Brexit, Trump and the failure of our universities to pursue wisdom
- Kamran Mofid
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In a recent excellent article, George Monbiot , in response to the crisis that lies behind Brexit and Trump, concludes that, what we need is “a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st century and to reclaim our humanity” (Our first step is to reclaim our humanity, The Guardian, 14 November 2016).
Whilst I agree fully with this most eloquent analysis on the destructive consequences of neoliberalism in general, I wish also to mention that, in order “to reclaim our humanity”, what we actually need is a revolution in our institutions of learning.
We must rise and truly reflect on these three pertinent questions that T. S. Eliot has asked us:
"Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
In order to solve the grave global problems we face – climate change, population growth, environmental degradation, extinction of species, war, acts of terrorism, inequality, intolerance, racism, refugees, xenophobia, building walls between nations and peoples, and the rest – we need governments to act appropriately.
But, given what’s on offer, governments are unlikely to be much more enlightened, or indeed, informed, than electorates. Hence we require the public to have a good understanding of what the problems are, and what the solutions may look like.
That in turn requires that universities are devoted to intelligent public education and discourse about our problems and how we maybe able to solve them. At present universities, devoted primarily to the pursuit of knowledge, bypassing the path to wisdom, whilst travelling on the hype of information technology, business schools and MBAs, in pursuit of profits , fail disastrously to do what is required of them.
What we urgently need, is to bring about a revolution in academic inquiry so that the basic intellectual aim becomes social wisdom in pursuit of the greater good and not just specialised knowledge, for sake of it. Problems of living need to be put at the heart of the academic enterprise.
Disciplines, the relationship between them, and the relationship between the university as a whole and society, all need to change in quite specific and radical ways. The outcome would be a kind of inquiry rationally designed and devoted to helping humanity tackle our persistent and deepening crises effectively, intelligently and humanely in the interest of the common good- So that we can find the path to our most important journey of self-discovery: “a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st century and to reclaim our humanity”.
It is my firm conviction that if we had the kind of institutions of learning that we really need, then, most likely, the wise and informed citizens would not have been so easily fallen for, and deceived by the rightwing, demagogue, populists and their crony media outlets, and voting against their own self-interest.
What is the Purpose of Education?
“The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be a human being.”-Arthur W. Foshay, “The Curriculum Matrix: Transcendence and Mathematics,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1991
Education is not just learning the skills to make a living; it is learning to understand life itself.
This is the Big Question: Is a university education meant to teach how to make a few bucks or how to make a difference?
Unless we rise to the challenge of answering this question, to my mind, we will have many more Brexits and Trumps to deal with and worry about!
Education and Universities to Reclaim our Humanity
In the year when "Post-truth" was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, values-led education is becoming more significant than ever.
Driven by Hope: Education for the Common Good
“I want to suggest that what makes us fully human is education. Education gets taken seriously in our society. Politicians speak about it constantly, as do other public figures. At the moment, the consensus is that education needs to get better, by which people mean that our exam results have to get more impressive and that we have to become more skilled at competing with other countries, especially China – and particularly in maths. In this account, the point of education is to make you a good worker, able to pull in a good salary and help the GDP of the nation.
This is a great ambition – but is it the only ambition we should have for education? I want to argue that the true purpose of education is to make us fully human. By this, I mean that education should help us with the many ways in which we end up less than we can be. Entering adult life without any technical or professional skills is a disaster, for oneself and society, but there are other, equally problematic ways to be. And the one that interests me is emotional health. I think our education system leaves us woefully unprepared for some of the really big challenges of adult life, which include:
- how to choose a life partner;
- how to manage a relationship;
- how to bring up children;
- how to know ourselves well enough to find a job we can do well and enjoy;
- how to deal with pressures for status;
- how to deal with illness and ageing."... Alain de Botton: Education is what makes us fully human
GCGI: A Meaningful and Spiritual Education Model “to reclaim our humanity”
Together We Can Change the World for Better
Complex problems require interdisciplinary teams to solve them, but the current dominant model of neo-liberalism promotes individualism, selfishness, competition, specialisation and isolation. How can we then develop a cross-discipline culture of cooperation and dialogue for the common good?
‘No man is an island. Two heads are better than one. A problem shared is a problem solved - these are just some of the proverbs that tell of the virtues of teamwork, but it seems they can't always be universally applied.’
In the past few decades, there have been great endeavours to bring about a dialogue of civilisations, cultures, religions and peoples. However, there is a very serious void here: there has not been a concurrent attempt to bring about a fruitful and rewarding dialogue between different academic disciplines, faculties, values, visions and missions.
For example, there was a time when economics was regarded as a branch of theology, philosophy and ethics. Economic factors were intimately linked to what was regarded as just or right and these in their turn were shaped by spiritual and moral understanding of the common good. Today economics has become an autonomous discipline, divorced and separated from its original roots. This engineered separation has brought us all a very bitter harvest.
In the end economics is about human well-being in society and this cannot be separated from moral, philosophical, theological, and spiritual considerations. The idea of an economics which is value-free is totally spurious. Nothing in this life is morally neutral.
The same of course can be said about other disciplines, such as business, commerce, management, education, politics, international relations, medicine, law, theology and much more.
This shortcoming is having a serious consequence on our ability to understand, evaluate, address and solve the multiple crises that the world is facing.
The world is changing at an incredible rate. Pressing problems like climate change and the related social unrest are connected to an ever-growing population and dwindling resources. It has become clear that these vast problems cannot be answered by single academic disciplines, working within archaic institutional settings and throttled by systemic boundaries. ‘Working across disciplines is the key to answering the big questions, focusing on what is needed to solve problems, and transcending the boundaries of conventional approaches and disciplines. However, in academia we have put boundaries in place to stop this happening, and the pace of change to adopt new strategies is glacial at best.’
From 2002 when the GCGI was founded, we have been at the forefront of activities to encourage a way of working and forming a place where such dialogical conversations can be encouraged, nurtured, developed and supported by bringing together a group of noted scholars, researchers, students and professionals from all contexts and backgrounds who share this vision and appreciate the exciting potential of having the chance to talk, and engage in a dialogue of ideas, visions and values with people from a broad array of backgrounds and disciplines.
There are major benefits to such an interdisciplinary dialogue and encounter, amongst them: it nurtures critical thinking; it encourages the recognition of diverse perspectives; it increases tolerance for ambiguity; and it improves sensitivity to a wide spectrum of ethical and spiritual issues.
We are committed to the view that inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary work is a very positive and credible way forward in a rapidly changing world. It is our firm belief that a dialogue of values, ideas, and visions, supported by a meaningful dialogue of interrelated academic disciplines, will be very positive for a successful and rewarding path to a better and more harmonious world. We strongly encourage others to join us in this timely mission. I do know, from my personal conversation and engagement with many at different universities in different parts of the world that a very large number of academics as well as students are extremely unhappy about what is happening at their universities and other places of higher education.
The sense of disillusionment springs from the introduction of managerialism, the growing loss of collegiality, dwindling and competitively allocated resources for research, the inappropriate but nevertheless wholesale uses of business models in the education system, and the consequent transformation of Higher Education (teaching, research and learning) into a fundamentally consumerist activity.
Many working in education sector see their job and work more akin to a vocation- something one does because of the love of learning, teaching and the excitement of being with students, guiding and helping them to think for themselves. They do not see themselves as service providers and their students as customers.
In short, for us, at the GCGI, our sense of passionate commitment to inter-disciplinary work is a reaction to the sense of frustration many people feel when faced by the narrowness of subject disciplines and the inability of subject specialists to raise their eyes above or beyond the horizons of their own territory. Dialogue and engagement with people from varied areas of interest can throw fascinating, stimulating and poignant insights into one’s own thinking and research. There is nothing more refreshing than looking at one’s own work through the eyes of another, or being able to share perspectives with people from other professions who are working in similar areas. The possibilities for creative and innovative research are enormous.
Some say that my teaching is nonsense
“Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.” My wise and inspiring teacher: Lao Tzu
Truth must be taught at our universities!
Meet the Real Adam Smith!
“You see, by now it must be clear that, given the state of our world today- a world of progress and poverty- the continuing and deepening global economic turmoil merely is a symptom of a much larger moral, spiritual and ethical crisis. In short, the world is facing a crisis of values.
This is where we need to discover the real Adam Smith. Time is now to question the functionality of the existing economic system that has created a massive and widening gap between a few super rich and the many in abject poverty. We need to examine the soundness of extracting growing profit from a highly leveraged and unsustainable real sector in the face of massive numbers of disenfranchised people who are deprived of a potentially prosperous economic life. We need to question the ability of mother earth to support the extravagance of our blind and ignorant consumerism. We also need to put self interest in perspective, and balance it with concern for the common good and for other species and the earth.
We should recall the wisdom of Adam Smith, “father of modern economics”, who was a great moral philosopher, first and foremost. In 1759, sixteen years before his famous Wealth of Nations, he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explored the self-interested nature of man and his ability nevertheless to make moral decisions based on factors other than selfishness. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith laid the early groundwork for economic analysis, but he embedded it in a broader discussion of social justice and the role of government. Today we mainly know only of his analogy of the ‘invisible hand’ and refer to him as defending free markets; whilst ignoring his insight that the pursuit of wealth should not take precedence over social and moral obligations.
We are taught that the free market as a ‘way of life’ appealed to Adam Smith but not that he thought the morality of the market could not be a substitute for the morality for society at large. He neither envisioned nor prescribed a capitalist society, but rather a ‘capitalist economy within society, a society held together by communities of non-capitalist and non-market morality’. As it has been noted, morality for Smith included neighbourly love, an obligation to practice justice, a norm of financial support for the government ‘in proportion to [one’s] revenue’, and a tendency in human nature to derive pleasure from the good fortune and happiness of other people.
In his "Theory of Moral Sentiments" he observed that "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."… My wise and inspiring teacher: The Real Adam Smith
“Don’t just teach your students how to count. Teach them what counts most.”
‘In spite of the utter failure of academic and professional economists to predict, explain or find solutions to the financial and economic crises sweeping the globalised, marketised world they have created, there is still little challenge to the narrow and one-sided way that economics is taught in our universities. In spite of the fact that economics is about complex human relationships, and is therefore bound to be the subject of debate and disagreement, there is no problem with university courses that only teach the neoclassical pro-market approach.’
“All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life.” My wise and inspiring teacher: E. F. Schumacher