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Higher educationís creative tension

By Steven Schwartz - posted Tuesday, 15 December 2009


“To watch the corn grow, and the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray - these are things that make men happy … The world’s prosperity or adversity depends upon our knowing and teaching these few things.” John Ruskin (Modern Painters, Vol III, Part IV, Chap XVII)

Ruskin was writing in the mid 19th century as the industrial revolution gathered steam, William Blake’s dark satanic mills describing an ugly scar across England’s green and pleasant land. Ruskin, the Pre Raphaelites and other romantic souls looked on in sorrow as modernity rudely interrupted the predictable patterns of pastoral life.

It is human nature to romanticise the past, as Ruskin did with his bucolic evocation. We academics do this all the time, fondly recalling a time when university staff engaged adoring students in Socratic dialogues and when days, even weeks, could be spent in quiet contemplation in the back stacks of the library.

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In reality, such a university never existed and neither did Ruskin’s lovely idyll. Both were arcadian fantasies. Students were not always brilliant or adoring, most ploughman lived in poverty, their children doomed to die before the age of five; disease was rife, often pestilential; crops were susceptible to blight. It was not for nothing that Thomas Hobbes described life in a state of nature as “poor, nasty, brutish and short”. (Hobbes, The Leviathan.)

Ruskin and many of his readers believed that they lived in the worst of times, the hardest of times - a historic discontinuity built on coal, powered by steam, assembled by toiling wage slaves who would never again meditate on the sun-dappled corn, masterminded by stove-pipe-hat-wearing capitalists, and greedily consumed by the exploitative new bourgeois.

For Matthew Arnold, the modern world “which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams/So various, so beautiful so new” in fact possessed “neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”. (Dover Beach.)

As the French philosopher Michel Foucault has observed, it is a common conceit to imagine that the present is more challenging and more significant than any time in the past.

The “analysis of the present as being precisely, in history, a present of rupture, or of high point, or of completion or of a returning dawn etc” was a harmful habit, said Foucault, adding … “I can say so all the more firmly since it is something I have done myself”. (Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture, p35). And, according to Professor Frank Furedi, we are still doing it.

Specifically, Furedi claims that education policy makers adopt the rhetoric of breaks and ruptures and maintain that nothing is as it was and that the present has been decoupled from the past. Change and social transformation are represented as if unique to our times:

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“The idea that we live in a qualitatively different world serves as a premise for the claim that the knowledge and insights of the past have only minor historical significance. In education it is claimed old ways of teaching are outdated precisely because they are old.”

But the language of change has become naturalised in many areas of education precisely because new technology is changing - and will continue to change - the way we live and learn.

As just one example, inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil says that the “paradigm-shift rate” - the rate of adopting new ideas - is doubling every decade. Progress in technology is exponential, not linear.

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About the Author

Steven Schwartz is a former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University.

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