The Future University (Part VI)

Chapter notes (VI)

The following notes, taken from Ronald Barnett’s edited collection on what a university might be in the 21st century, relate to two key concepts (or possibilities) for imagining the ‘future university’: the first is the concept of ‘care’; the second is the concept of ‘wisdom’.

Like the notions annotated in the previous 5 posts, these two notions also foreground a vision of higher education which seems to me to be many times removed from the vision outlined in the UK government’s Green Paper.

Dall’Alba draws on Martin Heidegger‘s concept of care as a defining characteristic of humanness. She warns against having an instrumental approach to education because “of a danger that the pervasiveness of such an instrumental, exploitative view may eventually mean we are unable to understand ourselves in any other way” (p. 114).

Monkeys dressed as apothecaries caring for sick animals (Wellcome)

For Heidegger, the concept of care refers to the care that we have for ‘others’ and for ‘things’ in the world (as outlined in his book Being and Time). From this, Dall’Alba argues that (p.115):

Conceiving education in terms of care for others and things turns attention differently towards education. Not only does it feature what students are expected to know and be able to do (an epistemological dimension), but also who students are becoming or, in other words, how they are learning to be (an ontological dimension)

She gives the example of how knowledge of the built environment and nature requires both the capacity to learn and to care and argues that inherent in the concept of ‘care’ is the notion of ‘responsibility’: responsibility to and for others, the environment, education, research. As such, the telos of developing knowledge and skills becomes one of care and responsibility which in turn opens up new directions and futures, new ‘possibilities for being’ (p. 116-119). These new possibilities require us to become ‘attuned’ to knowing and to knowledge in ways that allow us to detect possibilities for teaching and learning, research, and outreach into the wider community (p. 120).

Thus, the purpose of a university education, in Dall’Alba’s vision, is to learn how to be, not how to do (p.122).

  • Creating a better world: Towards the university of wisdom (by Nicholas Maxwell)

Maxwell’s thesis is that the current dominant knowledge-inquiry model of a university education – 1) acquire knowledge; 2) apply this knowledge; 3) solve the world’s problems – is fundamentally flawed because merely having knowledge of and knowing how to apply technology, for example, does not entail the avoidance of destruction and injustice (eg climate change and inequality).

Establishing what 1) is the first instance, and then getting from 1) to 3), therefore, requires a further step, and that step is ‘wisdom’.

Athene cuniculariaa (Goddess of Wisdom and War)

Maxwell therefore proposes that university education endorse a wisdom-inquiry model (again, this is far removed from the vision of the Green Paper, but it is also far removed from the vision of what even a primary and secondary education should be about, as outlined in the recent statement from the UK Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, who essentially argues that ‘facts’ should come before critical thinking, as though determining what ‘a fact’ is in the first place were unproblematic and did not require us to think critically about the nature of reality, i.e. the nature of ‘facts’, whether physical, psychological or social).

Here is what is wrong, according to Maxwell, with a knowledge-inquiry model (p. 124)

Knowledge-inquiry demands that a sharp split be made between the social or humanitarian aims of inquiry and the intellectual aim. This latter is to acquire knowledge of truth, nothing being presupposed about the truth. Only those considerations may enter into the intellectual domain of inquiry relevant to the determination of truth – claims to knowledge, results of observation and experiment, arguments to establish truth or falsity. Feelings and desires, values, ideals, political and religious views, expressions of hopes and fears, cries of pain, articulations of problems of living: all these must be ruthlessly excluded from the intellectual domain of inquiry as having no relevance to the pursuit of knowledge

Maxwell proceeds to unpack this statement (from p.124 to 137), essentially arguing that the rationality we inherited since the Enlightenment has to be put to ‘good’ use; in other words, it has to further social improvement. This can best be done through a process of wisdom-inquiry in which wisdom is (p.137):

understood to be the capacity to realise what is of value in life, thus including knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but much else besides.

[Clearly, this begs a whole load of other questions, namely ‘what is of value in life’ (ontology) and how to find out (epistemology), which is why, in my view, everybody should be brought up and educated to think philosophically so that at least we can articulate an account of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, even if ultimately we disagree with each other about what that account might be; but at least we would stand a better chance of understanding each other ….]