Class act: University's reflect our society as it is, not as we would like it to be.

Negotiating ideas: 'We have to teach students how to argue: how to take a position and justify it.'
Negotiating ideas: 'We have to teach students how to argue: how to take a position and justify it.'

When I look back on all the years I have been involved in university education I sometimes feel sad when I think about where the sector is going.

Many of the academics whose work I am reading appear to reflect the same sadness, and even despair.

Take a recent chapter I read by Angus Kennedy, convenor of The Academy for the UK’s Institute of Ideas as a case in point.

Angus suggests that universities today reflect our society as it is, rather than, as in the past, our society as we’d like it to be.

Its purpose has become functionalist – providing credentials, feeding society “the trained minds that industry demands, and making sure that its students are happy, well-adjusted, model citizens” (p52).

Thus universities have become training grounds preparing people for a life-time of work, rather than places where people can engage in a life of the mind, explore ideas and challenging concepts and break the shackles of conformism and conventional wisdoms.

This is illustrated in growing limitations upon academic freedom through increased casualisation of academic work and through increased censorship which aims to ensure that no student ever experiences discomfort or distress.

Universities have become places that ensure “young minds are never challenged, provoked or offended.

“Instead of access to freedom and truth, it offers beanbags, puppies and whale song; a comforting relativised echo chamber of untutored and narcissistic, self-regulating prejudice. The university is dead” (p53).

Can the university sector change?

Again Angus is particularly pessimistic but suggests if we truly want to change then there are two fundamentally important issues that need addressing.

First is what he calls anarchy: we need to create environments where “the freedom to criticise should be, irony to one side, compulsory.

“No progress towards truth can possibly be made without the freedom to disagree and to judge for oneself” (p55).

That means we have to teach students how to argue: how to take a position and justify it, and to listen to the positions of others even when those positions are completely different to their own beliefs.

The second issue we need to address is what Angus calls nihilism.

What he means here is that not all students are the same and that universities need to have a commitment to academic excellence that over-rides concerns around equality of access.

In blunt language he argues: “the best thing we could do for many students in the  contemporary university is stop pretending that three years there is going to do them any good whatsoever.”

Given the increasing student debt (and the potential transfer of that debt to students’ families) it really is time for students to consider the benefits they hope to get out of their expensive education. In the end it is up to those of us inside universities to determine what we want for our sector and to fight for those changes.

Academics need to have courage “to come together in a community dedicated to the pursuit of truth … to act as a reminder of how the university is – at its best – an ideal real” (p56).

A university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passion and pressures

In this respect, it is worth considering some of the ideas encapsulated in the University of Chicago’s Kalvan Committee Report adopted in 1967: “a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting” and “a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passion and pressures.

“A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”

Degrees of debt: Are today's students getting value for their expensive education?

Degrees of debt: Are today's students getting value for their expensive education?

Intellectual rigour: Universities need to have a commitment to academic excellence.

Intellectual rigour: Universities need to have a commitment to academic excellence.

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