What are universities for? The question at the heart of the academic mission has been given added urgency by education secretary Charles Clarke. Ben Okri, novelist and poet, says higher education is all about self-discovery.
The academies of the future will do one thing we do not do today. They will teach the art of self-discovery. There is nothing more fundamental in education.
We turn out students from our universities who know how to give answers, but not how to ask questions. The wisdom centres in our culture do not reach our students. They leave universities with skills for the workplace but no knowledge of how to live, or what living is for.
They are not taught how to see. They are not taught how to listen. They are not taught the great art of obedience and how it precedes self-mastery.
They are not taught the true art of reading. True reading is not just passing our eyes over words on a page, or gathering information, or even understanding what is being read. True reading is a creative art. It means seeing first; and then an act of the imagination.
Higher reading ought to be a new subject in the academies of the future. As we read, so we are. I meet people in all walks of life, and most notoriously in the fields of literature and science, who, though professionals, do not actually read what is in front of them. They read what is only already inside them. I suspect this is true of listening; and that it is happening now, even as I speak to you, or as you read this page.
All our innovations, our discoveries, our creativity come from one source; being able to see what is there, and not there; to hear what is said, and not said. And above all to think clearly.
Then there is the science of intuition. The academy of the future will have to engage this mysterious necessity of the value, the sublime value of intuition in our lives and our work. How to make those intuitive leaps that transformed the science and the art of humanity into a quality that is available to all, and made of constant value to humanity - this will be the true turning point in the future history of our civilisation.
Discipline, hard work, rationality, calculation, can get us only so far; and in time will become the norm. But with it only, we will produce efficient but mediocre citizens. These are tools that can be used for good or ill. But the science of intuition - the mysterious spark that separates the great discoverers and philosophers and artists from the nearly great - this will one day have to be studied and used for the common good.
We need to widen, at base and invisibly, the inevitable necessity of teaching students the need for self-discovery. Consciousness studies ought to be a fundamental part of a liberal or scientific education. All students ought to be aware that they are the true spark of the transformation of the world. All students ought to be practical dreamers.
Universities ought not only to turn out students for the various spheres of business, science, the arts, the running of the economy, management and information technology skills, but people who as human beings ought to enrich the life of the planet. We are more than the functions and jobs that we do. We are the co-makers of this world we live in. And the moral force of our citizens is too little used in the greater enrichment of our world.
We take the living potential that is young minds and turn them, reduce them, into job-fillers and economy providers. We have regressed from the wonderful project of the academy of Plato's dream. Every student is a light, a creative spark, waiting to be of use in dispelling the darkness.
The terms in which I speak must be alien to you; but they will become inevitable. Every day the crisis of purpose grows larger in the lives of people; and prosperity or poverty does not diminish the paralysis it brings if not addressed. A society can die of a lack of an understanding of why it exists or its larger purpose in the scheme of things.
The universe grows more mysterious around us even as we find out more about it. The true reason in this; we are more than we suspect, but are taught to see less into ourselves, to ask no questions about our true natures, and so the great mystery that we are peers out into the greater mystery that is out there. A mystery stares into a mystery; this is a hopeless position.
We ought to substitute the faith in evidence with the knowledge of self-discovery. Only by knowing ourselves can we begin to undo the madness we unleash on the world in our wars, our divisions, our desire to dominate others, the poverty we create and exploit, and the damage we do with all the knowledge we have. It is merely a higher ignorance.
The true purpose of the academy, the university, ought to be to unleash the bright and sublime possibilities of the human being. Education is still in its infancy. The true art and science of education looms over the horizon, where our disasters are being born. There we will learn to avert what evils we ourselves create and then start again the project of humanity, with humility and a new light.
Ben Okri is a novelist and poet. He delivered this address at the Europaeum conference on the future of European universities in Paris.