Across campuses and nations - only connect

May 18, 2007

Historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin suggests a few new ways to get people talking

This week, ministers from across Europe are meeting to discuss progress on attempts to create a common European higher education system.

But are the managers of the Bologna Process forgetting the traumas of their student days?

What most people remember of their time at university is not what they were taught but the friendships they made or failed to make and, often, the inability to extract a meaning for their lives from the syllabus. The Bologna agenda focuses on the formal side of education - qualifications and credits - assuming that the remedy for any inadequacy is "mobility". That is what scholars believed in the Middle Ages. But study abroad today is more difficult than it was then and needs more preparation.

The Oxford Muse Foundation (OMF), of which I am president, has been pioneering three approaches to give more depth to the personal, professional and cultural interaction that universities stimulate at home and abroad. First, conversation at universities is not as easy, profound or inspiring as legend suggests, not even at the mythical high table. Too many students feel isolated and get to know only a very few peers, let alone teachers, really well. The OMF has organised "conversation meals", with a "menu of conversation" containing 24 topics that makes people talk one to one about what is really important in their lives. The evaluations are enthusiastic.

Second, the OMF has been recording conversations and making them into written self-portraits, which become university passports. Each individual can say what they want the world to know about them, and read what others have written. Professors can get to know their students better, and vice versa. If this is done at the start of every degree course, and again at the end, the contrast between the two self-portraits may often say much more about what the university has contributed to a person's growth than examination results.

Participants value this exercise not least because it helps them to clarify their ideas and the direction of their life. The OMF database of self-portraits from different countries has the potential to make contacts between nationalities more fruitful, transcending the simplistic stereotypes. Moreover, it encourages students to make portraits of people outside academia, too, expanding their horizons.

Third, we need conversations not only between individuals but also between disciplines. Universities turn people into specialists who cannot understand one another. Specialisation is valuable but does not necessarily develop the capacity to communicate with other specialists speaking different jargons. Nor does it tell one how to adapt one's knowledge to the world's needs. So I have invented a new postgraduate course, the MCA (master of the conversational arts) to train generalists who can understand how people from different disciplines think and approach problems, and where the latest research is going in each field. The MCA has been tested in Oxford and Paris but awaits funding to become operational.

A survey of MBA graduates by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (the international association for management education) found that "the ability to communicate effectively with another person was the single most useful skill in their career, but that only 6 per cent of business schools were even moderately effective in teaching that skill".

It will be interesting to see whether the decision-makers of Bologna can include these broader issues in their discussions.

Theodore Zeldin is president of the Oxford Muse Foundation.

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