Philipp W Rosemann: 'Fund universities properly - but to produce scholars, not just workers'
Education is not simply about the economy and preparing students for the workplace, writes Philipp W Rosemann
In her recent article for the Sunday Independent, former education minister Mary O'Rourke makes a passionate plea for adequate funding of Ireland's institutions of higher learning. Much as anyone working in higher education in this country will welcome the former minister's public support, her reasoning is profoundly flawed.
For Mrs O'Rourke's article leaves no doubt whatsoever as to what she believes the main reason is why our colleges and universities deserve appropriate financial support from the Government: "...the most pressing need now in education is properly structured, ongoing funding for universities and third level. We need this in order to maintain our economic attractions as a country".
Some readers may wonder what is so terribly wrong with such a statement. Isn't is absolutely true that the young people of this country need the "highest of skills", as Mrs O'Rourke further explains, to compete in "a world economy where knowledge will be paramount"?
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To be sure, in order to succeed, a modern economy needs a highly qualified workforce. Large-scale manufacturing has long been exported from Europe to low-wage countries with which we cannot compete if we want to be able to pay for our elevated standard of living and levels of social protection.
First-world countries, like Ireland, have therefore increasingly moved towards the "knowledge economy" which emphasises advanced technical skills and scientific knowledge over physical labour.
Our third-level institutions provide precisely the skills and knowledge that are required to market goods rather than manufacture them, to process data, or to generate cleaner, greener electricity.
So far, so good.
What is problematic in the former minister's comments is not the notion that higher education has an economic dimension. What is extremely worrying is the reduction of higher education to the task of educating Ireland's next generation of workers.
It is sad how dismissive Mrs O'Rourke is of the old notion of Ireland as the "island of saints and scholars". "We can no longer continue with that," she declares. This statement is self-explanatory, it seems: saints especially are a thing of the past.
Mrs O'Rourke is by no means isolated with her opinions. Having lived and taught in the US for 20 years, I know the same line of argument from American politicians, left and right. We need higher education, they say, so that we can stay on top of the game in the global economy.
Now let me ask this important question. What do young people need more urgently - a well-paying job in the "knowledge economy", or the ability to make sense of the lives to which they are attempting to give meaning?
What do they need more urgently: the most cutting-edge computing skills, or the background that is necessary to make a contribution to discussions regarding the future of this country as a place where life continues to be worth living?
Let me answer.
Of course, we all need jobs (even a philosophy professor has bills to pay and looks forward to his monthly salary). And if most of these jobs now require skills that only a university education can provide, so be it: let third-level institutions answer that need.
But should our young people not also - and perhaps even primarily - read poetry, listen to music, study philosophers, learn foreign languages, and do lots of other things that have no immediate economic benefit?
And is this not exactly what they should be doing at university: pursuing subjects that help them become well-rounded human beings who are capable of appreciating works of literature and art, deep existential questions, and foreign cultures?
It is through such exposure to literature and art that one encounters not only genuine beauty, but also the "big questions" that lurk in the back of the mind of every human being, whether Irish, German, or Chinese: What is it all about? How do I get through this thing called life? How do I manage to find meaning in my existence?
As a university teacher, I encounter more and more students with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. This epidemic is by no means an exclusively Irish phenomenon; American universities, for example, are seeing the same development. It seems to be global, or at least Western. I submit that the younger generation is under so much pressure to perform, get a job, and lead an economically successful life that they are deprived of the opportunity to ask these big human questions.
Yet economic success is merely one factor in a life well-lived, and perhaps not even the most important one.
An education must prepare students for lives where there is room for political engagement, artistic beauty, and spiritual development. However, just as I must study to learn the principles of software development or personnel management, so I must study to learn how to listen to great music, read a classical novel, or interpret a major philosophical text.
This ability will enhance my life in good times and bad. When I get depressed because of a setback or a loss, I need more than the phone number of a counselling office: I need the wisdom to know that promises of a perfect life are fake.
Great literature and philosophy certainly do not have the answers to all our questions; at the very least, however, they offer us some concepts and categories to think about the major dimensions of human existence, from love and longing to death and despair.
So, let us not prematurely declare the demise of the "island of saints and scholars". Let us rather cherish this venerable heritage by defending the primary purpose of higher education: to offer students a chance to start acquiring the wisdom that they need to lead lives that are not just economically rewarding but well-rounded and fulfilled. Our first task is to educate human beings, not a workforce.
Professor Philipp W Rosemann holds the Chair of Philosophy at Maynooth University