Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Cultural Sustainability in Higher Education

  • Lynn PayneEmail author
  • Joy Kcenia O’Neil
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_109-1


Culture is defined as both material and nonmaterial attributes of a society, as well as social organizations, oral and written literature, religion, myths, and values and norms representing the important aspects. Social practices, technologies, and tool usage (e.g., cooking, shelter, and clothing) and expressive forms of art (e.g., music, dance, rituals, and religion) are universal by nature (Macionis and Gerber 2011) and should be valued as inclusive within the higher educational setting. Cultural sustainability in higher education recognizes the need to honor and transmit culture for future generations, achieved by infusing pluralistic, transformative learning to foster socio-ecological change.


Cultural sustainability is a multifaceted term encompassing a variety of perspectives, making a clear and concise definition difficult. At the most basic level, Bekerman and Kopelitz define cultural sustainability as “an attempt to transmit culture, or particular ways of life to the next generation” where our contemporary society’s attempt to educate for cultural sustainability may appear different depending on the cultural, diaspora, ethnic minority groups (2008, p. ix).

Laine et al. argue that sustainability can be conceptualized through three specific roles: culture as sustainability, culture for sustainability, and culture in sustainability (2016). Culture as sustainability emphasizes culture as the “core of sustainability, an approach which generates sustainability” (p. 52) through the humanistic role of initiating change, essential to the foundation and structure for achieving sustainable development. Laine defines culture for sustainability approach “sees culture as the glue which combines ecological, social and economic pillars” critical in influencing society (p. 54). Culture in sustainability defines culture as “having a separate, independent role as part of sustainable development, as a so-called fourth pillar in addition to ecological, economic and social sustainability” and most closely associated with the view of educational sciences (p. 54; “Sustainable Development” 2015). In his book, Earth in Mind, Orr (2004) implores society to restore “local culture” and connect with “our ties to local places” (p. 23) and further asserts the loss of vernacular knowledge amplifies the loss of culture.

Sustainability Within the Context of Higher Education

According to Institute of Education Sciences (IES): The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 20.2 million students were enrolled full-time in institutes of higher education in 2014, an increase of 17% from 2004. Of the 20.2 million students enrolled, 42% are non-White students, marking a significant increase of approximately 26% of people of diverse populations and ethnic background (IES n.d.) (Drawing from three tables in the literature, the term “nonWhite” used in the literature.). Given the significant increase in diversity, postsecondary institutions have the far-reaching potential to impact society through educational experiences that create, enhance, and revitalize cultural experiences for all students and the community at-large.

Transformative Learning and Three Orders of Change

Currently, Western education, with its Eurocentric focus, assumes functional and informational learning, emphasizing vocational goals and ultimately paying little attention to educational sustainability. This paradigm, culturally mechanistic and reductionistic by nature (Sterling 2001), is transmissive, thus providing little understanding of the issue of sustainability in our modern society. Stephen Sterling, author of Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change, defines three orders of change which may take place during the learning process (Sterling 2001):
  1. 1.

    First-order change comprising of daily activities and information, leaving basic values unexamined.

  2. 2.

    Second-order change involving critical thinking and reflection. Exploring assumptions and values. Exploration into assumptions and values often occur, requiring metacognition and self-evaluation.

  3. 3.

    Third-order change heightens our awareness, resulting in a new way of seeing and thinking about our world. Further, it leads to a deeper awareness of alternative ways of being and living within the world.


Sterling, contends that transformative education should lead to new ways of thinking, create a “deep awareness of alternative views and ways of doing things,” (Sterling 2001, p. 15) ultimately strengthening society. Additionally, he argues that both cultural and educational systems need third-order change to facilitate a deeper change and there is a need to “transform in order to be transformative” (Sterling 2001, p. 15). It is only through transformative education, promoting third-order change, that we will understand the effects of “knowledge on real people and their communities” as suggested by Orr (2004, p. 13).

As the university setting is critical in leading social change, this term focuses on the role of higher education in promoting cultural sustainability, critical to a pluralistic society, through education which transforms and creates third-order change within higher education institutions. In this entry, the authors will introduce research that defines postsecondary education institutions as the focus for maintaining pluralism as one target for cultural education.

Second, David Orr emphasizes ecological learning as a form of transformative education, education focusing on third-order change, focusing on values, human beings, consciousness, questions, “education of a certain kind” (2004, p. 3.), in addition, the ecological learning that can be gleaned and illuminated through indigenous cultures to sustainability, both ecological and environmental. Orr (2004) and Cajete (1994) suggest those cultures have lived sustainably for centuries and learning from them is critical for education as a means of cultural preservation. This entry will illustrate cultural sustainability through the lens of transformative education.

Bezbatchenko (2010) emphasizes the need for individual perspective transformation in postsecondary education in the areas of education in environmental sustainability, environmental education, sustainable development, economic development, equity, and socio-ecological education. According to Bezbatchenko, cultural sustainability education is overlooked. Historically, sustainability planners in the mid-1990s lacked the cultural appreciation necessary for sustainability. While cultural sustainability received significant attention, the concept of cultural sustainability predominately dwelled under the umbrella of social sustainability. Little attention has been given to “cultural capital” (Duxbury et al. 2007). According to Dehghanmongabadi and Shirkanloo, in the twentieth century, “the concept of sustainable development matured, leading to an increased interconnection between the economic and social elements of development … sustainable development is seen as the interface between environment, economic, and social sustainability” (2013, p. 3). Cortese emphasizes higher education’s task in creating a more sustainable future can only be met through education, integrating “ways to preserve and restore cultural and biological diversity, both of which are critical to a sustainable future” (2001, p. 18). He further asserts communities will benefit from partnerships with higher education institutions through collaboration and programs to make them “socially vibrant, economically secure and environmentally sustainable” (Cortese 2003, p. 19), further illustrating the need for higher education to focus on “individual success independent of the health and well-being of communities, cultures and the life support system” (Cortese 2003; Cortese and Hattan 2010; Dehghanmongabadi and Shirkhanloo 2013).

Sustainability Within a Context of Culture

Historical Context

For more than 200 years, waves of Americans arriving at the shores of the “new world” found the process of acculturation and assimilation a means of survival creating a society of “fitting in.” Norms created by the majority became those norms embodying the society’s fundamental expectations. The resulting loss of language, art, and other social practices, thereby created the American “melting pot.” The result was a continued metamorphosis of the political landscape and complexion of America. In exploring cultures, paramount are those core US values: freedom, independence, equality, self-reliance, competition-orientation, achievement, success, practicality, efficiency, and openness.

The migration patterns “encountered poor housing conditions, excessive consumption of material and energy resources, instability in social and cultural values and social separation on a global level” (Dehghanmongabadi and Shirkhanloo 2013, p. 2). The proverbial “melting pot” perspective has been discounted as a myth as the dominant cultures of society dominate political and social landscape. Hogg and McComb proposed a more pluralistic educational system valuing cultural awareness and differences in a pluralistic society (1969).

Cultural Sustainability within the Sustainable Development Goals

The emergence of culture in the concept of sustainable development began with United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Conference on Cultural Policies for Development in Stockholm in 1998. In 2001, UNESCO provided its Global Declaration on Cultural Diversity and the cultural dimensions of sustainable development were again discussed in 2002, at the World Summit Meeting in Johannesburg. In 2004, Agenda 21 for Culture emphasized the connection stating “Sustainable development and the flourishing of culture are interdependent” (Packalen 2010, p. 119). The growth of multiculturalism research over the past three decades has been transformative, resulting from societal movements and the ever-changing needs of higher education. Sustainability has become a critical discussion over recent decades, resulting in three pillars of sustainable development: social, economic, and environmental sustainability. More recently, culture has been added as a fourth pillar of sustainable development. In conjunction with the emergence of the fourth pillar, an appreciation of education “assisting in the promotion of sustainable development” has emerged and is becoming more globally widespread (Dehghanmongabadi and Shirkhanloo 2013, p. 1).

Educational goals, as determined by the 2015 United Nations 2030 Agenda, resulting in Target 4.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are as follows:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development (UNESCO 2017, p. 6).

Specific targets related to cultural sustainability are also mentioned:

SDG #4, Quality Education The learner understands the important role of culture in achieving sustainability (p. 17).

SDG #11, Sustainable Cities and Communities The learner is able to reflect on their region in the development of their own identity, understanding the roles that the natural, social and technical environments have had in building their identity and culture (p. 31).

Creating a more pluralistic society which is supported through institutional education is gaining momentum, but is still marginalized compared to its environmental, diversity, and campus greening counterparts. Although there is significant research in higher educational institutions focusing on the need for diversity and inclusion, it may be beneficial to look further into higher education’s promoting pluralism within the community. Exploration into biocultural diversity and indigenous ways of knowing as areas connected to sustainability in teaching and learning in higher education will also be explored.

Examples of Cultural Sustainability in the Higher Education

Colleges and universities are challenged environmentally, socially, and economically in working toward a more sustainable future. Within this realm, cultural sustainability and multiculturalism, two contemporary “buzz words,” have been the focus of much attention in recent years. Centers for diversity and inclusion, enhancing global awareness through higher educations, are becoming prevalent on the academia forefront. Although student affairs professionals have played important roles in addressing multiculturalism through multicultural centers, women’s centers, and diversity workshops, the research around these areas is “scant” in providing research specific to racial and ethnic diversity, illuminating the need for additional research related to the issue of culture on the population studied (Pope et al. 2009).

The exploration of cultural ways of knowing explores indigenous education in connection with Eurocentric Western education. For indigenous cultures, education is a social activity involving communication from the entire education community and not only policy makers and mainstream educators.

Creating Sustainable Societies

Institutions of higher education are charged with core principle and task of educating students in creating more sustainable societies. In theory, creating more sustainable societies is necessary; however, the challenge lies in institutions of higher education creating educational programs focusing on cultural sustainability. Several educational programs, throughout the United States, have responded to UNESCO’s task of creating more culturally sustainable communities. Five such programs will be discussed in this section focusing Building Bridges of Acceptance, Global Awareness and Participation, Connection to Community, Cultural Sustainability as Community, and Teaching and Learning as Cultural Ways of Knowing.

Building Bridges of Acceptance

Colorado State University, Todos Santos Center is utilizing education to “build bridges between United States and Mexico” (n.d., p. 1). The international center, located in Baja California Sur, Mexico, provides students with an opportunity to grow as global citizens through experiencing the culture of those within the Baja California Sur community as well as ecosystems while exploring the challenges and priorities of those community members (Colorado State University n.d.). Research, learning, and collaboration are enhanced between the Baja California Sur residents, the Colorado State University community, and the global learning environment through education and expertise combined with natural, cultural, and historical aspects of the community. Colorado State University’s resources and expertise, combined with Todos Center provides an opportunity for students to learn in an embodied way, in research and educational opportunities in understanding of an appreciation for other cultures. The goal of Colorado State University and their commitment to the Baja California Sur in creating a long-term place in the community will not only benefit students in the exchange, but also the community members in Baja California Sur and the global community.

Global Awareness and Participation

West Chester University of Pennsylvania developed a program Cultural Experience Project (CEP) in an effort to increase cultural awareness and diversity among students (Gilboy and Karpinski 2009). This project includes incorporating cultural awareness through curriculum design within nutrition and cooking courses. As part of this cultural awareness project, students are required to research cultural components of food and nutrition, including religion and traditional remedies/treatments used in cultural food preparation where the ultimate goal is to enhance cultural competency. Future goals for the project will include interview with people form other cultures and becoming more embedded in the culture as a whole.

Connection to Community

Goucher College, a liberal arts college in Baltimore, is extending their concept of cultural sustainability to include arts, dress, customs, and cuisine of inner-city neighborhoods or third world villages. Their Master of Arts programs takes “A Step Beyond Anthropology” (Navarro 2009), focusing on cultural history, policy, and festivals. Students who are typically “deeply embedded” in the communities and studying with global communities focusing on various aspects of biodiversity. According to Paul Rowland, Executive Director for the Association, for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), Goucher’s programs stand apart and are gleaned exceptional from other 200 sustainability programs throughout the country mainly because of their anthropological focus (Navarro 2009).

Cultural Sustainability as Community

Eastern Mediterranean University located in Famagusta City on the coast of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus established the Institute of Higher Technology (IHT) in 1979. Through intentional design, the institute attracts faculty from 35 different countries and students from 68 different countries and is situated and connected with the 35,000 residents of Famagusta City, connecting more than 50% of Famagusta City to IHT (Dehghanmongabadi and Shirkhanloo 2013). It is through this interconnectedness of institution and community that social and cultural capital is shared, and learning is embodied in the experience. Intentional educational programs, as well as social events, are designed to bring for the various community cultural events and educational programs focusing on international social capital.

Teaching and Learning as Cultural Ways of Knowing

Bio-cultural diversity, as defined by Luisa Maffi, Director of Terralingua, an international NGO devoted to sustaining the biocultural diversity “comprises the diversity of life in all of its manifestations – biological, cultural and linguistic forms which are all inter-related (and likely co-evolved) within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system” (Maffi 2010; “Sustainable Development” 2015; Technology 2015). Recent research has shown that “the world areas with higher cultural diversity often overlap with the areas of higher biological diversity” (Giovannini 2009). One theory for this higher biological diversity is attributed to indigenous people living more sustainable lifestyles and acting as “stewards of biodiversity” (Giovannini 2009). A point of consideration then, is the culture of diverse populations and indigenous cultures in examining sustainable development.

The knowledge of indigenous cultures has significantly impacted sustainability and is drawing attention from educators and researchers throughout the world. Indigenous cultures have living knowledge of sustainability, allowing for their cultures to continue and flourish for centuries (Giovannini 2009; Springer 2013). Formal education systems, focusing on abstract knowledge and academic learning, “have disrupted the practical everyday life aspects of indigenous knowledge,” leaving them on the peripheral of society (UNESCO n.d.). Today, there is a grave risk that much indigenous knowledge is being lost and, along with it, valuable knowledge about ways of living sustainably. Joie Springer, author of UNESCO’s Contribution to Preserving Traditional and Indigenous Knowledge focused on examining the work of UNESCO as a means to maintaining and preserving traditional and indigenous knowledge. Indigenous culture speaks to a deeper knowledge of ecosystems and their techniques for managing them (Springer 2013). According to Springer, indigenous cultures remain ever evolving through the exposure to contemporary society, mass media, and interaction with other societies. Western or Eurocentric education focusing on training and education in reading and instruction negates indigenous learning and knowledge typically transmitted through experience, observation, and implementation – thereby a process of deculturalization of traditional knowledge. Historically, Native American Indian education, as well as other indigenous population education, has focused on indigenous population productivity and survival in a postmodern, postindustrial society.

Final Remarks

As can be seen, cultural sustainability is a multifaceted term having many perspectives considering a change in the way society respects cultural values. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization maintains cultural sustainability as a high priority as can be seen in two of the sustainable development goals, as well as identifying culture as the fourth pillar of sustainability. Cultural capital and the understanding of its place, and community and geographic location are critical to incorporate into the fourth pillar of sustainability.

Sustainability lies within the interface between social justice, cultural diversity, and economic and environmental responsibility. Higher education plays a vital role in creating this interface and working toward creating pluralist educational institutions which promote a more pluralistic and globally aware society.

As proposed by Sterling (2001), perspective transformation occurs through the three orders of learning and change, critical in developing and maintaining cultural sustainability. Through examining cultural sustainability through the lens of Sterling’s three orders of change, true contextualization of sustainability is possible.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of Wisconsin Stevens PointStevens PointUSA
  2. 2.School of EducationThe University of Wisconsin Stevens PointStevens PointUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Tamara Savelyeva
    • 1
  1. 1.The Education University of Hong KongHong KongChina