Light reading for a heavy task

August 2, 1996

In the first of our open letters to the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education, David Packham (left) suggests that its members canprepare for their deliberations by taking thefollowing reading list on their summer holidays: The Idea of a University , by John Henry Newman (1852), The Crisis in Higher Education: Competence, Delight and the Common Good, by Marjorie Reeves, (Open University Press, 1988) and The Idea of Higher Education, by Ronald Barnett, (Open University Press, 1990).

Most of us would hope to have a period of background reading and recollection before starting on a new project. The members of the Dearing committee are all busy people who might find this difficult. However, the summer is a traditional time for holidays and relaxation. Perhaps the members should consider taking some light reading away with them to help prepare for the task ahead.

Fundamental to all aspects of their terms of reference is the question "What is the purpose of a university?". Those members actively engaged in the daily cares of university teaching and research may benefit from a reconsideration of some fundamental issues, others, from industry, commerce and public administration, may never have had cause to grapple with this question. What better preparation for their work than to peruse some important texts in this area? The literature is vast and spans the centuries, and time is short. I have therefore confined my selection to three books, the classic exposition of The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman, and recent works by Marjorie Reeves and Ronald Barnett which wrestle with the perennial questions from a contemporary perspective. These are books which appear, from my point of view, as an applied scientist involved in teaching and industry-linked research in a technological university, to have important things to say to the present university predicament. Since its publication in 1852 Newman's work has had an enormous influence on discussions of the purpose of university education. Whether one broadly agrees or not with his thesis, not to have studied it is to disqualify oneself from participating in serious discussion of the subject.

For Newman the "business of a university" was to help students, according to their various capabilities, towards a liberal education. What did he mean by a "liberal education"? He develops the concept over many pages of eloquent prose. For him, the end of a university is "simply the cultivation of the intellect . . . its object intellectual excellence". This requires, not just learning, but "thought or reason exercised upon knowledge". There is no enlargement of the mind by the passive reception of new ideas, but by actively comparing and systematising such ideas and appreciating the mutual relations between them. Newman insists that intellectual excellence is a good in its own right: like a healthy body it requires no further justification, although (he adds) both are emphatically useful.

This brings us to Newman's dispute with those, such as Locke, who urged utilitarian objectives on a university. Many today are urging on us a greater vocational relevance of our courses. Newman is not against teaching vocational subjects in a university, indeed he insists that "nothing can be more absurd than to neglect in education those matters which are necessary for [a student's] future calling". For Newman it is not so much what is taught, but how it is taught. Any subject carries the danger of being taught in a narrow and introspective way. Newman emphasises it should be taught with the aim of "true enlargement of mind power [through] viewing many things as a whole . . . [and] understanding their respective values and determining their mutual dependence".

It is easy to dismiss Newman's concept as applying to the education of a tiny privileged elite in a world long since past. How can these ideas have any relevance to a mass system of higher education in the post-modern age? What has it to say to the academic and intellectual problems that face universities today - problems associated with the erosion of old intellectual certainties and with the rapid transition to a mass system of higher education? The latter brings with it a shifting academic standard among those entering higher education and a serious lack of motivation on the part of a significant proportion of the student body.

The continuing relevance of Newman's ideas can be judged by the vigour with which they have been developed and applied to the contemporary situation. Two people who have done this in different but complementary ways are Marjorie Reeves and Ronald Barnett.

Ms Reeves directly challenges us by talking about "education for delight". That is not a word which is often used to describe the experience either of teaching or of learning in the modern university, certainly not in the science and engineering areas of which I have most experience. In her diagnosis of the present malaise, she maintains that for many students today the experience of the "power of curiosity and the power of letters" has largely been replaced by the "tyranny of learning" . Narrow, overloaded syllabuses and over-specialisation constitute "pre-packaged information" which for students has replaced knowledge gained from their own personal endeavour. An exaggerated emphasis on analysis leads to a fragmentation of knowledge and an alienation from academic studies and does not achieve an "apprehension in wholeness" - an over-arching view of a subject and its relation to other disciplines, which Ms Reeves, like Newman, regards as central to a university education. She argues that "the school of thought which makes competence in the market place the top priority envisages only half a person". For her, the way forward must take seriously that knowledge is not only for "competence in doing" but also for human understanding, for enjoyment, for contemplation, and is an important tool in the search for truth. These are basic human aspirations, they are not the property of a small elite. We would be doing a grave injustice to the "new" students now entering our mass higher education if we denied them access to these, and fobbed them off with courses conceived according to narrow market-driven criteria.

Mr Barnett sees higher education throughout history as containing a promise of "freeing the mind," of "bringing about a new level of self-empowerment in the individual student". He is particularly conscious of the contemporary challenge to these liberal ideas which he sees as having both an epistemological and a sociological dimension.

Newman was able to talk confidently of all branches of knowledge being parts of a whole. Nowadays the search for an ultimate foundation of all knowledge has, in practice, been abandoned, fragmenting the cohesion and "universality" of the university. From a host of different disciplines developments have come which make it difficult to talk any longer of "objectivity" and "truth" as unproblematic, written without inverted commas. This is not an esoteric matter, only of concern in obscure backwaters of university departments, but an intensely practical one since it diminishes the trust and credibility placed by society at large in expert authority. It not only affects our attitudes to political and economic theories, but also to the dogmas of science and technology. When Shell declared that the "best practicable environmental option" for the disposal of Brent Spar was to sink it in the Atlantic, large numbers of the public were sceptical. Long before a possible link between BSE and CJD was acknowledged, many were unwilling to accept the solemn pronouncements of Government veterinary officers that "British beef is perfectly safe to eat". This collapse of confidence, sometimes seen as the abandonment of the enlightenment project, has a profound effect on academic disciplines, acting both at the conscious and unconscious levels, undermining our confidence by casting doubt on what seemed until recently to be eternal verities. This state of intellectual turmoil may be regarded as erosive or stimulating according to one's value position, but it has certainly left the university much less sure of itself.

The sociological challenge that Barnett identifies is associated with the vastly increased scope of higher education in modern society. In a mass system with 30 or 40 per cent of the age cohort participating and vast sums of public money involved, society can no longer treat universities as isolated "ivory towers" (assuming that it ever could).

Universities are inevitably under pressure from the rest of society over what they teach, what they research and what they do with their results. This pressure, as we see by the day, challenges the fundamental principles of autonomy and academic freedom, long regarded as essential to higher education in a free society.

Despite these considerations Mr Barnett argues that an education with genuine emancipatory potential can still be realised. Such an education must break out of the rigid subject disciplinary framework of many traditional degree schemes. It must replace the passive note-takers in the lecture rooms by students actively participating in what they learn and exerting some influence over the way their studies develop.

The epistemological and sociological undermining of traditional educational values make it especially important that students be encouraged to develop a reflective critique of their own work and of the methods of their core discipline. Whatever their core discipline, they should be led to an understanding of its philosophical and sociological context, and its relationship to other ways of knowing. Such an education should help students to cope with the inherent uncertainties and conflicting ideologies of the post-modern condition.

In the terms of reference of the Dearing committee there is much mention of "the needs of the labour market", but there is also reference to the role of higher education in "the nation's social, moral and spiritual life". The students passing through universities in the next few decades will have to contend with enormous problems during their personal and professional lives. For example, world population is still rising rapidly while resources and the earth's capacity to absorb pollution are steadily declining. There are many growing social problems associated with enormous inequalities in the distribution of wealth throughout the world, and with endemic unemployment, especially among the young. On a personal and social level, changing structures of family life and the implications of genetic engineering for human reproduction constitute formidable moral challenges which the rising generation will have to come to terms with.

It is to be hoped that the Dearing committee does not regard the "hard", technicist parts of its brief as the serious ones, and those referring to "developing the powers of the mind" and "the nation's spiritual life" as mere literary flourishes.

Members must not be tempted to try to address the problems of financial viability, problems of access of information technology and the needs of a competitive economy without relating them to the fundamental nature and purposes of education, inextricably linked as they must be to the complexities of human nature. All three authors I have recommended argue for a form of education which has a serious moral purpose. An education which does not take this seriously will leave students ill-prepared to meet the complexity of the challenges facing our civilisation in the next century.

The Dearing committee has a grave responsibility. I hope the summer reading I have recommended will be of some assistance to the members in discharging this responsibility to the benefit of the universities and the society they serve.

David Packham is a senior lecturer in the school of materials science, University of Bath.

Next week's open letter to the Dearing inquiry will be from Robert Skidelsky, professor of political economy, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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