Architects of their own woes

July 28, 2011

Responsibility for the problems in higher education may partly lie with some of the philosophies that prevail in the academic community itself. There is currently a lot of criticism of the utilitarian emphasis of government policy, and yet utilitarian thinking can often be found in the social sciences, and in the way some natural scientists justify their work - on human embryos, for example. Academics are also keen to defend education as a kind of higher value, and yet postmodern philosophies, which are so destructive of the idea that there any universal values or truths, have made significant inroads into the humanities. Many of these ideas started life in the universities, so perhaps the universities themselves have helped to create the ideological climate in which their purposes are called into question.

If the universities are to become places where people learn wisdom, as Steven Schwartz suggests ("Not by skills alone", 16 June), then they will need to rediscover the idea that there is such a thing as wisdom in some larger sense. It is here that the loss of a sense of the sacred, which is such a feature of our culture, has a cost. It has become increasingly hard to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and consequently there is little space for them in the academic curriculum.

Philip Boobbyer, Senior lecturer in history, University of Kent

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