Root of All Knowledge Cast out on a Limb
First published as essay in Scotland on Sunday, 2 June 1996, p. 20. This essay also appears in my collection, Healing Nationhood.
Tomorrow (3 June 1996) the Court of Edinburgh University meets to weigh
the future of its controversial Centre for Human Ecology. Here the Centre’s
teaching director, Alastair McIntosh, proposes a human ecological vision for
Scottish higher education.
In his review of Britain’s universities, Sir Ron Dearing has to report
on their purpose, national contribution and the nature of academic excellence.
These things are important to Scotland because universities play a key
role in holding the establishment mindset of a nation.
However, much of Scotland’s deepest strata of educational values have
been lost to national consciousness. Legislation like the anglicising 1609
Statutes of Iona and subsequent constricting measures, which required
anglicisation and suppression of bardic activity, have fostered an academia
complicit in marginalising a tradition that is generalist, democratic and even
poetic in its ways of knowing. This demands redress.
Ancient universities tend to be conservative and establishment. So they
should be ... at least, in the sense of conserving deeply rooted cultural values
that ought to be the basis on which legitimate civic power is established.
But far from being a reactionary role, this ought to be a profoundly
radical one. It should uphold the university as being what philosopher Alasdair
MacIntyre called a “community of contested discourses.” To be radical is to
be concerned with the radix, the roots. It invites honouring both the
taproot on which any authentically grounded establishment rests and also those
pioneer rooting systems that seek out new sources of fertility as old
intellectual soil becomes exhausted.
Only if both aspects of the rooting system are healthy can the branches
of knowledge serve society. Time changes the demands we make of knowledge.
Alternative ideas from the margins therefore matter to society because if the
centre collapses the periphery may actually become central.
I believe that our universities are now failing to defend against what
Vandana Shiva calls “monocultures of the mind.” This derives from
governmental pressure to turn higher education into a battery-farm process. Too
often students are treated as mere product whose worth lies mainly in earning
potential to their university and to themselves. Knowledge itself is colonised
in a global marketplace that defines research.
We risk losing sight of an educational system which, as Robert Burns
implied in The Vision, should ... “Thy tuneful flame still careful fan,
preserve the dignity of man, with soul erect.” Rather than drawing out the
richness of each person’s Being, consistent with the original Latin meaning of
the word “education,” we increasingly produce graduates qualified for little
more than middle-aged middle-class mediocrity.
The establishment taproot, fearful of having its complicity exposed by
any diamond in the dungheap, responds by cutting off the pioneer rooting
systems. It attempts to force growth in particular directions through fear by
pruning away at the limbs. The educated become the merely trained, in the full
horticultural sense of that word. Only too late is it remembered that blossom
grows usually not on the trunk, but out on a limb.
When asked what had been his greatest disappointment in life, Mahatma
Gandhi replied, "the hard-heartedness of the educated." For him, as
for many Scots, the yardstick of civilisation is how a society treats its poor.
If education is based on an individualistic meritocracy without an ethic of
co-operation and service towards the community, it causes social stratification.
Those who are “fit” - that is, those fitting the dominant culture, have the
option to get up, get out and lose touch. Leadership deficits may then further
impoverish those left behind.
Is a self-serving educated elite what we want for Scotland? Or should we
insist on what George Davie calls the Scots “democratic intellect,” where
the expert’s knowledge is answerable to and informed by others in the
community so as achieve mutual illumination of blind spots?
In contemporary Britain perhaps the most influential example of
educational policy that violates dignified values is the 1993 White Paper on
Science, Technology and Engineering. This has become a metaphor for Government
policy towards higher education generally. To evaluate it we need to reappraise
the very idea of a university.
In the West, Plato established the “first” university, The Academy,
in 387 BC in a grove outside Athens. This lends us the word,
“academic.” Our highest academic qualification remains the PhD - literally,
a doctorate in philo-Sophia - “love of the Goddess of Wisdom.” And the
concept of academic “excellence” is rooted not in narrow disciplinary
endeavour, but in the Greek understanding of all-round excellence in life - “aretê.”
It was with Phaedrus, in a grove by the river, barefoot and inspired by
the spirituality of nature, that Plato’s mentor Socrates put forward his
thesis that love is the central motivation and goal of the philosopher. Without
love there is no wisdom; only dry learning. And intriguingly, coming as it does
from one of the greatest “dead white males” of them all, Plato’s Symposium
tells that Socrates derived such philosophy from a wise woman - Diotima
This call to wisdom is the origin of the word, "vocation." A
"professor" should be one who professes their vocation; who honours
their calling. Too often we forget this in the groveless academy of the modern
university where cars outnumber trees. We risk producing graduates more
comfortable with the virtual conviviality of a computer than with
The 1993 science White Paper illustrates how far debasement of the
universities is being pushed. It calls, fundamentally, for "key cultural
change" to accord academia with the needs of government and industry.
It predicates wealth creation, seeking interaction on an escalating scale
"between scientists and businessmen involved in the day-to-day business of
selling in competitive markets." A whole chapter promoting the
military-industrial complex underscores the dearth of ethics, the ethics of
Our young are to be induced into all this by the Government having
embarked upon "a radical agenda of changes in the education and training
system, including changes in the school curriculum."
Of course, the White Paper has some virtues and nobody denies that we
need industry with first rate scientific brains behind it. But gone is serious
acknowledgement of the value of science, of academia generally, in offering to
society a philosophic guiding hand. Gone is Plato’s classical scientific
notion that we can better heal the disharmonies within ourselves through coming
to know the harmonies of nature. Wisdom is out. Only the values of the market
Such science without social and ecological justice is the science of Dr
Strange-love. A travesty of vocation.
In 1950 the pioneering Scots human ecologist, Frank Fraser-Darling,
wrote that, “the phenomenon of accelerating devastation and increasing
population (may mean) that the very achievement of humanness dooms us, and that
civilisation is an ultimate contradiction.”
Whether one agrees or not, the question remains, as the Brundtland
Commission put it, of how to overcome humankind’s failure to fit its doings
into nature’s patterns.
Therein lies the challenge to universities if they can reach beyond
theologian Mary Daly’s caricature ... “academentia,” as progressive
deterioration of the faculties.
It is a challenge that can perhaps only be met through honouring again a
Scots tradition that builds knowledge as much through poetic holism of the
heart, and sensually aware labour in the manual world of the hand, as by the
abstract rational skills of the head.
It is a challenge to educate not so much for resource management in
seeking a sustainable world, as for self-management of how we use nature’s
resources. To have an agriculture that is not just about plant cultivation, but
about understanding interactions from roots in the soil to the roots of human
culture. To have an economics which recognises that production is ultimately
grounded in ecological carrying capacity linked to human work and creativity,
and not in whizzing money around socially constructed financial systems. And to
have a biology that spans the study of life from genetic conception to spiritual
In short, our
universities must take on board that human ecology which is deeply embedded in
Scots culture. With one foot in the ivory tower’s vantage point and another in
the grove we must reunite the two great philosophies - moral and natural.
preparedness to speak truth to power and expose the shameful sham of any hemlock
cup designed to stifle academic freedom do we prove professionalism. To Socrates
this was the philosopher’s “gadfly” role, upsetting comfortable
complacency by “never ceas(ing) to settle here, there, and everywhere,
rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you.”
Scotland’s deep educational values extending right back to the bardic
schools must be honoured. Whether it be through the Scottish committee of the
Dearing review, through a future Scots parliament, or by radical new educational
innovation, they constitute a claim of right upon which we must persistently
warmly acknowledges insight from such professors of maieutic vocation as Ulrich
Loening, Tom Forsyth and others too numerous to list.
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