Scholars must fight to avert "brain-dead society"

by Bruce G. Trigger

Canadian universities are facing a general financial crisis that threatens nothing less than the future of higher education in this country. If Canadian universities are to defend themselves, there must be a more basic discussion of what roles universities ought to play in society and how they can best perform them.

In England, eminent scientists, faced with government insistence that the primary goal of scientific research should be wealth creation, are placing renewed emphasis on the importance of basic research and are denying that such research either can be centrally planned or can be neglected in favour of applied studies without a loss both to science and to the economy.

In an address to this year's meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, recalled that a committee that the U.S. National Academy of Science established in 1937 to predict major scientific breakthroughs, overlooked the major technologies that have dominated the postwar economy: nuclear energy, antibiotics, jet aircraft, rocketry, computers and transistors.

He argued that the most dramatic and fruitful innovations of the future will likewise surprise us: "They'll be the outcome of some new basic science, but of course we don't know what." Likewise, Sir Sam Edwards, Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, has questioned whether basic scientific research can successfully be directed toward wealth creation, as the British government requires. Like Rees, he clearly regards such constraints as ultimately counterproductive.

So far, resistance in the humanities and social sciences to narrowly utilitarian funding assessments has been less vocal. Apart from microeconomics and some branches of psychology and sociology that are seen as relevant to marketing and social control, the social sciences and humanities are thought to have little useful to contribute to a neo-conservative world and are represented as a parasitical luxury that the hard-pressed taxpayer can no longer afford to support.

Yet this is happening at a time of rapid social and economic change, and of population mobility, that is creating growing social dislocation as well as personal anxiety and despair about the future. In societies experiencing these sorts of problems there is great danger that growing economic crises will generate potentially explosive political and ethnic confrontations.

To help avoid such dangers, it is important that the public have as informed and detailed an understanding as possible about what is happening, in the hope that this may induce them to support just and effective policies.

Canada, as an increasingly multicultural society, is in an excellent position to prosper in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. Yet, however advanced our technology may be and however developed our marketing skills, Canada will not be able to compete effectively and prosper if it is wracked by chronic social, economic, and ethnic conflicts.

Whatever knowledge can help to prevent and resolve such conflicts has not only social and moral worth, but also a dollars-and-cents financial value. The social sciences, humanities, and cognate professional disciplines, insofar as they can enhance such knowledge, are not social frills or irrelevancies but a vital component of any nation that aspires to remain on the cutting edge of modern development.

An improved understanding of society provides an essential element in the formulation of more effective social policies, more informed citizens, and a more dynamic and successful economy. In the modern world a brain-dead society is a doomed society.

More must be done therefore to make it clear to governments, businesses, and the electorate that basic research and education in the social sciences and humanities is an essential investment in Canada's future.

If the powers that be do not enable adequate attention to be paid to the social, cultural, and ethical aspects of life, humanity may end up with a free-enterprise economy trying to operate in a world reduced to such a state of social and political chaos that this economy can no longer function.

University scholars must make it clear that in fighting to preserve the social sciences and humanities, as well as the humanistic traditions within law, medicine, theology, engineering, music, and management, they are struggling to preserve something that is not merely of interest to themselves but also of practical value to the society in which they live. That sort of argument may in turn benefit these disciplines, by encouraging scholars to complement the modern tradition of academic specialization with a renewed sense of social responsibility.

This kind of thinking will also encourage us to clarify the internal mission of the university. Just as academics must complement their professional skills with a growing social awareness, so the primary goal of the university as a whole must be to try to train all its students to cope as knowledgeably and conscientiously as possible with the vast range of problems that will confront them as individuals and citizens for the rest of their lives.

Most of the factual information that we impart to students in our classes is bound to become obsolete. No core curriculum, whether based on great literary works, or Western civilization, or a knowledge of world cultures, can equip students to cope with a rapidly changing world.

Nor is it sufficient merely to ensure that all students achieve a specific level of literacy and numeracy or that they have an adequate knowledge of logic and scientific method.

The most important skill that students in every field must acquire is learning how to deal with the ever increasing amounts of information that are saturating our daily lives, all of it permeated with biases and agendas of which we may or may not be aware. Some of it is truthful; some is not. Some of it is valuable and even essential knowledge; most of it is irrelevant or worthless. All of it seeks to attract our attention and influence our actions.

The greatest challenge every one of us faces is learning how to discriminate between information that is relevant to our needs and information that is not.

Unless we can do this effectively, our judgement and critical faculties are in danger of being overwhelmed by an avalanche of messages. The key to successful personal lives, careers, and citizenship in the hectic modern world depends on acquiring the ability to transform information into understanding.

Universities must teach students how to discriminate among superabundant information, how to critique ideas quickly and effectively, and how to distinguish between what is valuable to individuals and society and what is harmful.

The fact that an exploding information technology is creating novel problems that each one of us is having to learn to cope with in our own lives, poses a daunting educational challenge for every university teacher. Yet here lies the key to producing more effective scientists, scholars, lawyers, business people, and citizens, as well as better selves.

The university remains the best format for fostering basic research in all disciplines, for the identification and discussion of social and ethical issues, and for training discriminating men and women. It provides an environment in which the lack of pressure for quick fixes, which dominates business and politics, permits the luxury of a longer view and a more nuanced examination of our society's problems.

The other challenge that we face, if the university is to continue to shape its own future and play a creative role in society, is to persuade those upon whom we rely for support that what we do deserves continuing support even in difficult times.

By this I do not mean only politicians and business people, but those who in a largely publicly-funded system of higher education are the masters of us all-the citizens and taxpayers. The greatest challenge that universities face is to communicate with that public and to convince them that what we are doing is worth paying for.

Some among us maintain that in the current atmosphere of economic retrenchment this is impossible. Yet we are supposed to be professional communicators and advocates. Success depends on convincing the public that, in addition to providing professional training and social mobility for students, universities have an indispensible role to play in public debate.

This requires us to demonstrate that we can communicate what we know not only to elites but also to ordinary citizens in such a way that, rather than merely being told what is good for them, these individuals can use such information to better examine and decide public issues for themselves.

To do this we must overcome the technocratic elitism that universities cultivated so assiduously in the 1950s and 1960s and have still not completely outgrown.

The alternative is to bow to the dictates of government and industry, mitigated by enlightened private philanthropy. While governments and industry are sometimes capable of generosity, they pursue their own agendas, which during this time of economic stringency tend to be neo-conservative and manipulative with respect to universities. If we accept such agendas, we risk betraying not only the ideals of the university but also a sense of our own worth, with disastrous results for ourselves as academics.

If we are to respond with integrity even to the most draconian cutbacks, it is essential that we have a clearer sense of who we are as academics and what we should be doing.

We must come out of our specialist bunkers long enough to talk to each other, not simply about how we can cut budgets and about how small can be beautiful, but about what our mission is and whom we serve. If we can develop a strong enough consensus about what we are doing and enough confidence in the mission of the university, others may acquire enough confidence in us to continue supporting us.

Until we have clarified our own understanding of what universities are and should be doing, planning for the institutional survival of universities is a doubtful, if not a doomed, enterprise.

We academics have our fair share of timidity, venality, sloth, and short-sightedness. But at this point in our collective history it is essential that we have the courage to be proactive rather than simply reactive. This means doing our best to reshape a hostile environment that threatens our ideals rather than accepting that environment as a given.

It also involves letting politicians and the public know what universities are and can do, and hence more precisely what an essential and irreplacable resource economic cutbacks may be destroying.

To fight for ideals and lose is a misfortune, but to abandon the fight for lack of ideals or for lack of courage to defend such ideals as we have, is to deserve to lose.