The ‘Western university’ is too taken up with scientific knowledge

Other value frameworks, such as those implicit in indigenous knowledges, must be better heard, says Ronald Barnett

November 15, 2021
statue of Sir Isaac Newton
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The world is in crisis – several crises in fact. I have in mind not the Covid health crisis but crises that in some ways run even deeper: the climate disaster, egregious inequality, excessive instrumentalism, continuing signs of coloniality, a growing fear of strangers, and an inability to tolerate deep ambiguity.

For those in the academic world, the question naturally arises as to whether universities bear any responsibility for these phenomena. To the extent that they do, the values embedded in them can fairly be put in the dock.

The higher education scholars Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi appear to see little culpability – at least as regards the “Western” university. In their recent article in Times Higher Education, they say that “it is essential to safeguard the fundamental values of the Western university model, dedicated to the search for truth based on scientific evidence and academic freedom”.

Questions immediately present themselves. Has the Western university model lived up to its own values? To what extent are its truths based on scientific evidence and academic freedom? What is special about science: what of disciplines that are dependent less on evidence but more on reason or pragmatic considerations? And why this insistence on the Western university? Might not universities in other regions harbour worthwhile values?

These questions point to a fundamental issue concerning the role of the Western university in the situation that confronts us. Altbach and Salmi speak of “the search for truth” and the scientific endeavour, but, as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory observed back in the 1930s, the form of reason favoured in the West is instrumental reason, in which nature and the world have come to constitute resources for control by humanity. And it is this form of reason, accordingly, that has come to be favoured in the Western university.

In short, the Western university has been all too Western: too much believing in the value of objective knowledge in general, and too much taken up with scientific knowledge in particular. Moreover, this idea of the university has been much endorsed beyond the Western world, notably by China. And this set of dispositions is central to the global evolution that has brought us to our present predicament.

Of course, this is not the full story. On the contrary, the Western university contains resources for its own renewal. And many institutions are engaged in programmes of renewal that are, in part, sensitive to the critiques I have mentioned.

These inner resources arise from the value pluralism within universities. There is no single set of values that characterises the Western university except the value placed on there being a clash of values within single institutions. The Western university is an institution where conflicts and, indeed, contradictions between sets of values – and ideas – can be, and are, played out.

By extension, the Western university is extraordinary in another sense, in that it holds the capacity to critique itself. And this is a crucial capacity if the university is to turn itself around, which is a responsibility now falling upon it. After all, if the university can in part be held responsible for the crises befalling this planet, it has in turn a responsibility to play its part in mitigating those crises.

There is no reason to believe that this can’t be done. The Western university’s value base is not frozen but has continued to evolve, certainly over its recent 200-year evolution from an institution that saw its value resting on its internal knowledge callings to its central role in the formation of cognitive capitalism. Its further evolution has to place at its centre the planet and the plight of humanity.

There is one fly in the ointment, however. The present-day conflict of the faculties – to use Kant’s terminology – is not being fought on a level playing field. The dominant value framework is precisely that depicted by Altbach and Salmi: a commitment to the claims of science and its associated technologies to provide objective readings and manipulations of the world. Other value frameworks – implicit in indigenous knowledges, embodied knowledges (of the kind within professional life), feminist epistemologies, and knowledges of care and otherness (which are presuppositions of environmental action) – are certainly present and even gaining strength, but they are minor value frameworks within the university.

Can the playing field of values be levelled, such that the present minor value frameworks can better be heard and their hopes for this planet realised? The jury is out, but let’s hope it returns soon with a positive verdict.

Ronald Barnett is emeritus professor of higher education at the UCL Institute of Education. His latest book is The Philosophy of Higher Education: A Critical Introduction, just published by Routledge.

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Reader's comments (6)

Part of the problem is that there is much knowledge in the social sciences that is not scientific and we do not have English words to describe the wisdom of Indigenous knowledge. Non of the hundreds of Australian Indigenous languages have words that can be translated in modern social constructs like "money", "price", "value", "cost" or "hierarchy". The latter word is referred to as a "boss" system. The Nobel Prize acceptance speech by Elinor Ostrom described how wicked problems can be resolved without our modern totems of markets, economic value and state. I know of no school of business, management or government that provides education in self-regulation, self-management and self-governance practices by Indigenous Australians longer than any other living culture. However, this knowledge does exist in schools of engineering and science who teach how to design and build self-regulating, self-managing and self-governing automobile and many other devices. The silos of modern knowledge is undermining and destroying democracy as is evident by their reducing numbers. Our most gifted leaders of the future from graduate schools of business, management and government are being educated how to climb the social hierarchies of centralised power favoured by by dictatorships. As a result we are sleep walking into what scientists described as ghastly future of environmental degradation from a plague of people on the planet. However, some Indigenous societies have a hight chance of survival.
I presume that this article was intended to stir up controversy since it made me question why I bother to subscribe to THE. For me, provable scientific knowledge is the only basis on which one can build a modern society so I do not like to see it undermined for whatever reason. I live in "the West" and so have the value system of that region, which does not exclude sustainable development. Without modern technology, we would not even have the means to write these comments so let us be more careful before we engage in self-flagellation.
Diversifying what we do, drawing on the myriad heritages of the world, serves only to broaden knowledge for scholars of all disciplines... but it has to be embraced as a way of enriching what we already have, not supplanting it. It's a case of 'let us explore other ways in parallel with the one we are familar with' not 'let us supplant tried and tested methodologies with something else'... that may happen if we find that the 'something else' actually is better, but usually it's a case of being DIFFERENT rather than BETTER (or WORSE) and the true strengths will develop out of using all of them together, not supplanting one with another.
Having presumably benefitted from a Western education and a salary from a prestigious Western institution, Professor Barrett now indulges in trashing 'the West'. Without 'Western' universities there would be no decolonial theories.
In contrast to the preceding comments, I write to support the essay. It is disappointing to read such decades out-of-date notions about science, social science, universities in the first. Followed by either purposeful or ignorant misreadings of the essay. See my own THE essays in recent months:
I thoughh there is alread 'ethnology' established for investigating 'the wisdom of indigenious coltures', i.e. surviving on myths but without wheels or metal tools. However, if someone feels the need for a whole university to study 'alternative' concepts of reality, be free to found one, get accredited and find founding. There is no need to throw away (or damage, or dilute, ...) a (arguably) good system for a highly questionable one!