Education, a lever for far-reaching change

Without them, education for sustainable development at the University of Bern and CDE itself would not be what they are today. Anne Zimmermann and Karl Herweg, two pioneers in transformative teaching and learning, are now handing things over to the next generation. Not quietly and conservatively, but rather with candour, humour, and unwavering commitment to a more sustainable world. Or, to borrow one of their oft-used phrases: “As it should be.”

«Die akademische Welt alleine kann keine Lösungen bringen»: Karl Herweg und Anne Zimmermann waren 22 Jahre gemeinsam in Sachen Bildung für Nachhaltige Entwicklung unterwegs.

Text: Gaby Allheilig │Cartoons: Karl Herweg │Photos: CDE

Technically, she should have left her office months ago. But for Anne Zimmerman, retiring hasn’t meant calm and quiet. There’s still so much to hand over and to set in motion. The sense that there aren’t enough hours in the week isn’t something that’s emerged only now, at the end of her career. “When she first joined us, it wasn’t long before we noticed that she sometimes slept on a mat in the office because it got too late to go home,” jokes one of her colleagues, adding with a wink: someone eventually bought a sofa “so she could sleep a little more comfortably”.


Karl Herweg is similarly restless. In addition to doing a lot of teaching and “a bit of research”, he draws cartoons that get at the heart of complex issues in his field of expertise. This is what he’s well known for.

That he’s driven by a sense of impatience, however, might not be immediately obvious when you first meet the relaxed-looking Rhinelander. “As a geomorphologist, after my dissertation I initially worked in the field of soil and water conservation in Ethiopia, but then I noticed that it takes much too long for research insights to be implemented in practice.” Towards the end of the 1980s, he also realized: “We can develop technologies en masse – but if they aren’t both socially acceptable and economical, no one will apply them.”


And if they do apply them? Then the outcome will be similar to that of the Green Revolution, believes Anne Zimmermann. “In agriculture, there was a feeling that we can end hunger if we just cultivate high-performance varieties and use modern technologies. But that wasn’t the case at all.” People totally forgot that other human beings, cultures, and economies were involved – and, of course, “nature, which couldn’t absorb the amount of pesticides being applied.” Both Anne Zimmermann and Karl Herweg are convinced: today’s challenges are so complex that no one discipline is capable of providing sustainable solutions.



Still, interdisciplinarity requires disciplinary knowledge. Anne Zimmermann argues: “If you don’t literally discipline yourself, you can’t think clearly. And thinking clearly, in turn, means acknowledging that you can’t find the solution on your own.”

Karl Herweg: “Well, I might put that into perspective a bit more. We don’t really know what it would be like to have holistically trained generalists. I think disciplinarity can be a precondition for interdisciplinarity, but it can also be an obstacle. Only when someone has the necessary social skills and isn’t just interested in their own stuff can disciplinarity provide a good basis for interdisciplinary work.”

Anne Zimmermann: “But you have to develop a disciplinary habitus, otherwise…”

Karl Herweg (interrupting her): “Who knows? Maybe it would work without it.”

Anne Zimmermann: “But then we’d be in a completely different system!”

Karl Herweg: “Exactly. I’m not saying that everyone should be disciplinary or that everyone should be interdisciplinary. We need both.”

Anne Zimmermann: “Exactly.”


The linguist and literary scholar and the geographer have worked together for 22 years, five of them as co-leaders of CDE’s Education for Sustainable Development Impact Area. Together with other scientists, they taught and supervised doctoral students on four continents in the International Graduate School North-South, among other projects. An “absolute highlight”, they both agree without hesitating. “All of a sudden, there was a world that felt open, in which things were possible that I would have never thought possible”, Anne Zimmermann sums up their experience working in a broad interdisciplinary and intercultural environment. 


The key, however, was not only interdisciplinarity, but also transdisciplinarity. “Interdisciplinarity is, in fact, necessary to overcome one-sided approaches. But it’s not enough on its own, because then the mindset and practices of academics continue to shape all of the proposed solutions. These are often misunderstood or adopted one-to-one, which doesn’t work either,” says Anne Zimmermann. That’s why knowledge must be co-created with other societal actors, she believes. In other words: “Academia alone cannot provide solutions.”


Nevertheless, it’s abundantly clear to both of them: science is crucial. At the same time, Anne Zimmermann notes that students in CDE’s study programmes “don’t just want to conduct research, they also want to make a difference.” Finding the right balance, she says, is central. Characteristically, she follows this up by saying: “I want to help young people find that balance so they can get involved where they feel intellectually and spiritually at home, on the one hand, and where they can ideally make a difference, on the other.”


She herself appears to have found such a balance – but how? “Following the principle of serendipity, for sure.” The clueless listener learns: when you’re after something specific, you can stumble on something entirely different – and it’s exactly what you were looking for. That’s how it went in Anne Zimmermann’s case: “I didn’t pursue one career single-mindedly.” Then comes a hearty laugh: “Karl didn’t, either.” Things just happened, she says. “The art is finding meaning in what happens and creating further meaning from it.” That’s how she ultimately arrived at her job at CDE.


Karl Herweg had a similar experience. He worked in many CDE projects until he finally managed to realize what to him seemed ideal: “research, teaching, and implementation in a single package – and right at your doorstep.” By this he means his teaching at CDE and the Institute of Geography. In collaboration with the federal and cantonal governments, farmers, and Agroscope (the Swiss government’s centre of excellence for agricultural research), he and his teaching colleagues built up a kind of r laboratory in the rural area of Frienisberg near Bern, where students and teachers have been learning how to integrate physical and human geography for 15 years. “Teaching, for me, was and is a direct means of implementing knowledge – in the sense of transdisciplinarily co-creating knowledge, together with people from science and practice.”


The two have greatly contributed to CDE’s approach combining knowledge co-production with the goal of far-reaching transformation towards sustainable development. In particular, explains Karl Herweg, “we have to consider ways of fundamentally changing this system that’s steadily destroying resources in pursuit of endless growth.”

In this way, education for sustainable development (ESD) is not simply a matter of generating and transferring knowledge about how to get from where we are to where we want to be. Rather, it also and especially involves fostering all of the skills necessary for such change. “For example, enabling the entire university to develop its self-image in the direction of sustainability,” notes Anne Zimmermann. “To do so, everyone at the university must view themselves as learners, not just the students.”


That’s precisely what they’ve been working on over the last few years: anchoring ESD across the entire university – under a university mandate. The university requires all departments to include two lessons on topics of sustainable development in their curricula. Lecturers are offered corresponding consultation and support.

Are two lessons enough for sustainability? “The university is doing a lot of things right to contribute to sustainable development, but it falls short of its potential the way it’s currently structured,” says Karl Herweg. “Nonetheless, when we received the ESD mandate, I thought: ‘This fits me. I can work on that.’” After all, he observes, the mandate provides space for creativity – including to transform the university itself. “But that will probably take a bit more time. We’ll probably have to step it up a notch,” he says with a grin.

University-level education for sustainable development – a hurdle that reveals new perspectives.

This begs the question as to whether it’s time to establish an ESD Chair at the University of Bern – it would be the first in Switzerland. “Definitely!” ”Yes, urgently!” And they both agree: This needs to be done in collaboration with Bern’s two other institutions of higher education. But what are the odds of realizing such a thing? Weighing up the possibilities, Karl Herweg concludes: “Maybe the chances wouldn’t be so bad, if you prepare well.” Meanwhile, Anne Zimmermann adds with certainty: “If you don’t have a vision, there won’t be any change.”