University: what is it good for?

What’s its use? Mary Warnock on the University A recent trip to Hay-on-Wye, in Wales – where there is a festival of ideas called ‘How the Light Gets In‘ – allowed me to browse secondhand bookshops for an entire day (nirvanic!). I found this: IMG_20150529_194319I read it in the time it took me to down a large Pimms in the warm glow of a Welsh sunset. The reason it caught my attention is that I am currently prowling for resources that document what universities are for. Warnock (philosopher, Baroness, mother-of-5, former headmistress, and ethicist), told me in no uncertain terms. The purpose of university is to:


cultivate the imagination

develop criticality

out-think all others

Because of this, university cannot (should not) be privately funded. Her little pamphlet – published in 1989, and part of a series called CounterBlasts which offers ‘a forum for voices of dissent’ to ‘challenge the dominant values of our time’ – is full of bold claims including the following:

– universities should be government-funded to ensure continuity, to allow departments to plan, and to teach subjects we need for future generations, not the contingent, short-term, profit-driven needs of industry (page 13);

– only universities (not private business or students) know what needs to be taught and how: students “can pick what they want to study only from what is on offer. They cannot know, they are … too ignorant to know, what ought to be on offer” (page 14);

– we need to be proud of an educational elite who priviliges rigour, standards, innovation, and discovery over the transient needs of market and student satisfaction (page 17);

– the customer is NOT always right (page 18);

– the Government should be paymaster, and the University should be accountable to it (page 38).

This then begs the question of what should be the purpose of univeristies if they are to ‘out-think all others” (page 38). Here is what Warnock has to say (page 30, bold added):

We should lay far more emphasis on methods of acquiring knowledge than on retaining it; on understanding and applying principles than on recalling information (…). After all, information quickly goes out of date. What is important is for students to grasp enough of their subject to appreciate what is new, to distinguish the probable from the improbable, the well-argued from the wild guess, the properly supported from the phoney. They must understand enough of the principles of what they are studying  to see how it connects with other subjects, with which they are less familiar. This method entails a certain amount of detailed knowledge: but a limited amount. It entails what may loosely be called a ‘philosophical’ approach to the subject (page 30)

It is the role of R&D departments (in industry) to then specialise, not the role of universities (page 33).

As I research the role that academic writing plays in the Academy, what resonates with me is Warnock’s reification of the role that imagination, criticality, and interdisciplinarity play in shaping knowledge and minds.

ps. Warnock also has much to say on the role of the Humanities in Higher Education:

the “Government may be persuaded to support the Humanities on utilitarian grounds (…) a study of the Humanities is of the most crucial importance in education at all levels, simply because it is language-based, and offers the chance to practise clear experession and logical analysis (pages 34-35)