Knowledge is not a shovel
Some time ago I posted a piece with the title It’s Hell For Democracy. Based on the writings of C.S. Lewis, part of its intent was to show that contemporary thinking and criticisms on society are rarely the outcome of original thought. In the post Lewis’s thoughts on education are truly contemporary and yet he published them some 40 years ago. Being aware of Lewis’s views an article with the title Knowledge is not a shovel – Universities and democratic society, with this quote attached, caught my attention.
The primary aim of education, however one understands it, must be to nurture the ability to reflect, to develop new ideas, and to implement these collectively, writes Gesine Schwan. Cognitive multilingualism is the only way to prevent the specialization of knowledge narrowing our horizons to an extent that results in structural irresponsibility.
The article written by Gesine Schwan was originally published in the Neue Gesellschaft / Frankfurter Hefte and is translated for Eurozine by Simon Garnett . The article is rather long and intended to promote discussion. The following is an abstract of the opening remarks.
Today, discussions about the role of universities concentrate almost exclusively on their contribution to the economic development of a country or region, and more specifically on how universities can contribute to countering unemployment and improving competitiveness. On the whole, the frame of reference for the definition of the role of the university rarely goes beyond this aspect of economic competitiveness. The tendency to limit the role of the university to this aspect must, be overcome, because it leads to cultural impoverishment and neglects the broader perspective on education in a liberal democratic world society. It is generally accepted that education guarantees the existence of the long-term normative democratic framework in which it is situated, as well as meeting the empirical challenges – for example the transformation of work – that we will encounter in the foreseeable future.
There was a time when I’m sure I would have been in the ‘training’ camp and not the ‘education’ camp, but on reflection would suggest that there was also a time when both ‘camps’ coexisted. This was in the form of Technical Colleges and Polytechnics. Allowing Polytechnics to become ‘Redbrick Universities’ created an academic bun fight for students, which significantly contributed to the dumbing down C.S. Lewis alluded to. It seems from Schwan’s article that this dumbing down is not simply an Anglo-Saxon model but European one, possible even a global one.
When entry to higher education is simply the political expediency of taking young people off the unemployment register, it matters little in what subjects they receive their education. Nor should it matter if higher education were the ideal that Schwan advocates. Educating them for employment opportunities, which will only materialise for a select few is simply deferring an inevitable problem. Yet the ultimate nightmare scenario for any political oligarchy, must be that of a growing population able to “nurture the ability to reflect, to develop new ideas, and to implement these collectively”.
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