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 University Debasement in Scotland


Root of All Knowledge Cast out on a Limb

Alastair McIntosh


First published as essay in Scotland on Sunday, 2 June 1996, p. 20. This essay also appears in my collection, Healing Nationhood.

Tomorrow (3 June 1996) the Court of Edinburgh University meets to weigh the future of its controversial Centre for Human Ecology. Here the Centre’s teaching director, Alastair McIntosh, proposes a human ecological vision for Scottish higher education.


In his review of Britain’s universities, Sir Ron Dearing has to report on their purpose, national contribution and the nature of academic excellence.


These things are important to Scotland because universities play a key role in holding the establishment mindset of a nation.


However, much of Scotland’s deepest strata of educational values have been lost to national consciousness. Legislation like the anglicising 1609 Statutes of Iona and subsequent constricting measures, which required anglicisation and suppression of bardic activity, have fostered an academia complicit in marginalising a tradition that is generalist, democratic and even poetic in its ways of knowing. This demands redress.


Ancient universities tend to be conservative and establishment. So they should be ... at least, in the sense of conserving deeply rooted cultural values that ought to be the basis on which legitimate civic power is established.


But far from being a reactionary role, this ought to be a profoundly radical one. It should uphold the university as being what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called a “community of contested discourses.” To be radical is to be concerned with the radix, the roots. It invites honouring both the taproot on which any authentically grounded establishment rests and also those pioneer rooting systems that seek out new sources of fertility as old intellectual soil becomes exhausted.


Only if both aspects of the rooting system are healthy can the branches of knowledge serve society. Time changes the demands we make of knowledge. Alternative ideas from the margins therefore matter to society because if the centre collapses the periphery may actually become central.


I believe that our universities are now failing to defend against what Vandana Shiva calls “monocultures of the mind.” This derives from governmental pressure to turn higher education into a battery-farm process. Too often students are treated as mere product whose worth lies mainly in earning potential to their university and to themselves. Knowledge itself is colonised in a global marketplace that defines research.


We risk losing sight of an educational system which, as Robert Burns implied in The Vision, should ... “Thy tuneful flame still careful fan, preserve the dignity of man, with soul erect.” Rather than drawing out the richness of each person’s Being, consistent with the original Latin meaning of the word “education,” we increasingly produce graduates qualified for little more than middle-aged middle-class mediocrity.


The establishment taproot, fearful of having its complicity exposed by any diamond in the dungheap, responds by cutting off the pioneer rooting systems. It attempts to force growth in particular directions through fear by pruning away at the limbs. The educated become the merely trained, in the full horticultural sense of that word. Only too late is it remembered that blossom grows usually not on the trunk, but out on a limb.


When asked what had been his greatest disappointment in life, Mahatma Gandhi replied, "the hard-heartedness of the educated." For him, as for many Scots, the yardstick of civilisation is how a society treats its poor. If education is based on an individualistic meritocracy without an ethic of co-operation and service towards the community, it causes social stratification. Those who are “fit” - that is, those fitting the dominant culture, have the option to get up, get out and lose touch. Leadership deficits may then further impoverish those left behind.


Is a self-serving educated elite what we want for Scotland? Or should we insist on what George Davie calls the Scots “democratic intellect,” where the expert’s knowledge is answerable to and informed by others in the community so as achieve mutual illumination of blind spots?


In contemporary Britain perhaps the most influential example of educational policy that violates dignified values is the 1993 White Paper on Science, Technology and Engineering. This has become a metaphor for Government policy towards higher education generally. To evaluate it we need to reappraise the very idea of a university.


In the West, Plato established the “first” university, The Academy, in 387 BC in a grove outside Athens. This lends us the word, “academic.” Our highest academic qualification remains the PhD - literally, a doctorate in philo-Sophia - “love of the Goddess of Wisdom.” And the concept of academic “excellence” is rooted not in narrow disciplinary endeavour, but in the Greek understanding of all-round excellence in life - “aretê.”


It was with Phaedrus, in a grove by the river, barefoot and inspired by the spirituality of nature, that Plato’s mentor Socrates put forward his thesis that love is the central motivation and goal of the philosopher. Without love there is no wisdom; only dry learning. And intriguingly, coming as it does from one of the greatest “dead white males” of them all, Plato’s Symposium tells that Socrates derived such philosophy from a wise woman - Diotima of Manitinea.


This call to wisdom is the origin of the word, "vocation." A "professor" should be one who professes their vocation; who honours their calling. Too often we forget this in the groveless academy of the modern university where cars outnumber trees. We risk producing graduates more comfortable with the virtual conviviality of a computer than with flesh-and-blood community.


The 1993 science White Paper illustrates how far debasement of the universities is being pushed. It calls, fundamentally, for "key cultural change" to accord academia with the needs of government and industry. It predicates wealth creation, seeking interaction on an escalating scale "between scientists and businessmen involved in the day-to-day business of selling in competitive markets." A whole chapter promoting the military-industrial complex underscores the dearth of ethics, the ethics of death.


Our young are to be induced into all this by the Government having embarked upon "a radical agenda of changes in the education and training system, including changes in the school curriculum."


Of course, the White Paper has some virtues and nobody denies that we need industry with first rate scientific brains behind it. But gone is serious acknowledgement of the value of science, of academia generally, in offering to society a philosophic guiding hand. Gone is Plato’s classical scientific notion that we can better heal the disharmonies within ourselves through coming to know the harmonies of nature. Wisdom is out. Only the values of the market are valued.


Such science without social and ecological justice is the science of Dr Strange-love. A travesty of vocation.


In 1950 the pioneering Scots human ecologist, Frank Fraser-Darling, wrote that, “the phenomenon of accelerating devastation and increasing population (may mean) that the very achievement of humanness dooms us, and that civilisation is an ultimate contradiction.”


Whether one agrees or not, the question remains, as the Brundtland Commission put it, of how to overcome humankind’s failure to fit its doings into nature’s patterns.


Therein lies the challenge to universities if they can reach beyond theologian Mary Daly’s caricature ... “academentia,” as progressive deterioration of the faculties.


It is a challenge that can perhaps only be met through honouring again a Scots tradition that builds knowledge as much through poetic holism of the heart, and sensually aware labour in the manual world of the hand, as by the abstract rational skills of the head.


It is a challenge to educate not so much for resource management in seeking a sustainable world, as for self-management of how we use nature’s resources. To have an agriculture that is not just about plant cultivation, but about understanding interactions from roots in the soil to the roots of human culture. To have an economics which recognises that production is ultimately grounded in ecological carrying capacity linked to human work and creativity, and not in whizzing money around socially constructed financial systems. And to have a biology that spans the study of life from genetic conception to spiritual expression.


In short, our universities must take on board that human ecology which is deeply embedded in Scots culture. With one foot in the ivory tower’s vantage point and another in the grove we must reunite the two great philosophies - moral and natural.


Only through preparedness to speak truth to power and expose the shameful sham of any hemlock cup designed to stifle academic freedom do we prove professionalism. To Socrates this was the philosopher’s “gadfly” role, upsetting comfortable complacency by “never ceas(ing) to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you.”


Scotland’s deep educational values extending right back to the bardic schools must be honoured. Whether it be through the Scottish committee of the Dearing review, through a future Scots parliament, or by radical new educational innovation, they constitute a claim of right upon which we must persistently insist.


The writer warmly acknowledges insight from such professors of maieutic vocation as Ulrich Loening, Tom Forsyth and others too numerous to list.



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