The CEMUS Project – Lessons for Oberlin?

Steven Volk, April 26, 2015

A colleague recently introduced me to CEMUS, the Center for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. CEMUS is a unique student-initiated and primarily student-run university center with the explicit ambition to contribute to a better world. Since the early 1990’s, it has offered interdisciplinary higher education and been a creative meeting place for students, researchers and teachers from Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The three main principles that define it are Student-Led Education, Collaboration & Partnership and Transdisciplinary Research. Interestingly, at least for us at Oberlin, its founding was at least partially inspired by a lecture given by our own David Orr in Sweden some years earlier in which he set out “six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them.”

Transcending BoundariesCEMUS published a short book about its history, principles and goals in 2011. Transcending Boundaries: How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn is available as a free download. This “Article of the Week,” is a condensed version of the chapter: “What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström, one of the center’s student founders. The Center is centrally focused (as its name would suggest) on questions of environment and “development” (which they discuss in a very specific manner), and responds in one way to David’s challenge that the task of rethinking education must be undertaken in the context of the urgency of human survival. Further, the CEMUS project offers a number of lessons for a college, our own, as well as higher education in general, which is deliberating over its larger curricular and educational goals and the ways that students can take ownership over their education.

(NOTE: I have emphasized those parts of the text I found particularly relevant to our own process. Also note that the references to “senior faculty” would, in our context, better be read as “faculty” or anyone with a teaching or mentoring function.)


“What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström

The Beginnings
It is the fall of 1988. Classes are starting for Biology majors at Uppsala University. Fifty freshmen, full of expectation and a little bit nervous, are seated in the “The Svedberg Hall”; in the old, worn premises of the Chemistry Department…Finally, I am here, where all the action is supposed to be; at the center of thinking and change—the university.

My images of the university were so vivid and clear: frenetic activity and enthusiasm; continuous debates and discussions; students with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, who attend lectures beyond their fields of study according to interest rather than course plans and requirements; idealism and the power to bring about change coupled with knowledge and thoughtfulness; demonstrations, actions, and protests; the courage to challenge and change the status quo. The core of social change and the triumph of reason over the follies of the world.

Where did I get these images? I don’t know—but they were certainly very real. And thus the disappointment and frustration at the reality that confronted me was just as real. A sense of disillusionment. Was this it? Was I missing something? Where was the dedication to causes and the ability to bring about change? […] Here, every year, thousands of students appeared to flow through the system without ever having been compelled to place their education in a broader context; without having been forced to challenge themselves and their educational and career choices in relation the major issues of global survival… and the global injustices that troubled not only me, but also a growing part of the world.

An essay by David Orr, titled “What is Education For?”—originally a speech to the graduating class of 1990 at Arkansas College— crystallized our thoughts but also ignited a spark to act. It was the first of several formative and deeply inspiring factors on the road to what would become Cemus. “The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climactic stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity,” Orr stated, and concluded, “It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.” In other words, the university is indeed a big part of the problem.

Orr continued, “My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound the problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival—the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.”

[…] We must learn how to manage ourselves and our social systems. New knowledge does not automatically yield good values, and the amount of total knowledge hardly increases…An increased amount of disciplinary and reductionistic teaching and research will not provide the holistic and integrated understanding of the world that we need the most. Education should not primarily be a career tool. And finally, Western culture is not some kind of apex in world development, but is rather, in many ways, the opposite.

[…] The importance of these moments of “homecoming,” of making connections with people and thoughts that strengthen your own possibly unformulated but deep insights, but which also challenge you and stretches your imagination, should not be underestimated. In fact, that is probably a foundational element of Cemus’ origination as well as an important dimension of its pedagogical approach. The merging of dammed-up frustration and moments of constructive inspiration can yield unexpected results!


Johannes Buno, Universal History (1672) in Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time

Yet another important point of departure: the Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich visits Uppsala University in 1989… His lecture is dazzling [and] the conclusion is challenging: which university will be first in the world to require an introductory, cross-disciplinary semester in matters of global survival for all students? And which university will be the first to allow—and to expect—everyone, regardless of discipline, to set aside at least 10% of their time to get involved in exactly these kinds of issues?

Imagine a lecture series, a course, an introductory semester with only lectures like this; lectures which affect you and which force you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives. The seed for the course Humanity and Nature was planted—and the vision of another, different university became a little bit more concrete.

A third departure point: An entire wall of empty tea cans inside the old stone house in the Observatory Garden. Facing us, the Astronomy Professor that so many people have told us we simply had to meet. Our idea: an interdisciplinary course aimed at all students, which takes on the great issues of global survival. A model for a required introductory course inspired by Ehrlich’s challenge. Over the course of one semester, we have been experimenting and thinking about a course design. […] We are encouraged [by Prof. Bengt Gustafsson] to go beyond what we thought was possible…Perhaps the foundation for a fairly uncommon model of respectful and straight-forward collaboration between young students and senior faculty is laid there in the stone house among the tea cans.

From Idea to Completed Course
We are now four students who are wandering through the hallways of the university in search of support for the course proposal. One person leads to another, and we discover that there are in fact many people who share an interest in global issues, people with similar outlooks and a desire to bring about change…The common meeting place and the critical mass seem to be lacking—and the disciplines reign, mirroring the situation that we as students are experiencing…

[…]We are impressed by the professors’ command of their own disciplines, but soon realize that nobody has the whole picture; that they, just as we, are truly grappling with the complexity of the issues. We realize that our common sense and curiosity go a long way, and that we are part of a common project of attempting to define and understand the integrated areas of environment and development, or “sustainable development.” One of the significant aspects of Cemus is exactly this breaking down of exaggerated respect for authority while at the same time making active use of the senior teachers and researchers in order to construct one’s own understanding of the whole—one’s world-view—and to do so on one’s own terms.


No.11 King St, W Toronto, Canada. Brian Carson. CC-Flickr

[…]We…finish polishing the course idea and send in the proposal to the University Board. We place a lot of emphasis on the need for an interdisciplinary approach and on the importance of the students’ own active participation and their communication and interaction across disciplines, but we remain silent on the topic of who is to run the course. A few months later, we receive notice that the Vice-Chancellor…has decided that the course will be [developed and carried out by the students] in collaboration with an interdisciplinary group of senior faculty [and] placed as an unusual, freestanding entity… floating above all departments… Developing the course was a way of reflecting on what gives real knowledge and deepened insight—and what triggers the joy of discovery and exploration.

The course development became a relieving experience and great fun—we were fully absorbed in the work and nothing seemed to limit us. We pondered and experimented with new interdisciplinary constellations; with modes of examination in which the writing of group papers across disciplines also became a continuous dialog with the lecturer; we made sure we always ate dinner with the lecturer before the evening’s lecture in order both to build relationships and to provide a context for the lecturer; and we developed detailed, ongoing course evaluations as an explicit, pedagogical tool.

In the full-time follow-up course, Humanity and Nature II we had the opportunity to experiment even further because we were no longer limited by the large lecture hall format, and the course was offered exclusively to advanced students with at least two years of study

[…]The most highly qualified and advanced education is not found in the course catalogue—it consists, rather, in having the opportunity to take own responsibility for development, coordination and teaching of a real course for other students.

We also realize at an early stage that the “meeting place” is at least as important as relevant courses. A physical center is needed not only to provide a formal base for interdisciplinary courses, but also to function as a magnet for all those individuals who, like ourselves, are in search of community, inspiration and a platform for taking action together with others. And such a center has to be genuinely interdisciplinary—it has to float above all the individual disciplines and departments so that it would not over time become distorted and shaped by the narrow conditions and interests of one particular discipline. The initial course proposal hence outlined the formation of a real, interdisciplinary center as a desired and logical next step.

Cemus is Founded
[…] In 1996, Cemus—the Center for Environment and Development Studies—is finally born…Throughout the years a fundamental principle of Cemus there has been the ambition to provide a meeting place for extracurricular activities and to actively encourage students to act on their knowledge as an integrated part of the teaching process. It should be easy to move from theoretical insights to real engagement on the basis of one’s new insights, points of view, and values—whatever they may be. In a deeper sense, Cemus should probably be regarded as a democratic project, rooted in the academic ideals of knowledge-seeking and critical thinking. It urges students to take responsibility by acting on their knowledge and conviction—through the support of other students, a building and infrastructure, and an attractive social environment…

Key Characteristics of Cemus
The Subject Area: Environment and Development
One basic principle from the very beginning was that issues of global survival should be approached in an integrated manner, where both environment and development are fundamental components; but more importantly, that the study of the very interface between these areas is the most central of all. “Environment and development” is here viewed as “one” integrated concept and not as two separate areas that are studied in parallel. Many institutions that offer courses in sustainable development have a disciplinary basis in either the area of environment or the area of development studies, and it can then easily happen that the courses get a bias towards one of these areas. The strength of Cemus is that the focus—and the curiosity—is almost always directed towards the interface and integration of environment and development.


Helen Keller and the Martha Graham Company. Photo: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind (1954)

The Interdisciplinary Approach
The interdisciplinary approach of Cemus has been a self-evident point of departure since the very beginning… The concept, however, is by no means unambiguous and can be used in many different ways. At the core of Cemus, I believe, there has been an urge to get to a more profound “transdisciplinary” quality, beyond the more common “multi-disciplinary” dimension, even though this is certainly quite a challenge. For some people, moreover, the ideal of a “strong” as opposed to a “weak” interdisciplinary approach is important—that is, an attempt to fundamentally re-evaluate and break new epistemological ground in relation to one’s view of knowledge and one’s understanding of the search for knowledge (and its limitations).

Critical Thinking and Disrespectfulness
“Critical thinking” is probably one of the most commonly used concepts within education and pedagogy and often used in very generalized ways that in the end devalues the concept. Yet, it is without doubt a foundational element of Cemus. This deliberate emphasis on critical thinking takes place at many different levels, with some approaches that seem to be particularly distinctive of Cemus’ courses. First, there is the often explicit ambition to explore alternative and more radical, unconventional ideas and points of view, that is, the “counterpoint” in addition to the “mainstream.” Secondly, the courses challenge students to critically question their own deep assumptions, world-views, and values, something that can make some of Cemus’ courses quite overwhelming and have a profound effect on students. Thirdly, students are encouraged to maintain a critical stance toward the pedagogical process itself and to continually provide feedback and actively influence the courses while they run (and, for some, contribute further by taking responsibility for the course as course coordinators the following year). Critical thinking is also closely connected to the culture of “disrespectfulness” (in a positive sense) for authorities, senior faculty, and researchers that permeates Cemus.

It is the student that stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge; the lecturers pass by, and the student takes advantage of them in the pursuit to synthesize his or her own knowledge—in contrast to an educational situation where the lecturer’s agenda and the query, “What will appear on the exam?” stand in focus of the learning process.

The Focus on Active Involvement
The urge to become actively involved and engaged in the struggle for social change and a sustainable and more equitable world was the departure point for Cemus from the very beginning and is likely just as important today. A basic conviction has been the belief that if people are exposed to and inspired to think more about issues of global survival, then one will somehow change, draw conclusions, and likely also want to actively do something about those problems.

This conviction captures the idea of knowledge as an eye-opener and alarm clock. Whatever political conclusions one may draw from the knowledge one gains, and whatever form of involvement one ends up pursuing, is however something Cemus as an institution should not have any opinions about. It is of course also acceptable to choose not to act, as long as one does so with open eyes and truly stands behind one’s decision. The mission of Cemus is to facilitate and encourage as much knowledge gain, as much critical thinking, and as much reflection as possible—and to make it easier for students to act on these insights if such an urge arise.

The Pedagogical Methods
To improve teaching and pedagogical practices has, as already mentioned, been a central concern of Cemus since the very beginning. However, one may ask whether there is a distinct pedagogical approach at Cemus?… I think one can still discern several features that have distinguished teaching at Cemus through the years. One of them is the focus on norms, values, and students’ own assumptions and sense of responsibility; another is the ambition to supplement reading and theoretical discussions with practical exercises; a third is to whenever possible link theory to concrete, location-bound examples and go on field trips; a fourth is to place great emphasis on social events (scheduled coffee meetings and parties, overnight excursions and field trips); a fifth is the ambition to actively provide a sense of continuity and coherence in courses through, for example, the course coordinators’ presence at every lecture, seminar and discussion; and a sixth is provide opportunities for gaining and improving a number of skills of general importance (different kinds of writing skills, methods for problem structuring, analysis of arguments and debating techniques, communication skills, public speaking skills, and project management).


Duality at No. 664 Bay St, Brian Carson , CC-Flickr

Students at the core—the Relation between Senior Faculty and Students
Without students as the driving force, Cemus would not be what it is. Student leadership is simply a fundamental element that must be preserved and cultivated in the best way possible. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the basic principle has always been the trustful, straightforward interaction between students and senior faculty; not the idea that students should have maximum freedom to do whatever they want. Cemus’ approach clearly demands a good dialogue between students and faculty…and who possess the ability to let go, to not micro-manage and to dare let students prove themselves and learn from their experiences. This goes for not only teachers and researchers, but also for the administrative staff of the university.

The Road Ahead and the Bigger Picture
[…] What about the university as a whole? A key incentive from the beginning was to change the entire university and its educational process in the larger sense…Can the experiences gained at Cemus somehow be converted so as to expand the debate—and moreover, can these experiences be shared and spread to universities in other parts of the world? What would be the next natural step to take? What are the great challenges of today’s students?

As the educator Myles Horton says in his inspiring autobiography, “Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. Either you choose to go along with the way things are or else you reject the status quo.” How should the university be changed? What is education for? How will Cemus continue to contribute to a sustainable and just society?

Niclas Hällström actively contributed to the creation and development of Cemus and has, over the years, collaborated as course coordinator, lecturer, Board member, and work group member. After several years of work on environment and development issues, he is now in the process of building a new organization—the What Next Forum.


CEMUS was founded within the context of a large Swedish university, but its example contains much that we at liberal arts colleges should be thinking about. How do we build transdiscipinary approaches to the greatest challenges of our time, the “wicked problems” that we face? How do we insure that it is the student who stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge? How do we welcome students to take leadership in their own learning? How do we build “trustful and straightforward” relations between students, faculty, and staff? Can we build a lecture series which “affects you and forces you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives?” The answers are in our hands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s