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Can Universities Learn?

One of the more pleasant side effects of the coronavirus induced immobility is the opportunity to spend time re-visiting books and films one had forgotten.

The film Educating Rita (1983), with Julie Walters and Michael Caine, is one of those films I wish all university students could watch in their first year of studies. It would remind them of the privilege, let alone the responsibility, of acquiring knowledge. On the one hand, the story is a re-hash of the Pygmalion plot (immortalized in George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name and the musical My Fair Lady): a vivacious, lower-class girl’s relationship with her staid, upper-class mentor. On the other hand, this is no sentimental romance. It is far funnier, more moving and intellectually stimulating than any precursor.

Rita is a 27- year old hairdresser whose husband and working-class family cannot understand her passion for a higher education. She refuses to have a baby until she has “discovered herself”, as she puts it, and therefore can choose her life’s path rather than be pushed along by social convention. She enrols in an Open University course in English literature and has, as her tutor, an alcoholic professor who is also a disillusioned poet, one who has lost all interest in teaching and whose life is falling apart. Rita’s own marriage breaks up as her husband, seeing Rita’s new-found love for Chekov and Shakespeare as a threat to his dreams of fatherhood, burns her books and walks away. There follows a mutually transforming, yet asexual (because this is not Hollywood), relationship between Rita and her professor.

Such a relationship of a student changing a teacher and them learning together about life is perhaps more likely to arise in the study of the Humanities (literature, philosophy, history, art, theology) than in the natural/ social sciences and professional disciplines, because the subject matter is less in the “control” of the teacher and invites personal reflection on the bigger issues of our common humanity. And, of course, the kind of relationship between Rita and her tutor is not possible in the large classrooms of the typical industrial-age university or the virtual classrooms of the current information-age.

There are many professors like Rita’s in our universities, including the most famous. Not only have excessive workloads, bored students, and increasing competition made university teaching lose its thrall for many, but the lack of a coherent worldview within which to discover the meaning and value of one’s subject has a corroding effect on morale.

In recent years, the more far-seeing university administrators and academics have promoted more inter-disciplinary courses and research programs, as most of the challenges facing humanity, from global warming to technology run amok and widening social inequities, require a multi-dimensional approach. Cultivating wisdom is what we need, in whatever profession, and not the mere accumulation of information.

Contrast this with Jerome Kagan (a former President of Harvard)’s dispirited observation: “Too often the undergraduate years resemble a bus tour through a beautiful countryside where the purpose is not to admire the scenery but to keep the tour on schedule. The new understanding was that college students were hotel guests choosing from a variety of intellectual diversions with no purpose other than career preparation directed by a diverse faculty of reasonably well treated employees.”

This is why the current worldwide trend in university education of seeing learning and scholarship as merely a means to employment and economic growth, coupled with the shutting down or scaling back of Humanities departments, is disastrous. It destroys the possibility of any independent critique of government and corporate hegemony, as the Humanities are the soil in which independent, critical thought is most naturally nurtured. As universities become mere tuition factories, churning out products for the marketplace, they encourage a society of super-educated morons.

In such a crassly consumerist world, the acting profession will be deprived of actors like Julie Walters and Michael Caine, both of whom came from working-class homes. And working-class folk like Rita will never be able to afford a college education; but, once in college, there is a real possibility of their minds never being awakened but remaining self-enclosed. Yet, paradoxically, if change is to come to our universities, most likely it will not be from the ranks of the social elite, and even the elite universities which are bastions of the status quo, but from rare individuals like Rita who help others awaken to life with all its everyday joys and cruelties.

The current pandemic has seen a resurgence of online courses. This has been inevitable, but it has played into the hands of those who want to turn all universities into financially lucrative virtual spaces even in the post-pandemic age. However, both before and since the pandemic, the severe limitations of online learning were becoming apparent to perceptive observers in the academy. Sherry Turkle, the renowned sociologist of technology at MIT, quoted the director of a Columbia University study that compared online and face-to-face learning: “The most important thing [the study concluded] that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support.” (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age). “What makes the greatest impression in a college education,” writes Turkle, “is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own.” For that, person-to-person encounter is indispensable.

Furthermore, Professor Las Back, in his Academic Diary, raises the question, “In the age of Google Scholar, aren’t libraries at risk of becoming a bit of an anachronism? Reading matters comes to our screens faster than any book ever could. Why do we need a library when, with the right log-in, we have almost immediate access to the world library online?” He answers his own question thus: “All this misses the point of libraries because they provide not only a refuge but places of serendipity, where we discover routinely things we are not looking for.”

Vinoth Ramachandra lives in Sri Lanka, currently serving as the Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement for IFES. His academic training was in nuclear engineering, but has always read voraciously in many other disciplines. He is also an author and his latest book is Sarah’s Laughter: Doubt, Tears and Christian Hope (Langham, 2020) on the theme of suffering and lament.

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