Darwin is alive and kicking

October 29, 2004

It is a sad day when serious inquiry is limited by the least able among a sizeable intake of first-years.

It is a tragedy that university chiefs have had to adopt sophisticated management skills normally seen only in commercial organisations. And that is what universities will become if they are not careful. According to our vice-chancellor's vision document: "Government is interested in universities primarily as drivers of a knowledge and skills-based economy."

This attitude corrupts universities. The danger is that the value of intellectual curiosity will move towards institutional survival in response to market forces. The Government values knowledge (read skills) above thinking, and that stinks.

Thankfully, our new vice-chancellor appears to want to fight the temptation to cave into such rhetoric. The Government should be afraid of universities because they create people who challenge, question and say no. My university has real centres of excellence, which is why I wanted to come.

But the battle is seen in the numbers. First-year seminars are overcrowded.

The sales trick is to get people signed up to the idea that they will get a good job. What happened to the potency of the idea that you might get a good brain? That doesn't sell it to many people any more.

What really irks me is the phrase I often hear: "This will look good on your CV." Students now say it to each other about everything they do. This is madness in a place where curiosity and new thinking really can flourish.

Academics still believe in stimulating and developing questioning minds and they try to spark our thinking wherever possible. But it can be agony to watch the process. Things have become too inclusive and the opportunity for serious inquiry limited by the least interested thinker in the room. I'm not talking about the learning disadvantaged, although I have yet to feel entirely comfortable with the idea that university should be a net for remedial action either. I mean that some people just can't be bothered, and I don't blame them. University isn't for everyone, and forcing them to believe that a degree is the only thing worth having is socially corrosive.

Everyone loses.

When a small body of students is discontented with study, a sort of educational Darwinism develops. They quickly fail to show up to school.

Selfishly, I think "good"; the rest of the pack can run faster and we can get much more out of being here.

On a more trivial note, living submerged in youth has not turned out to be the bacchanalian love-fest that my friends were envious of. Putting one myth to rest, hundreds of drunken teenagers are not very sexy. Talking over lunch with another old fart, we agreed it was a blessing that we don't wander about lusting like monks; now that would be hell.

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