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Future Universities – teaching low-tech

Lots on the future of universities in the air. I’m sorry I missed the series at Cambridge with Martin Rees, Stefan Collini and others talking on the subject.

I am mostly concerned with undergraduate education, rather than research. Two themes come to mind in this regard.

1. How we address learning in the light of the technology and communication revolution.

2. How we address learning in the light of the tremendous challenges posed by the crisis in capitalism and the consumption of resources.

Although there is much more to say on 1 – it is an ever- evolving landscape – I have blogged elsewhere on this – see e.g. here – so I will speak only briefly on the first part and then confine myself to 2 for this blog.

These two issues are (as will become clearer below) a reflection of two broad ways we can see the future, as outlined in this blog. On the on hand, the kind of vision of the distributed and interconnected future, which the burgeoning internet might bring, can be projected to provide all sorts of wonderful improvements in our lives. It will revolutionise education along the lines envisaged by Cathy Davidson and Clay Shirky; it will revolutionise energy distribution and be a central part of our future energy solutions, as envisaged by Jeremy Rifkin; and it will change our politics forever, as described by Micah Sifry and others. Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a thing? It is glorious, exciting, creative, democratic and free. But it relies on the economic system working and vast amounts of consumption and so, on the other hand, we have the vision of J M Greer and others, which offers us something very different. This is a future with much less: less electricity, less transport, less-good health, less high-tech and so on. Universities of some sort or other will be a part of both these possible futures and it is the ‘post-industrial’ future of Greer I want to consider here.

In some ways this is a matter or leadership. For years – perhaps even as far back as the rise of German universities in the 19th century and the ‘military-industrial complex’ that many took the universities to serve – or even further, there has been a kind of unspoken assumption that universities took a lead in society. Although this has by no means always been reflected in the status and salaries of academics (particularly in the UK), Western governments have acknowledged that the sort of thinking that goes on in universities has been vital to their economies and societies. Why else, also, would almost all governments take the line that as many people as possible should study at university? Clearly there was knowledge here, captured and propagated by intellectuals, that everybody thought was worth having.

And in many ways this has worked. The thinkers that led the technology, the politics, the economics and even the arts were very largely educated in universities and, as Keynes famously remarked, most business ‘leaders’ were just acting out some rather old theories of academics and intellectuals. Personally, I have always bought this theory. Perhaps it is the snobbishness of the intellectual, but it seemed undeniable that to be ‘intelligent’ in the way of being a ‘problem solver’ was uniquely human and that this aspect of humanity reached its zenith in the sort of abstract thinking and research of scientists, engineers, historians, humanists and theorists that were found in universities. In this way, then, universities led societies: the strength of a society, from its economy, its institutions, to its arts and technology, depended on the work of its intellectuals – and the best of these were found in universities.

But if we accept that we are now facing a serious crisis in capitalism brought on by a misunderstanding of economics, mismanagement of finance and an absurd attitute to debt; if, to boot, we may be running out of energy and running out of ideas about how to live without fossil fuels and other forms of concentrated energy, then a very different picture of the value of problem solving emerges. What use is a vast scientific project if it consumes enormous amounts of energy to the ultimate detriment of mankind? What use is economic or historic theory if it is impotent against big finance or fundamental constraints of nature? If we accept that problem-solving itself, the thing we value so much about being human, is coming up against some hard constraints in the form of natural limits, or complex systems, financial and other, that we do not seem to be able to control, then what we do as intellectuals is in for some tough questioning. It may be tough, but if we are to continue to lead, we must show that we are adaptable, for adaptability is surely one of the prime hallmarks of intelligence, beyond even that of being an intellectual. We must show that we understand that the fundamental ground rules of problem-solving have changed and that part of our ‘intellectuality’ must change with this.

One thing I think we should do, then, is look at the possibility of teaching low-tech solutions and low-tech living in universities – as an option, if not a priority, and alongside all the high-tech stuff that it will be hard to give up. It is difficult not to sound slightly ridiculous here, but perhaps we should be teaching our students about how to grow their own vegetables, retrofit homes to save energy, make furniture and weave cloth, and preserve their own foods. (Some readers will notice Greer’s influence here, but it amazed me recently when a colleague of mine, a professor of Italian at UCL, almost took these words out of my mouth, without prompting.)

I do not offer these curricular developments with relish as I am not someone who particularly enjoys using their hands for such things. But if future life requires doing more with less, then we may all be required to work more in this way, and I would just have to get used to it. Just to repeat, this is not an end to the intellectual life of universities, very far from it. We must still continue to strive to contribute positively to the world through thinking and problem solving, through developing new economics and social structures, through engineering solutions, historical analyses and so on. It is also perfectly conceivable that all sorts of new intellectual pursuits will emerge out of the kind of low-tech studies sketched above; but if we are serious that we wish to continue to lead, as thinkers, then we may need to put that thinking to a different sort of use to that to which we have become accustomed.

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