A dialogue between Enlightenment liberals and neoliberal elites on the idea of the university

Based upon a real story...

Joan Pedro-Carañana
21 May 2015

Flickr/Let Ideas Compete. Some rights reserved.

Society pays to make the education system a crock of shit because the dumber the people are that come out, the easier it is to draft them, make them into docile consumers, or, you know, mongo employees. There are plenty of yuppies out there with absolutely nothing upstairs. Graduate airheads with PhDs and everything but they don't know anything.

- Attributed to Frank Zappa

From the quest for truth to the the search for obedience and docility, the depictions of higher education vary according to the priorities underlying your particular ‘Idea’ of the university. What follows is an exercise in sociological imagination in which those leading the reform of universities in Europe today enter into a dialogue with Enlightenment thinkers of education. This fictional conversation is based on the actual words and ideas of the respective actors and takes place in the context of the current ambitious plans for the advancement of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

On the right side of the stage are the European Ministers of Education, who signed the   Bologna Declaration in 1999 which has driven the process of globalisation and convergence of higher education, and which was followed by a large number of declarations and programs that have been established by both European institutions and national governments. Opposite to the Ministers are Enlightenment figures who presented ideas which forwarded the emergence of the first liberal universities at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, including Kant, Humboldt, Godwin, Reynolds and Rousseau.

The beginning of the conversation dates back to 1988, when the rectors of European universities meet in Bologna to sign the Magna Charta Universitatum and note the upcoming internationalisation and transformation of societies. As experienced academics, in this dialogue, the rectors get in touch with Kant and Humboldt, and agree to include the notion that the university is expected to promote cultural, scientific and technical knowledge, upon which depends “the future of mankind”. They concur that the dissemination of knowledge to both new generations and to the whole of society will ensure the cultural, social and economic future of society.

All are in agreement but Humboldt insists on mentioning the principle forwarded by the Scientific Revolution of “harmonious” and “active” relations between humans and nature as allies belonging to the same unity (p. 9). The rectors note that some conflicts between humans and nature may arise and write in the Charta that the university must “respect the great harmonies of their natural environment and life”.

For universities to achieve their missions, the Charta takes up Enlightenment principles: academic freedom and institutional autonomy guaranteed by universities and public authorities vis-à-vis any political, economic or ideological force; the unity of teaching and research; dialogue between teachers and students; and reciprocal knowledge and interaction of the tradition of European humanism with other cultures beyond the continental borders.

Ten years later, the Ministers of Education of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom sign the Declaration of the Sorbonne in order to advance the creation of a European space devoted to higher education, which facilitates the recognition of qualifications, mobility and lifelong learning. Humboldt feels anxious about a new element which was not present in the Magna Charta: There is an excess of emphasis on the professional dimension of knowledge that supposedly prepares the graduates to be better adapted to the labour market. Humboldt replies that “he is only a good worker or business seller who is, by himself and without regard to his specific job, a kind, decent and enlightened man and citizen, according to his possibilities”. Education should focus on the intellectual and human dimensions so that graduates “will learn later the specific skills of their trade with ease and keep the freedom, as often happens in life, to change professions” (p. 230). Rousseau weighs in: “In the natural order of things, all men being equal, their common vocation is manhood… To live is the trade I wish to teach… Whoever is well trained for that cannot fulfil badly any vocation connected with it” (p. 8).

The European Ministers of Education choose to ignore the complaints and in the Bologna Declaration of 1999 confirm their adherence to the ideas agreed in the Sorbonne statement, reaffirming their commitment to promoting the convergence of university systems. The Enlightenment thinkers analyse the Declaration, as well as some drafts of the working documents of the EHEA which have been leaked. They highlight the proposal of adapting the university to technological innovation and the development of a knowledge-based economy which can be globally competitive, enable the modernisation of enterprises, boost economic growth and create more and better jobs. Joshua Reynolds stresses that he understands that the Ministers may be well-meaning, but that this reform gets wrong the means and the ends: “Commerce is the means, not the end of happiness or pleasure: the end is a rational enjoyment of life by the means of arts and sciences”.

The European authorities complain about the leak and point out that they have to learn from the past if they want to win the debate and develop their EHEA. Remember what happened in France with the Enlightenment? The Revolution disrupted the social order and put an end to the established authorities. Control was lost amidst the disarray, until Napoleon reasserted bourgeois hegemony along despotic and modernising lines, centralising the university system to place it at the service of the imperial state. Auguste Comte bequeathed to the future leaders the idea that publicists can make use of social scientific tools to persuade the majority that the negative effects of capitalist development are merely unavoidable costs of progress. In order to turn positivist-technocratic university and social reforms into a desirable prospect, it would be necessary to incorporate strategies, written in Orwellian language, for domestic and international consumption.

European leaders feel ready now to hold a new meeting with their adversaries of the past. They explain that the drafts were not complete and that they have developed the social aspects of their proposal. They decide to foreground the idea that the university should contribute to the improvement of social cohesion, equality of opportunity, respect for human rights and protection of the environment by fostering learning, research and innovation (Horizon 2020), that would contribute to “the development and strengthening of stable, peaceful and democratic societies” (Bologna Declaration).

Some Enlightenment thinkers feel satisfied, while others, such as William Godwin, remain sceptical. He calls a meeting to organize the resistance where he quotes a passage he had written in 1793, adapting it by adding an international perspective and labelling it Bologna Rewinds:

The project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a more formidable nature than the old and much contested alliance of church and state. Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambiguous an agent, it behoves us to consider well what it is that we do. Government will not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions.

Conversations continue and the European leaders argue that there is no alternative to the Bologna process: competitive universities are needed to ensure the competitiveness of Europe in a  global age (see Council of the European Union, 2007; Horizon, 2020).

Humboldt explains that cooperation and not competition is the fundamental principle for the advancement of knowledge and humanity. However, the Ministers had anticipated the criticism and reply that obviously they have also included guidelines about the cooperation needed for the success of the EHEA (Prague Communiqué, 2001).

Enlightenment thinkers remain unconvinced and condemn the excessive emphasis on business and market criteria such as efficiency and profit making. They focus on the funding mechanisms, noting that the European Commission warned already in 2003, that “the growing shortfall” in funding means that “ways have to be found of increasing and diversifying universities’ income”. Marketing for fundraising becomes central. Private investment must be encouraged on par with the principles of public responsibility and autonomy of universities (e.g., London Communiqué, 2007; Leuven Communiqué, 2009).

Enlightened opposition to the marketisation of universities leads to divisions among Ministers. In the Bucharest meeting of 2012, a real-life, non-fictional debate takes place between supporters of making a commitment to ensuring public funding and those opposing them. The final version of the Declaration, notes that “the crisis is affecting the availability of adequate funding” and commits to “securing the highest possible level of public funding for higher education and drawing on other appropriate sources, as an investment in our future”.

This turn in the funding strategies generates important controversies. Enlightenment thinkers wonder if it is compatible with equality, permanent learning and the university autonomy the reform proposes to strengthen. The authorities argue that “universities' independence and autonomy ensure that higher education and research systems continuously adapt to the changing needs” of society, for example, by adapting the syllabus to the needs of the job market as established in Bologna. Humboldt answers by explaining the Enlightenment principles of combining the teaching and research of science with the pedagogical stance to promote the fullest development of each citizen, according to his or her own capacities and interests, with the aim of advancing the culture which orients the human impulses towards curious inquiry and creative work. He notes that these principles are inverted and perverted when education is instrumentalised for extraneous purposes such as the needs of economic institutions. Autonomy within the framework of the market or any other external power is not autonomy from the system. The university will not be able to fulfil its mission of searching for truth for the development of humanity in its “richest variety”.

The response was to be expected and was on the following lines:        Dear Humboldt, your view belongs to the past; it is time for universities to abandon the ivory tower. For example, it is essential to furnish a Digital Agenda, so that continuous learning and research adapt to the necessities of the economy and increasingly provide training for specialised personnel in ICTs and electronic businesses.

Kant laments that the authorities of the 21st century treat the works of the Enlightenment as relics, while not seeming to have actually read them. He points out what he had already written more than two centuries ago: “Children ought to be educated, not for the present, but for a possibly improved condition of man in the future; that is, in a manner which is adapted to the idea of humanity and the whole destiny of man”.

At this point the conversation reaches a stalemate. Enlightenment personalities argue that modern administrations are not able to understand their humanist dialogue. To finish their meeting, they note that it is up to the 21st century generations to advance the endless process of humanisation of societies by reaffirming autonomy, cooperation, rational analysis, harmony with nature and passionate freedom. These are Enlightenment principles which have been compromised by the ongoing adjustment of knowledge and human beings to a technocratic, global market.


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