Being a humble servant to business will be a disaster for everyone

By insisting our universities’ sole role is to fire the economy, we have lost sight of their more civilising purpose, says Thomas Docherty

June 4, 2009

For some time now, the fundamental aims of a university education have been in jeopardy; and, in this time of financial crisis, the betrayal of those aims needs to be addressed. The threat comes from a Government that closed the Department for Education, and from a supine Higher Education Funding Council for England and Universities UK, who see their role as managing government priorities rather than representing, within those priorities, the realities of education. Behind all this lies the mantra that universities are a form of “business”. That way disaster lies.

In 1929, just before what we must now learn to call the First Great Depression, A.N. Whitehead wrote The Aims of Education. Whitehead, mathematician-turned-Harvard-professor-of-philosophy, built his case on his experience in senior university management in London, undertaken while he was doing his most imaginative mathematical work. He argues that the university exists primarily as a site for the free play of imagination. “The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively,” he wrote, emphasising that “the atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities.” For Whitehead, the university exists to open new possibilities. It was most certainly neither an instrumentalist nor a utilitarian servant of a purely mercantile economy.

This is important: a university contributes to the commercial and mercantile economy, certainly; however, that is but one tiny part of what it does. It actually contributes immensely more to the economy of civic wellbeing, acting as a servant to wider aims of civilisation. These cannot be reduced to what Thomas Carlyle used to call the cash nexus. Those who claim that the university is a business are complicit with a massive act of deskilling, for they eliminate the vast majority of what we do from material consideration.

Whitehead was aware of business, too. He explicitly argued for the opening of a Harvard Business School; but he did so on the grounds that business, especially in fragile economic times, requires the imaginative atmosphere of a free play of imaginings and possibilities. Decision-making in business, he thought, would benefit from the presence of poetry. Like William Blake, he thought that imagination was not only creative, but also materially transformative. His maths had already shown that imagination is not the pure preserve of arts and humanities, but is rather at the core of the preservation of those huge possibilities that we usually denominate as “the future”.

And while Whitehead and others would unlock imagination, Gordon Brown and his ilk (ministers, grovelling quangos and so on) would “unlock Britain’s talent”. For Whitehead, read Simon Cowell.

Ah, business: the very word is like a Keatsian bell that tolls me back to my forlorn self. It is a bell, however, that tolls for itself in this Second Great Depression. For the university is not, cannot be - and should not try to be - a business. Let us consider it seriously for a moment: it won’t take long. What kind of business takes in raw material, works on it for a number of years, radically transforming its power and potential - and then gives it away, free, to industries that seek to make massive profit from the transformed product? If we are a business, we should sell our graduates; we should not be charging them for subjecting themselves to the possibility of transformation.

Ridiculous? Yes: every bit as ridiculous as saying that it is our task to produce what business wants. As Freud may have asked in our time, “What does business want?” Business is massively diverse, but in general, it needs people whose imaginations can cope with - indeed can generate - possibility. In short, it does not want those with alleged transferable skills, but those fired with an imagination that has been enlarged through their immersion in one or more disciplines.

In the 1970s, we turned to “business” as the new metaphor and presiding principle around which to organise the academy. It replaced earlier, more organic models in which we had fields of study, areas of inquiry, yielding relative degrees of cultivation or growth. Now, instead, we have transparent accounts and bottom lines. This recent crisis, however, shows the limitations of the business model as its bottom falls out of its trousers. Is it time to ask for some spirited leadership that would re-engage the broader aspect of our aims in education? Should we look to major groups for this? How about the Russell Group? Of course, if they think in business terms, they may call themselves the Russell Brand; at least that may awaken a satirical and critical wit that would open a dialogue and help start to reskill a civilisation that can think beyond the parable of the unlocked talents.


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