Where are you going, Emile? Where are those of us, who should know where you are heading, going? In Emile, or On Education Rousseau reflected on the best way of educating citizens. Before him, Aristotle did so in his Nicomachean Ethics, as did Prince Juan Manuel in Count Lucanor and his Exempla. Countless thinkers have done so since, including Kant in his Conception of Pedagogy, Bertrand Russell in On Education, George Steiner in Eloge de la transmission, Zygmunt Bauman in Culture in a Liquid Modern World, Vargas Llosa in Elogio de la educación, Noam Chomsky in On MisEducation and Martha Nussbaum in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
Educating citizens is an obligation of the State, which too often pays lip service to it but actually prevents it. And it is also a need for citizens themselves, which they frequently do not meet. Everyone preaches it, but not so many practice it. Educational laws, pedagogical strategies and teaching methods are changing far faster than is necessary if they are to become settled. And the danger of trivialising education comes with the risk of worsening it and disguising it. One merely needs to consider the conceptual confusion to get an idea of the extent to which we are walking on quicksand.
The Spanish Royal Academy of Language defines ‘educating’ as ‘directing, guiding, teaching’ and ‘developing or perfecting intellectual and moral faculties’, ‘training’ as ‘intellectual, moral or professional preparation of a person’ and ‘informing’ as ‘creating awareness of or announcing something’. Education, training, information, knowledge transfer, culture transfer, study and ‘competency’, that devilish term that is indispensable nowadays in spite of it being obvious that an individual can be completely competent while being indisputably ignorant. One could tirelessly speculate about this issue. We prefer to note in passing some convictions that have arisen from our experience in private enterprise and our position as university professors with many years of experience teaching in various institutions.
Very often, the best transformation is not wanting to transform everything all the time. Change is never positive merely for its own sake. For centuries, universities drove market trends, promoted research and imposed objectives: now they are hitched to the market; they are the market. We should not do what we think students want us to do since often they do not actually know what they really want to do. We should invite them to trust our roadmap instead of wanting to follow their own (the customer is not always right), which is often changeable or improvised, feeble or simply non-existent.
If universities lose sight of the lecturer’s ability to impart knowledge to the student, they lose their essence. We should demand robustness and performance from teaching staff so that they, in turn, demand performance and robustness from students. But we make demands not concessions. Without academic rigour, there is merely a wasteland decorated with pedagogical jargon and academic engineering. Institutional self-criticism and defence of the culture of effort and responsibility. The culture of complaint and convenience only create weakness. Most of the variables involved in leadership are never under the institution’s control. They depend on generic vocations or crossroads in life. And all leadership, like any can of Coca-Cola, a market leader, has an expiry date.
Universities must not sell leadership they cannot guarantee, but instead training and attitudes that will stand the test of time. In an era of unlimited, instant and global information, education must train more than it informs, raise awareness of good professional practice, teach students how to justify their decisions and map out strategies, extol the virtues of beneficial uselessness, i.e. cultivate a transversal culture that improves citizens and perfects professionals. It is likely that at this point in human history, there are those who would want robotics to handle teaching too. However, training should be provided by other human beings imbued with the humanities so as to be able to convey the idea that any whole modifies a part or, to put it another way, seeing a picture by Warhol or hearing the impact of a sentence by Kafka or the sound of Sting can end up altering a business decision, speeding up an experiment, winning a negotiation or resolving a conflict.
We need trained citizens to make the best possible use of their position as informed citizens. Teaching that ensures culture plays the leading role enhances professional preparation and makes it more robust because it connects it with other disciplines, makes it more imaginative, more transversal and more critical. To get straight to the point: Nussbaum wrote in The New York Times a decade ago now that “the future engineer or computer programmer can still learn skills of argument from Plato’s dialogues and gain a deeper grasp of the lives of others through literature and the arts”. All truly quality education should set aside the chimera of generations and magic formulas based on speculation and friendliness and undertake to ensure that students receive the best training in their area and the greatest willingness to relate it with other areas.
Javier Aparicio Maydeu
Culture delegate of the Pompeu Fabra University and Director of the Master’s in Publishing and editing