Rowan Williams: there’s no fooling about impact

The academy’s greatest gift is in cultivating a critical citizenry who cannot be treated as fools, argues the former Archbishop of Canterbury

April 17, 2014

Source: Nate Kitch

There is a great deal being said and written about the public responsibilities of the university these days. It is usually in terms of how universities demonstrate public “impact”, as well as how they reach out to local and national communities. In the context of a far-from-friendly regime of public funding and an obsessional desire to make sure of value for money, this has not been particularly good news for higher education institutions.

As one commentator has pungently put it, there is often a pressure to turn first-class academic institutions into second-rate businesses, rather than looking to other public institutions such as galleries and museums, which have brilliantly reshaped their operations, to provide a different and more appropriate model for outreach and impact.

Impact is not all about commercial significance, any more than it is about the bare quantity of public notice. It is a slow-burning matter and not always easy to quantify. One of the things that universities should be saying clearly and insistently is that most of the metrics currently used to measure “impact” are at best clumsy, and at worst counter-productive. People in higher education do their best and most publicly effective work when they are not constrained by box-ticking and looking over their shoulder towards a set of official requirements.

Who measures this, and how, is a matter of proper debate, and I believe we have currently got it seriously and damagingly wrong. But the issue is a real one. Universities have never simply been nurseries for experts. Not only in Europe but throughout the world, their beginnings are in the processes of training that were thought appropriate for people who would play a leading role in public life. In medieval Europe this was mostly the clergy, in China the mandarin class, and in Victorian England the burgeoning upper middle class who would run the expanding bureaucracy of the nation and empire. But with the advance of democracy, all citizens are potentially agents in public life. The formation that was once reserved for a particular class is now relevant to all.

This means that we must be crystal-clear about the difference between training people to perform publicly useful tasks, and educating people who will ask constructively critical questions in public life, who will understand the forces that shape it and know how seriously (or not) to take the confused mass of propaganda and fashion that swirls around in the overpopulated information culture of our age. The most important bit of “impact” any university course can have is to help people to become intelligent citizens – and that means helping them to see what a critical argument looks like, and to see what genuine thinking is. Part of the function of a university that works really well is to bring different kinds of thinking together, and bring them into conversation so that we learn to recognise the same rigour and high expectations in other fields of study and skill.

Learning to appreciate that good thinking is both diverse and convergent, and that it works in many different ways but is always characterised by rigorous self-awareness and self-challenge, is essential to a healthy public life. Citizens who have never thought about what good argument looks like, or who have never been challenged to recognise the solidity and quality of a different sort of skill from their own, are at the mercy of those who know how to press buttons for emotional responses, self-defensive responses, that just reinforce what makes us feel safer and better. All good education should be teaching us how to be free from that kind of slavery.

Higher education in particular needs to ask how it protects its students from becoming passive and safe, and gives them the equipment for raising issues that may change the landscape of what is thought to be possible. So a functioning university will, across the board, want to be sure that students in any subject are thinking about thinking.

Far from this being some sort of navel-gazing exercise, it is essential to equip citizens who can confidently take part in the discernment and management of public life, whether simply as voters, or as activists or leaders of various sorts. Some have been scornful of certain subjects offered for study by newer universities, and talk of an erosion of intellectual seriousness. I suspect that there are no inappropriate subjects, only inappropriate or inadequate methods of teaching. Some of the basic issues around self-critical thinking will arise in any area. The job is to make sure they are clearly flagged and explored, in an atmosphere of respect and positive expectation.

This is, I believe, the “impact” that matters most – helping to shape a culture in which it is harder to treat the public as fools, harder to exploit prejudice or fear, and easier to conduct constructive argument in public without the melodrama of extreme polarisation. “The truth will make you free” is a text that as a religious believer I care about deeply. Its application to the life of the university in the wider society is not the least important aspect of what it means.

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