Kowtowing to politicians is shameful and wrong

If universities don’t assert their expertise, demands from ministers and industry will become ever more misguided, says Dawn Freshwater

August 8, 2019
slaves on ship
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We’ve all heard, again and again, about the importance of supplying the world with students who are “job-ready”, in a world where roles appear, disappear and change all the time. But what does that really mean? How should we approach that task – if at all? And who is in the best position to decide?

Universities were traditionally in the business of introducing students to the canon of human learning and creativity. But one issue is what constitutes the canon in the 21st century. Even beginning the list is intimidating because we are instantly alert to which subjects have been included and which have not. The Bible? Shakespeare? Freud? Marx? Foucault? But these don’t even scratch the surface.

How we would love our students to study everything – to be the broadest of broad thinkers, to be scientists who understand literary allusions and arts graduates who can understand trinomial equations. But we don’t have the time to create such graduates – and they would insist that they don’t have the time either.

Some critics object to our spending any time teaching all that “theoretical stuff”. Others counter that nothing is more important than teaching students to think – sometimes said in a manner that suggests that thinking would never occur without academic training, or that it has nothing to do with knowledge.

Since we cannot assume that those who make political and economic decisions understand or care about the roles and capacities of universities, I strongly suggest that it is incumbent on us to educate them on the subject, and that we do so rigorously and insistently.

The alternatives – asking politely what they would like us to do next, or apologising for failing to please – have certainly been tried in our long tradition, but they were both shameful and wrong. Universities that devote themselves to placating those who insist on their churning out graduates able to slip instantly into whatever workplace they happen to be running, will become – like all who placate – mere servants. And those they serve will become more and more demanding masters, ordering them not to waste their time on anything that doesn’t obviously serve whatever they believe to be in their own immediate self-interest.

Universities have served their societies honourably and well. But if we want to have any meaningful say in what we teach and how we teach it, we will have to talk like the masters – of arts, science, engineering – that we undoubtedly are. We must speak with the authority of knowledge, in all its complexity and with full awareness of how swiftly and exponentially it grows. We’ve earned the right.

Our towers stopped being ivory ones a long time ago. They are lookouts. We see the world at our feet – the little and medium-sized towns universities have become – and we see the world beyond. We understand the pressures of the 21st century. I’m suggesting that we make the 21st century work for us, dictating its tone rather than letting it force us to adopt approaches that we know are counterproductive.

Only those who live and work in universities know the vastness of their possibilities. We know that we can do more for our societies than the politicians and captains of industry can imagine. We should listen carefully to suggestions and requests, but never mistake them for orders. Our responses must be narratives of our own – shaped by our own understanding, experience and knowledge.

I include our students in this “we”. Universities are communities of scholars, who educate best when they educate inclusively – when students do research with guidance, helping to shape our understanding of what we do and what we should change.

As scholars, we create and re-create our canon, and we have always done so. Despite cherishing their liberal, “enlightenment” values of free enquiry, traditional universities had no problems excluding women as people incapable of conducting research. But when, more recently, our students complained that we were teaching “white culture”, we listened. When they told us to stop using terms such as “mankind”, we listened. When they wondered where gay people were and questioned our use of terms such as “race” and “disability”, we listened.

This social, political and cultural disciplining of universities, largely from within, forced us to look and think again. The result was an enormous increase in the intellectual potential available to study a much wider range of issues and problems.

We will continue to discipline our disciplines – and we’ll do it honourably. But we must insist on remaining captains of our own ships, because no one else can steer them better. That way, 21st-century universities will continue to do what we all need them to do: thrive.

Dawn Freshwater is vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia and Chair of the Group of Eight. This is an edited extract from a speech given at the World Universities Forum: Liberal Education for the 21st Century, in Dublin, on 24 May.


Print headline: Politicians are not our taskmasters. Scholars must steer their own ship

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Reader's comments (1)

Hear hear. The tail must not be allowed to wag the dog.