Monday, April 11, 2016

Speech by President Michael D Higgins at EUA Annual Conference

President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, gave a wonderful speech at the European Universities Association Annual Conference last week. The official transcript of the speech doesn't have the section he delivered in Irish at the beginning but if you have the odd 42 minutes to spare and have any connection in any context with higher education, then take the time to watch and listen -

Succinct Irish Times report on the speech here.

My favorite extracts (quite a large chunk):
"There is a grave danger that debates about the role of the university are taking place in a narrow political and ideological space...
I suggest that at the present moment in Europe and far beyond it, insofar as policy makers focus attention on education policy, they tend to view universities in a rather utilitarian way, as foundations of new knowledge and innovative thinking, within the confines of existing trade, commercial and economic paradigms, paradigms that are fading but not without damage to social cohesion. 
They pursue, perhaps with their own best of intentions, their own project, rather than any change as a means of advancing social justice and mobility. They seek contributors to social and cultural dynamism irrespective of the distribution of the benefits. This is an approach wherein short-term concerns prevail over long-term developmental objectives.  
My purpose this morning, then, is to suggest a recall of some first principles of the necessary role of the university in society; ...
In doing so, we must first recognise that we live at a time when the language and rhetoric of the speculative market has become embedded in the educational culture and has brought some university practices down a precarious road. That reductive view has brought us, I believe, to a time of great questioning about the purpose of the university – much of which has been corrosive - and perhaps even to a moment of intellectual crisis.
It is in its extreme form a view that is based on an erroneous perception that the necessary focus of higher education must be on that which is utilitarian and immediately applicable. Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression. 
We have now reached, I believe, a juncture which sees intellectuals challenged to recover the moral purpose of original thought and emancipatory scholarship; a time when we must seek to recapture the human and unifying capacity of scholarship. 
Max Weber, the great 19th century social theorist, responded to the events of his time in the second half of the nineteenth century asa public task of an intellectual, accepting the requirement not only of radical thought but of the duty to communciate as part of a public discourse.  
Weber... prophesied an iron cage of bureaucracy, a dehumanised landscape within which conformity would be demanded to that which no longer recognised its original moral or reasonable purpose."
A bit like our modern education sector and beyond, says Michael D ...
" While Weber’s view might be seen as dystopian, we can certainly recognise some of the features he predicted in our contemporary situtaion, in which rationality has led less to what is productive or inclusive but at so many times to what is a speculative gambling that has consequences in so much global misery.
Our European crisis is at least as profound as that faced by previous generations of political and social theorists at the end of the 19th century, but our response seems to be so slow, even as so many European citizens sense, inadequate. That is among those who care. The crafting of a response to this crisis is, I believe, a widespread challenge and one which the Irish and European universities must embrace, insisting on remaining open to originality in theory and research, and committed to humanistic values in teaching. It is through the encouragement of creative and free thinking that our universities acquired their status in the past, and correctly claim it today, as unique institutions that accept the responsibiity of enabling and empowering citizens to to participate fully and effectively at all levels of society. This creative function must be cherished, nurtured and encouraged.
Too many, perhaps unknowingly, have accepted an ‘under labourer’ view of the university, indeed of intellectual work more broadly, as we seek to belong in a form of society/economy relationship where we have lost the capacity to critically evaluate... We cannot allow ourselves to sleepwalk through the crisis that an unaccountable, but reformable, form of globalisation presents.
In this context, the role of the university in enabling citizens to develop the intellectual tools to address the great challenges of our time, which include include questions of development and global poverty, of climate change and sustainability, and of conflict and displacement, is one which is vital. Indeed, that we have heard the call to be responsible in relation to climate change or to sustainable development, that it has been endorsed by world leaders, is due to responsible scholars, thoughtful scientists who have made the intellectual case for political action at the global level – who have combined scholarship with citizenship and activism.
In this wider social understanding of the university, its relationship with its students cannot in my view, without great loss, be reduced, then, to that of provider of any narrow professional training, guided towards a specific and limited objective and essentially disengaged from the academic experience which is fundamental to independent thought and scholarly engagement. Theirs must be a much broader rapport, one which introduces students to an intellectual life and allows them to develop a critical turn of mind as well as informing an ethical concern with their community and their planet.
At the pedagogical level... Learning from those who are passionate about their subject, face to face collaboration and regular engagement in organic debate and discussion, journeying into the false avenues as well as the fruitful ones, is central to a rich and fulfilling educational experience.
We see great challenges in contemporary research practice too ... we have witnessed in recent decades the marginalisation of political philosophy and social theory to rather narrow issues of administration and, under pressure of publication and peer competition, to that which can be easily measured. More and more pressure has come on universities and scholars to prove their relevance within a hegemonic version of the connection between society and economy that is destructive to social cohesion – one that has demanded a consensus on the desirability, not merely of economic growth, but of a singular, limited versions of economics. Scholarship requires the breadth and breath of culture for paradigm shift to happen.  
As a research subject, the role of the State as innovator or generator of social cohesion has to be recovered...
We have been living through a period of extreme individualism, a period where, in its early extreme version, the concept of society itself has been questioned. The public space has been presented as a competitive space of consumers rather than citizens...
Neither can there be any doubt that one of the contributing factors of our recent economic crisis was a failure of capacity and intention on the part of our citizens, as well as our institutions, to question, to scrutinise and to interrogate the concepts of individualism to which they were invited to aspire, and the insatiable consumption to which they were invited and which, over recent decades, were accented and prompted as alternatives to the models of public good and welfare. Our existence is assumed to be, is defined as, competing individual actors, at times neurotic in our insatiable anxieties for consumption...
The will to create bridges and to listen to each other with respect remains as critical in the academic sphere as it is in all areas of life. When scholars are prepared, in their pursuit of knowledge and solutions, to engage in inclusive and interdisciplinaryscholarsip, to take a broader perspective, and to learn from the viewpoint of others we can, as a society, only benefit from such an approach. 
If we wish to develop independent thinkers and questioning, engaged citizens, our universities must, while providing excellence in professional training, avoid an emphasis that is solely or exclusivity on that which is measurable and is demanded by short term outcomes. They must allow for the patience and the peace that is required for memorable university teaching and research."
Gold star.
"Fostering the capacity to dissent is another core function of the university. Third level scholarship has always had, and must retain, a crucial role in creating a society in which the critical exploration of alternatives to any prevailing hegemony is encouraged. "
Another gold star Mr President.
"Universities must surely be facilitated and supported, made free and funded, so that they may preserve their role as special places for the generation of alternatives in science, culture and philosophy. They must be allowed to flourish as spaces which develop that intellectual courage which allows the rejection of exclusive or excluding ideologies, and encourages the seeking of truth from fact and the production of alternative solutions and action. Universities must be places where minds are emancipated and citizens enabled to live fully conscious lives in which suggested inevitabilities are constantly questioned..." 
... it is the duty of the university to engage in shaping, and not simply reacting to, the fourth industrial revolution. Neither technology, nor its potential to disrupt, are remote extrinsic forces over which we as humans have no control. All of us, as members of a global society, must play our role in guiding the pathway of new technology into our society in a way that is ethical and moral. It is essential also, that public citizen support for the necessary public investment in universities is secured – and that the benefits from this investment are retained within the universities themselves and demonstrated to a supporting public.
The university must not be reduced to a component of the market place as it cannot exist, in its fullest sense, in an exclusively market world. The intellectual dimension of higher education is not one that can easily be measured, and universities must not be called on to perform solely in ways which lend themselves to metric measures of performanace. Digitisation has great possibilities for the effecting of positive transformation within our society. However, as with all tools of power, the ethical test is its use.
In our current circumstances in Europe and the world, it is here, in our universities, that we can begin to enact such transformative thinking as is necessary to create the foundations of a society that is more inclusive, participatory and equal. That transformative thinking will require a real change in consciousness. It is through critical and engaged pedagogy that we can be assured that we are engaging the educators of a generation that will have the capacity to understand and question the assumptions of any status quo, and to understand when that status quo must be challenged and how; a generation who will have the confidence and the wisdom to engage in alternative visions of what a society can be, and bring it into being.
I suggest that the universities and those who work within them are crucial in that struggle for the recovery of the public world, for the emergence of truly emancipatory paradigms of policy and research. It is not merely a case of connecting the currency, the economy and the people, it is about recovering the right to pose such important questions as Immanuel Kant did in his time – what might we know, what should we do, what may we hope?" 
Go raibh maith agat A Uachtaráin do chiall ag labhairt i gcónaí deacair.

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