When Florentines forgot their art

February 20, 1998

In 1460, when Leonardo da Vinci was eight, an important debate took place in Florence that may account for this great didactic's lapses in discipline.

The question was whether Florence should move its fledgling university to Pisa. Lawyer Otto Niccolini could see no point in keeping the university as Florentines were so committed to making money that they devoted neither time nor energy to liberal arts. A few years later, the university moved to Pisa.

Niccolini's argument implied that universities were concerned with liberal learning not wealth creation. Modern universities are concerned with both. The present government education drive, however, has largely been concerned with basic skills. There is no mention of universities. When the Dearing report was published, the prime minister referred to further, not higher, education. Is this not a little reminiscent of Florentine arguments? Florence developed its cultural and economic predominance without a university. While Leonardo stayed at home, wealthier young men left Florence to study in more enlightened cities.

The time is close when British students might, through information technology, move around world universities, while at home, education policy is directed narrowly towards wealth creation.

Businesses are developing in-house universities to train their workforce. Will they restrict their education menu to the interests of their own industry? At least da Vinci could work as an apprentice in Florence's commissioned arts. In Britain, Arts Council investment and grants have been cut.

British universities are not sacrosanct. Competition for survival is going to be intense. The introduction of student fees and the phasing out of maintenance grants will increase pressure to create courses closely matched to careers. There is danger in such pragmatics. The league tables, so heavily dependent on the quality of teaching and research, may start to concentrate on vocational-relevance scores. The curriculum portfolio could be narrowed.

Such a scenario does not paint a picture of universities as pro-active places of enlightened learning. Experience demonstrates that strict national vocational planning has never succeeded. When the Florentine university moved to Pisa it enjoyed a period of academic distinction rivalling the universities of Bologna and Padua.

Perhaps, metaphorically, British universities have also to move. Their exclusion from such projects as education action zones may be a reflection of the slow and painful pace at which they are redefining their function and purpose.

Partnerships between the modern universities, the Open University and industry are starting to emerge. Similar embryonic partnerships need to develop between universities at home and abroad. Dearing did not emphasise this enough. In promoting such developments, universities ignore the multi-vocational arts, humanities and pure sciences at their peril. These Renaissance subjects are a mark of a civilised society and an expression of its success. They develop the flexible mind for the rapidly changing career market.

The 15th-century Italian city states vied with one another over their universities' artistic, scientific and mathematical merits. In joining with industry and commerce and developing IT partnerships, British universities should not become mere learning factories or education distribution centres.

Their challenge is to create a fresh educational environment that promotes vocational and multi-vocational subjects and fosters cultural and civilised values. Perhaps there would be no cause for criticism if self-taught da Vinci had had the discipline and rigour of a liberal university education. We may still learn from a Florentine error of judgement.

Michael Scott is pro vice-chancellor of De Montfort University but writes in a personal capacity.

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