November 26, 2010 10:06 pm

In praise of cultivation

Higher education should be organised on behalf of students, not vested interests

It’s not often that Slow Lane can claim a scoop but I think I am the first to divulge the contents of a report that has just, rather mysteriously, arrived on my desk. It is called “The Future of BP” and it was commissioned by the UK government from Dr Stradivario Verdi, the noted entomologist and education tsar – until he was forced to step down from his position earlier this year because of damaging rumours about his relationship with a stag beetle.

Verdi calls not simply for a reorganisation of the company affected by a series of environmental and safety disasters culminating in the Deepwater Horizon spill but for a fundamental change in its philosophy. Amazingly, he suggests that BP in the future should be concerned not with making money for shareholders but with something he quaintly terms the public good. This would seem to imply a radical move away from environmentally damaging oil and gas exploration and refining into the development of renewable energy.

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Harry Eyres

Only joking. This absurd caprice is, however, not really any more absurd, when you think about it, than the independent review of higher education and student finance commissioned by the UK government and chaired by the former chief executive of BP, Lord Browne – a businessman, not an educationalist.

How could he have spent much time in serious thought, research or discussion about the purposes of higher education when he was at the helm of one of the world’s biggest corporations?

Naturally, he applies to university education the mindset and language he has developed over his decades in industry. For him, higher education is a business like any other, to be governed by consumer preference and market competition. He sees it as a wholly owned and controlled subsidiary of the entity called UK plc, to be judged solely and exclusively on its contribution to boosting the national economy.

This way of thinking, clearly alien to most of the great minds who have debated the ends of education since Plato, is, though, shared by politicians of both Britain’s main parties. The Browne review was commissioned by the Labour government – the same government that shunted higher education into something called the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

In case anyone has temporarily forgotten other ways of thinking about higher education, I had the doubtless quixotic fancy of canvassing ideas from some distinguished philosophers. Here, for example, is William James: “The sifting of human creations! – nothing less than this is what we ought to mean by the humanities.” I can imagine Lord Browne reading such a sentence with a furrowed brow – but only for a moment, before mentally replacing the word “less” with “more”. Sifting of human creations? What an old-fashioned and useless idea. Who today needs to contemplate what another 19th-century thinker, Matthew Arnold, called “the best that is known and thought in the world”?

A more extended meditation on the theme is supplied by the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) in his long essay, “Mission of the University” (1930). In one unexpected way Ortega has something in common with Browne’s report. Both agree that, as Ortega put it, “you have to start out with the student, not the subject or the professor”. Higher education should be organised on behalf of students, not vested academic or institutional interests. Ortega’s argument remains radical when most universities, at least in Britain, regard their prime function as research, with teaching as a sideline. But from this shared starting-point they diverge about as widely as you could imagine.

An obvious implication of Ortega’s starting premise is that universities should be about education – that is, about teaching students, making them cultured individuals (the Spanish word culto/culta, still widely used, does sound rather odd in English). Such individuals will be equal to what Ortega calls “the height of their time”. They will have an understanding, not simply technical but spiritual, of the particular qualities and challenges of the age, what it calls for from its most enlightened souls.

This ancient, broad notion of education as concerned with the cultivation of the mind is quite foreign to Lord Browne and his political masters. They view education as training, the acquisition of marketable skills that will confer economic benefits on individuals who should therefore be prepared to pay for them. The cutting of 80 per cent of core state support for higher education (a figure given by Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust educational charity), with its predictable consequences of deterring students from poorer backgrounds and putting graduates off less well-paid public sector jobs, does not seem to matter to them. It’s all about what you have in your pocket, not what you have in your mind.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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