The biggest tragedy of our times (and why it really matters)…

Apologies for the lack of blog last week – it was my birthday and I decided to take the day off…

This week, I want to write about something that’s quite dear to me, but that’s a little off topic from my usual theme. And, at first glance, it might seem a tad irrelevant – I’ll try my best to make my thoughts clear.

Universities. I spent 18 years of my life learning and teaching in them. Not only are they amazing places, they are also, in my opinion, the pinnacle of civilisation and the saviours of humanity. Some do not share this view. I’m going to try to tell you why they’re wrong.

Graduates in Cap and Gown

When most people think of universities, they think of undergraduate degrees. This is, after all, the experience of most people who attend uni, and the understanding of what universities do by those who don’t. And, yes, undergraduate degrees are a big part of what universities are for. The undergrad degree allows a person to experience a huge number of influences over three to four years, usually at an age where most people honestly believe they’re going to change the world. And it’s not just the academic part – being exposed to campus life, the on-campus organisations, politics, social integration and, most importantly, a massive, contradictory slew of ideas that you’ve never been exposed to before, is a lot of what university is all about. By the time they become graduates, most people have changed dramatically – not just because of the things they learnt during their lectures, but because they’ve spent three years in an ideas pressure cooker.

There is, however, another aspect to universities that most people don’t experience or understand: research, including research degrees like the PhD, and research itself. Many people forget that, at their hearts, universities exist for the development of knowledge, not just for dispensing it. Sadly, in the modern-day, when people think of research, they think of government or military labs or, worse, big-industry, like tech or pharmacological companies. But, in reality, most of the medical, technological, and behavioural advances of the last century have come from researchers within universities (whose ideas have then been seconded by the military or commercialised by industry). It’s not just medical and technological research that’s important either. Scholars in universities across the world are researching everything, from the mating habits of obscure South American frogs, to the vagaries of medieval English literature. Much of this research will have no monetary value, but will serve to advance our understanding of our world and ourselves in ways that are essential for the ongoing civilisation of society.

I want to expand on the notion of civilisation a bit. For most of human history we tried very hard not to get eaten by pretty much everything. So we evolved brain mechanisms that increase our chances of survival in dangerous situations (see here). Over time, we realised that by banding together in groups, our chances of survival increased, so we evolved more complex brain systems to help us interact with other human beings. Unfortunately, we kept our earlier programming (the stuff that encourages selfishness and violence whenever we perceive a threat) and integrated it with the new stuff. This now meant that we had the capacity to manipulate those around us for our own ends. We developed wealth, and with wealth came oppression and the need by some to dominate others. We also became vulnerable to some ‘design’ flaws in our cognitive systems (see here, and here), and so we developed religion and then combined that with our need to dominate. Nasty things ensued.

Despite all of this (despite ourselves really), we did manage to develop a civilisation. It turns out that, even in oppressive systems, there is benefit to the oppressors in allowing some free thought. Humans are good at being creative and so, over time, we developed institutions that encouraged free thinking on a large-scale. The first universities appeared over a thousand years ago and, since then, they and their descendants have represented the ability of humans to imagine, create, and propagate the most astounding ideas. As universities increased in acceptance, their ideas spread into the world allowing, eventually, for the level of civilisation that we see today. This is really important to understand. Virtually every great idea, technological marvel, medical breakthrough, philosophical notion, economic precept, or artistic endeavour has come from someone who was working within or trained in a university. We quite literally owe our existence as we know it to the university.

I titled this post “The biggest tragedy of our time”, but so far I’ve just talked about why I think universities are not only important, but awesome as well. The tragedy is simple. In their ‘wisdom’ our political leaders have embraced economic rationalism. In their minds, a budget surplus is all that matters, no matter what the cost. And so, over the last 20 years, in Australia, Britain and the US, we’ve seen a withdrawal of funding from the university system. Universities are no longer free to teach what they please. They’re no longer offered sufficient money to allow their faculty and students to research whatever seems important. Instead, they must justify their worth, and provide an ‘economic benefit’. They must now run as businesses.

I could (and probably will) write a post on the fallacy of the modern notions of ‘economic benefits’ but, in recent times, the phrase has come to mean ‘short-term money making’. By short term, I mean just that – if there isn’t money to be made over the next five years, it’s not viable. And so, universities are forced to focus their attention on money-making strategies. They recruit full-fee paying students from overseas and focus their offerings on ‘trendy’ courses that will attract these students. In the 90’s this meant IT, now it means MBAs. Either way, there’s no money left for English departments, music schools, or departments of history or philosophy. These areas just aren’t deemed profitable and are being dismantled all over the world. At the same time, research funding is cut, because a lot of it doesn’t make money tomorrow. This is the terrifying nature of economic rationalistic arguments: if it doesn’t make money  by ‘x’ date, it’s of no value.

The idea that an idea’s value is determined by it’s short term monetary potential is not just absurd, it undermines everything about the ongoing notion of civilisation. A truly civilised society finds the funding to allow its denizens to pursue the development and accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. Sometimes this knowledge results in immense benefit to that civilisation (including monetarily), but the outcome is never the goal. Instead, civilisation comes from learning more about ourselves, our place in the universe, and the universe we live in.

So the universities, the great bastions and initiators of civilisation are being slowly dismantled by short-term thinkers. Already, most universities are cashed-strapped. Staff are asked to do more with less year on year. Students are equally affected. They get access to fewer resources but are forced to take out loans that they might never be able to pay back in order to fund their education. Instead of the wonderful anarchy of  student life, including institutions like the student union, campus organisations, intervarsity sports, and on-campus political idealism, they get a watered down, soulless experience in which they are told that they are the customer. So instead of learning how to operate in an uncertain world by developing their minds, they are (effectively) put in charge without the resources to do anything with this power. The monkeys have taken over the zoo and the zookeepers (the few that are left) are told to pamper to their needs. Everybody loses.

Here in Australia, we’re faced with the unbelievable inanity of a government that is talking up their big spending on primary school education reform – funded by money siphoned from the universities. Yes, they’re painting the walls with money the got from selling the roof. I find this incredible (and I’m struggling not to bash my keyboard with frustration at the thought of it). Yes it’s important that children can read – but it’s more important that we ensure that we have the ability to continue to create and preserve the knowledge that will sustain us into the future.

And the cost? Incalculable – but think about this: when we run out of effective antibiotics, it won’t be the pharmaceutical companies that come up with a solution – there’s no money in that. If it happens, it’ll be because of a dedicated PhD student working in an underfunded lab in a university somewhere in the world.

Wow, that was ranty. I’ll finish with a plea. Governments – please grow up and stop treating complex problems as if they can be solved by making a spreadsheet add up. Please stop assuming that value equals monetary worth. Please start thinking about a future that’s more than an electoral cycle away. And the rest of us? Please stop accepting their crap. It’s not good enough to accept the loss of the most important institution humanity has ever created. It will affect your life and the lives of your children and the effect will not be pretty.

Vote, talk, write. Make yourself heard…

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