Will our legacy be great idiots savants of history?

September 12, 2003

Universities must reclaim their role as instillers of values as well as imparters of knowledge, argues Alan Gilbert

Something must be done to make human life on earth more equitable. Being an agent of civilisation in the century that began, symbolically, on September 11 2001, means recognising the global interconnectedness of civilisation and its discontents. It means confronting more acutely than ever the reality that profound asymmetries in global standards of living and quality of life are not only inhumane but downright dangerous.

Unless the root causes of global alienation are eradicated, the survival of civilised norms, values and patterns of thought and behaviour is at stake. The scale of educational inequity globally is potentially catastrophic. For 15 per cent of the world's population, educational opportunities are more widely available than ever; but the other 85 per cent remain potentially profoundly disadvantaged and often dangerously frustrated by educational deprivation. Left unchecked, inequitable access to knowledge threatens to make chronic global instability the defining reality of the 21st century.

Universities have profound obligations to discharge. As essentially international institutions dedicated to the universality of truth, they fail morally if they are unmoved by a sense of global educational responsibility. As key institutions in the privileged structures of the developed world, they betray the deepest political and economic interests of their own societies if they fail to address the urgent need to remedy inequity of access to university education.

A sad irony is that it is universities themselves who have largely abandoned any consciously civilising mission. Universities in the western tradition have become adept at pushing back the scientific and technological boundaries of human knowledge and skill but less willing, less confident and less able to offer students any coherent legitimation of the cultural, moral and philosophical underpinnings of western civilisation.

In the 150 years since John Henry Newman wrote about it, the idea of a university has been expurgated, for all practical purposes, by a loss of confidence in its once-dominant moral dimensions. There survives a nervous disposition in academic language towards the shifting norms of political correctness, but that is a shadow of the towering cultural confidence and responsibility of Benjamin Jowett at Balliol or Charles W. Eliot at Harvard. The ascendancy of epistemological and philosophical pluralism has left academic teachers uncertain about their capacity, and their authority, to go beyond questions of truth to the advocacy of values, or to inculcate civic virtues as well as knowledge.

There are, of course, exceptions to such trends. But it is a safe generalisation that many members of the western intellectual community sit loose to the idea that they have a responsibility for training citizens.

They are more comfortable with a less ambitious definition of their responsibilities as scholars, teachers and researchers; and where they do range beyond these narrow professional boundaries into social commentary, they speak more often as iconoclasts, critics and prophets of despair than as confident advocates of particular moral or philosophical positions.

Yet many engaged at the cutting edge of global despair do not believe that material improvement alone will create stable, just, humane civil societies. To develop, defend and entrench humanitarian values, understanding and institutions in societies unfamiliar with them is an educational challenge, not just a matter of economic development, they argue.

To what extent, we should ask ourselves, is there an ethical dimension to the curricula we offer the young, educated professionals who graduate from our universities? Have we encouraged them to think about the values, assumptions and expectations that will shape the personal moral universes in which they live as 21st-century citizens? Or have we settled for producing competent, narrow, instrumental "knowledge workers"?

What an irony it would be if universities ended up producing the great idiots savants of history: sophisticated barbarians possessing terrifying power and knowledge yet bereft of the guiding values and wisdom to use their stewardship prudently, wisely and justly. It is not either the cultural or the material dimension of human life that is profoundly formative; both are.

Alan Gilbert is vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne. From February 2004, he will be the first president and vice-chancellor of the single university created by the merger of the University of Manchester and Umist. This article is based on his address to this week's Case Europe conference in Cardiff.

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