Perhaps the greatest policy challenge in higher education is that a society’s universities share among them the responsibility of acting as a society’s “brain” – in other words, the society’s capacity to think through its challenges. They are not the only institutions doing this, but they are usually the body a society invests in most heavily to ensure it has a supply of thinkers. The challenge is that this function is under threat.
Universities carry out this brain function in several ways: by storing the society’s accumulated knowledge in their libraries; by employing scholars to study matters of significance to the society; by creating research centres to focus on special fields of interest; and of course by preparing future citizens to use their own brains. But they are also charged with the job of preparing citizens for the practical realities of making a living, and so preparing students for practical fields.
A society’s brain, if it is to work like the brain of a person, implies that it can carry out two functions, each of them essential for long life. The first of these functions we might call innovativeness. It is to read what is going on in the environment to detect changes that may threaten or enhance the person’s (or society’s) well-being, and to work out a valid response to the threat, or opportunity. The brain reads what is going on and decides what to do.
In a society under conditions of change, a citizen takes part in guiding that society through periods of change, and can do so better if prepared to think clearly and completely, with the ability to persuade others. The second job of a brain is to keep the body stable and balanced. In a society we might label this balancing act cooperativeness. A key learning in higher education is a sense of citizenship, the essential basis for such cooperativeness.
There is much evidence to suggest that societies with more active thinkers make better progress than the average. Investment in education pays off more predictably than any other form of development. But today it is worth considering higher education more closely because although its “training” component is crucial for the building of skills that accumulate in a society’s “human capital”, there are also other skills, less easy to see or to measure, that allow a society to meet the demands of change, or the increasing complexity of its workings. For these challenges the need is for available powers of “critical thinking”.
This is a rigorously thought-through mental process, based on evidence, consideration of alternatives, defensible logic, and convincing understandable conclusion. To become accustomed to such individual mental discipline takes time, practice, and respect for one of the highest arts of several civilisations. It is rarely acknowledged as such, but those who have influence tend to have also mastered that art.
The problem in higher education is the decline in the cultivation of that subtle competence. This should be occurring in studying for a degree; exactly the place where and when it can have the most chance of being acquired. It is absorbed as students debate in small tutorial groups over issues they are puzzling over, as they discuss with a supervisor an argument they are trying to make, as they join in open debates, write essays that have impact, projects good enough to be published, examination answers that show full understanding, work in groups to complete projects that need explaining, debate with teachers in case discussions, read literary criticism and then write their own, try to explain someone’s theory to a friend. But looking around the world, many of these activities are now in decline. The occasions for cultivating them are being replaced by forms of robotisation: MOOCs, flipped classrooms, teaching by computer, forced choice questionnaires instead of written exams, classes of several hundreds, less and less discussion with teachers. Cost-saving is driven by the economic and managerial logics of “new public management” as universities become, of necessity, increasingly corporate. As pointed out by Martha Nussbaum, a commonly lamented victim is “the humanities” – the origin of the skills of rhetoric. Chomsky laments “the death of American universities” and the rise of two classes with a gulf between them; the “plutonomy” of administrators and the “precariat” of academics, as Noam Chomsky has put it. Benjamin Ginsberg argues from a deep study that many American universities have degenerated into poorly-managed pseudo corporations. Ronald Barnett sees the air being sucked out of universities.
And Phillip Brown writes of “education and the death of human capital”.
If human capital is in decline, then the brains of societies will be starved. Without critical thinking, dealing with change and with societal balance will not be possible using robots. Higher education is “higher”, because it needs to be.
Gordon REDDING is Fellow, The HEAD Foundation, and Adjunct Professor of Asian Business and Comparative Management, INSEAD.