Thomas Docherty: Being a humble servant to business in academia will be a disaster for everyone

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Thomas Docherty is professor of English and comparative literature, University of Warwick.]

By insisting our universities' sole role is to fire the economy, we have lost sight of their more civilising purpose, says Thomas Docherty

For some time now, the fundamental aims of a university education have been in jeopardy; and, in this time of financial crisis, the betrayal of those aims needs to be addressed. The threat comes from a Government that closed the Department for Education, and from a supine Higher Education Funding Council for England and Universities UK, who see their role as managing government priorities rather than representing, within those priorities, the realities of education. Behind all this lies the mantra that universities are a form of "business". That way disaster lies.

In 1929, just before what we must now learn to call the First Great Depression, A.N. Whitehead wrote The Aims of Education. Whitehead, mathematician-turned-Harvard-professor-of-philosophy, built his case on his experience in senior university management in London, undertaken while he was doing his most imaginative mathematical work. He argues that the university exists primarily as a site for the free play of imagination. "The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively," he wrote, emphasising that "the atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities." For Whitehead, the university exists to open new possibilities. It was most certainly neither an instrumentalist nor a utilitarian servant of a purely mercantile economy.

This is important: a university contributes to the commercial and mercantile economy, certainly; however, that is but one tiny part of what it does. It actually contributes immensely more to the economy of civic wellbeing, acting as a servant to wider aims of civilisation. These cannot be reduced to what Thomas Carlyle used to call the cash nexus. Those who claim that the university is a business are complicit with a massive act of deskilling, for they eliminate the vast majority of what we do from material consideration.

Whitehead was aware of business, too. He explicitly argued for the opening of a Harvard Business School; but he did so on the grounds that business, especially in fragile economic times, requires the imaginative atmosphere of a free play of imaginings and possibilities. Decision-making in business, he thought, would benefit from the presence of poetry. Like William Blake, he thought that imagination was not only creative, but also materially transformative. His maths had already shown that imagination is not the pure preserve of arts and humanities, but is rather at the core of the preservation of those huge possibilities that we usually denominate as "the future"....

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