Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Toward a new ideology

Francis Fukuyama once suggested that the rise and rise of liberal democracy had ushered in the end of ideology. Liberalism had won the day and ideology was a remnant of the past. One of the problems with this view is that we might reasonably agree that humanity has reached the pinnacle of existence and therefore there is little more to be done now. Markets are the most efficient way of delivering goods and services and personal choice is a private issue which is beyond the reach of governments. There is little doubt there is merit to this approach, particularly where real competition exists and businesses focus on competing to meet the needs of society. However, one of my students' contributions to a discussion recently (roughly translating Marx) challenged this perceived wisdom with a statement that 'the market can never meet social goals because businesses only ever meet yesterday's needs - businesses will not meet the needs of tomorrow until tomorrow is yesterday'. Such moments of brilliance make the business of teaching a learning experience which can rock your world in the most amazing ways.

This got me thinking about the role of the university in terms of creating knowledge and developing new ways of 'doing business'. Should universities follow trends or create new trends? Can universities create new knowledge by following trends? Have we really reached the pinnacle of human existence or have we just become lazy? Is there a case for a new ideology?

In addressing these questions, my usual approach is to refer to history to identify the trends, cycles, and the ways in which our predecessors dealt with similar problems in earlier times. There is little doubt that universities and university students have played a significant role in bringing about beneficial changes to society and its attitudes. Student activism has been significant in bringing about changes which have become the norm over time - despite the beginnings of change being viewed as 'rocking the boat' to the extent where people were arrested for their activism.

A recent documentary on the federal government's decision to over-rule the damming of the Franklin River is a case in point - many of the original proponents of the dam agree now that the economic benefits of tourism have far outweighed the short-term economic benefits the dam would have achieved. The economic benefits of tourism have provided a sustainable alternative to the short-term solution yet many of the people who initiated the changes were viewed as 'dirty greenies' who did nothing other than disrupt the normal order of things. Over time, those 'dirty greenies' have not only been accepted as the change agents who brought about societal support for environmental protection, but these same people (such as Bob Brown) have been acknowledged as people of principle who stayed true to their cause despite the odds. The usual story of global heroes includes a long list of Mahatma Ghandis, Nelson Mandelas, Martin Luther Kings and Bob Browns who stayed true to their cause despite the odds. People to be admired in history, but in their time to be ostracised - people who had to 'put their body on the line' to bring about changes but at a cost which deters the average person from ever bothering. Is it all worth the personal cost? One might argue that yes it is because the Bob Browns and the Nelson Mandelas and the Mahatma Ghandis proved themselves through adversity. This process actually provides limits to ensure that snake-oil merchants and others do not trick people into believing in their personally motivated causes. Fair enough you might say and I would agree.

But what about the role of universities? Does one have to sacrifice their livelihood, integrity, status in society, personal relationships, personal freedoms and the like to prove that a societal change can be beneficial? If we have such a focus on 'efficiency', is this an efficient way to trial new approaches to doing business? Obviously, changing the way we do business on a whim brings a whole series of new problems. But many innovative companies deal with this issue by enabling a certain percentage of their business to be experimental while maintaining their core business - enabling the company to innovate without putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. Similarly, society would benefit from having an incubator for new ideas.

Enter the role of the university. Traditionally, universities were the place where new innovations not only occurred, but were encouraged. Universities were seen as the place to experiment, to test and to trial new ways of 'doing business'. One of the problems facing the traditional 'knowledge generators' is that Australian universities are challenged by contemporary needs to be 'efficient' and 'effective' in a political climate where business rules the roost. Universities are required to generate profits (or, put simply, to adopt a market model to sustain themselves), not to generate knowledge which has been their traditional role. I take issue with the new focus - if universities are not about generating knowledge, then what do they do? Some would argue that universities are there to train future workers, to enable businesses to get on with the job of meeting social goals. But if business can only meet yesterday's social goals, then who is charged with the responsibility to meet the social goals of tomorrow?

My philosophical approach to teaching requires universities to provide a safe space for future leaders. Students should be able to make mistakes which do not affect society-at-large. To enable this type of learning through experimentation, universities cannot be conservative institutions, nor demand that university students meet the usual expectations of society while on-campus. To do so is to restrict creativity, free speech and free thinking individuals to a space which occupies the same space of society-at-large. Providing a safe space for free-thinking individuals to make mistakes and by doing so, find new solutions to tomorrow's problems, can only be of benefit to society and in my view should be encouraged. Indeed, the personal sacrifices which the contemporary focus on innovation entails will certainly reinforce the past, rather than focus on the future, unless there is some part of our society which provides a place to 'practise' innovating. Unlike explicit knowledge, entrepreneurial knowledge and innovation skills do not necessarily follow the patterns of experience which can be documented, packaged and taught in a traditional manner.

I suspect that my student is correct - business can only provide tomorrow's solutions to yesterday’s problems. Universities provide an established institution which generates knowledge, but to focus universities on generating profit is to take away the role of higher education institutions and to move to a system which supports the conservative way of doing business. Without universities, there is no real 'ideas incubator' and the social ramifications of such an oversight can only be detrimental to our future.

The trouble is that universities take away public funds which justifiably need to be accounted for in society's economic equation. In a time of global economic uncertainty this is quite reasonable. Nonetheless, it does not cost anything for universities to provide a 'safe space' to facilitate social, economic and political experimentation. Indeed, the culture of the particular organisation will determine, to a large extent, the manner in which university staff and students are encouraged or discouraged from experimenting and testing new ways of doing business. But the university which finds a new and useful way of 'doing business' will no doubt receive accolades in the future.

In the meantime, this crucial yet overlooked part of society is losing its importance at a time where no other institution has the capacity to develop a new ideology - if you like, a systematic way of viewing the world and dealing with the complexities of maintaining a cohesive civil society (or a new way of doing business). The value of universities cannot be over-stated, particularly where changes can be implemented which do not cost anything other than the ego-challenge associated with a change in attitude. Unfortunately, recent approaches to university governance echo the remnants of the past. Meanwhile, new ways of doing business escape us as we idly watch the demise of an institution which has proven itself time and again throughout human history to bring about beneficial changes. If Australia’s only hope is to follow others who have the courage to be different, it is a source of shame to a nation which once took great pride in its ability to innovate in the face of adversity. Liberalism is only the end if we choose it do be so, and while the problems (such as stagflation) which enabled the rise of neoliberalism to take a hold globally are re-emerging in Britain (where it all began), who will develop the new ideology?

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio