Life and death lessons

Education’s true aims comprise a very short list, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

August 4, 2011

Dumb Britain gets dumber. In this year’s series of The Apprentice, two of the four finalists apparently thought that Columbus was British and suspected that Byron was a contemporary of Shakespeare. The others did not know that Caracas is in Venezuela. One of them professed special interest in education. One had a degree in law, another in philosophy and economics. Another, who had first-class honours and a master’s degree, had been to a respected independent school. Unless - as, knowing the medium, I strongly suspect - television contrived the display of ignorance in an attempt to make the programme more amusing, it seems extraordinary that anyone can emerge, so lavishly accredited and so poorly informed, from the protracted, elaborate and costly systems of learning in which Britain invests so much money, time and effort.

Morally, ignorance is pardonable: if we are aware of it, it can help to make us good by making us humble. Mere knowledge is pointless: Socrates questioned it. St Francis despised it. But in the case of The Apprentice finalists, ignorance was allied to arrogance. They repeatedly told the camera how they were worth the prize money of £250,000 and the responsibility of running a business, and how their merits exceeded their rivals’. They were as weak on self-knowledge as on general knowledge. It makes one wonder what teachers at their universities think education is for.

The problem of defining the purpose of education is on my mind because my university is trying to itemise the equipment - cerebral, mental, moral and emotional - we want our graduates to leave with. Inevitably, a committee is in charge, but everyone who teaches, or tries to teach, students is expected to take part in the exercise. Intrusive objectives are bound to warp it. The list will go on the web and serve a promotional function. Mummy and Daddy will scrutinise it before they lay out scores of thousands of dollars in fees. So some of the aspirations on the list will be what we think theirs are, rather than ours. Because mine is a Catholic university, we always feel torn between professing religion and disavowing dogma. Still, the experiment has already yielded three fascinating results.

First, it is relatively easy in the US to give professional qualifications a low place on the list. Students enter our universities on the understanding that our job is to provide a general education. They all do a variety of subjects across the arts and sciences and know that, after four years’ work for a first degree, they will need to acquire professional qualifications via a further course of study.

So, as far as our students’ careers are concerned, Notre Dame’s only obligation is to give them enough breadth of culture, acuity in thinking, power of expression and vicarious experience to make them fit for professional training. To judge from the evidence available, the universities that prepared The Apprentice finalists for life did not set themselves this task - or, if they did, they failed.

Second, my colleagues think a lot about the values they want students to have. Values get a higher place than skills. Competence in particular fields, although it demands a place on the list, tends to get low priority, because skills and specialist knowledge are useless without a suitable disposition.

Some of the qualities Notre Dame professors rate highly are those one would expect from any professor anywhere: self-discipline, constructive scepticism, curiosity, creativity, perseverance, industriousness, perfectionism. Others reflect the local culture: unselfishness, sensibility, compassion, responsibility, service, sense of belonging. The classroom can contribute to these ambitions, but they demand pastoral work and the experience of common life, too. My US students and their parents find European universities, on the whole, grossly deficient in these respects.

Finally, it seems that being Catholic helps. Catholics tend to be unusually adept in self-criticism, because the Church encourages worshippers to examine their consciences before Mass and in case of serious shortcomings to expose their faults to others. This does not make them good - but at least it magnifies self-knowledge, which is a starting point for the acquisition of knowledge of every other kind. In the feel-good world, where everyone is “worth it” regardless of real merit, self-confidence gets corrupted into complacency. Game-show contestants become the victims of their own egregious self-satisfaction. The ability to look impartially at one’s own deficiencies is more precious than any of the quantifiable “skills” and “learning outcomes” that obsess most academic administrators.

And yet, although compiling lists is fun, and discussing them with colleagues is interesting and profitable, I find myself recoiling from the whole exercise in which my university is engaged. Setting peculiar tasks for universities seems to me to arise from a basic error: separating education from the rest of life. Education never stops and cannot be confined to places set apart for it.

There are only two worthwhile objectives for everything we do, in university and out of it: enhancing life and preparing for death. No institution needs a more detailed mission statement than that, as long as the people in it really think about what it means.

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