideal setting in which to put forth arguments to resolve unjust situations and to promote a more attentive way of viewing others, focused not only on oneself but also endeavouring to nurture lives prone to precariousness and rejection. In this regard, the univer­sity could be a space for rational deliber­ation with a view to treating others with benevolence and care.

Expanding on the previous section, Chapter 5 focuses on postulating that the university must contribute to the forma­tion of citizens for robustly democratic societies. If human rights are inalienable universal safeguards for all people, then the democratic space is the ideal setting in which to debate and become commit­ted to promoting and achieving funda­mental rights for humans. Therefore, the concepts of participation, citizenship and civil society are analysed here with a view to understanding the need to weave social networks that act as a buffer to aggres­sion and manipulation of economic and political power. Teaching how to condemn injustice and promote the pursuit of fun­damental rights is one of the educational aims for which university students learn and exercise active citizenship.

The list of chapters devoted to key is­sues about the university’s mission ends in Chapter 9. Here, the topic addressed is whether university education should be dedicated to cultivating “the values of its political community” or, instead, should convey “the values of the human commu­nity” (p. 221). The very title of this chapter hints that the authors are more inclined to educating cosmopolitan citizens. They put forward reasons to support the idea that, as a result of the recent pandemic, we are citizens of one large human community. Without surrendering our local identity, it is necessary for them to learn to “recog­nise humanity wherever they find it; […] and to be willing to comprehend humani­ty, no matter how strangely it is disguised” (p. 228). They conclude with the idea of promoting politics and education aimed at “safeguarding human unity and diversity: the treasure of human unity is human di­versity; the treasure of human diversity is human unity” (p. 242).

The remaining chapters focus on cur­rent issues directly involved in achiev­ing balanced sustainability. Chapter 3 addresses the issue of inequality as the root of unsustainability, running the risk of destroying ways of human life and life on the planet itself. The university insti­tution should promote critical citizenship that leads to human development, reduc­ing inequalities and constructing a more just world.

In turn, Chapter 6 analyses the prob­lem of poverty from the approach of hu­man capacities (M. Nussbaum). This ap­proach “not only prepares for life but also for work” (p. 159), thus rendering capacity development one of the main objectives that should be sought by the university at this time. Furthermore, this approach would help to reduce or even eradicate poverty, given that developing capacities is like equipping a person with all the re­sources needed to live a decent life in con­ditions of equality and respect.

The following chapter is devoted to ana­lysing the phenomenon of migration. Be­yond socio-political implications and data, the focus is on value judgements of this phenomenon, resulting in a proposal of ed­ucational lines of action at the university, opting for inter-culturalism, cultivating rights from a universal ethics stance that recognises the values of equality, equity, en­vironmental conservation, educating uni­versity students in dialogue for multi-cul­tural co-existence, the moral responsibility to reject all forms of exclusion (social, eco­nomic, cultural, gender-based, etc.) and the creation of respectful relationships with the natural and urban setting (p. 188).

The final topic addressed in Chapter 8 is gender equality in relation to sustain­ability and human dignity. One striking feature of this chapter is the interest­ing way of handling this social problem, which is generating no small amount of violence and inequality; these issues should be addressed at the university in order to generate sustainable human development. A set of guidelines is de­scribed to make it possible to progress appropriately in this matter as part of university education.

The book ends by giving a summa­ry of an empirical research project that describes the reality of one sector of the university student body. The results of this study are highly interesting. Notably, these university students can be seen as having basic knowledge about sustaina­bility, claim to have high regard for eth­ical values and accept those norms that correspond to the desired sustainability; however, imbalances are detected in their attitudes and skills, which is linked to a widespread sense of indifference for sus­tainability or for participating in activities committed to promoting the environment.

Overall, without wishing to stem the great flow of ideas and educational lines of action that appear in these pages, I en­courage you, dear reader, to take a closer look inside this book because the authors have managed to create a brilliant peda­gogical text about one of the most pressing issues of this century.

It might have been enriching to take this editorial opportunity to start an excit­ing debate with other ethical and pedagog­ical views that are removed from the de­cidedly idealistic tone found in normative ethics and its related pedagogy. Perhaps this could spark a new challenge.

Ramón Mínguez-Vallejos