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The Future of the Academy - Report on the Meeting

Report on the Meeting | The Meeting Agenda | List of Participants

Pari, Italy 8-11 September 2000

Sponsored by the World Academy of Art and Science and the Gulbenkian Foundation in partnership with University of Sienna and Ass.ne Sette Colli of Pari.

I CONTEXT

Increasingly, far ranging meetings of minds no longer take place in the context of universities. Universities, originally the transmitters of culture, learning and independent thought, are changing. In the past, scholars acted as arbiters who accredited knowledge. But today's universities are producing knowledge in a "hothouse" atmosphere characterized more by the corporation than the campus. The academy is increasingly influenced by financial and institutional pressures. Respect for the bottom line, and an emphasis on short term results that satisfy corporate sponsors and government support, is turning the university into a source of human capital in the form of highly skilled workers. Increasingly its traditional role of fostering scholarship, original research and critical thinking is loosing ground.

Remarks, questions and comments, gleaned from an earlier Discussion Forum, set the focus for discussions. Issues were considered through the prisms of: The Contemporary University; The Historic Role of the Academy; The Commodification of Knowledge; and Knowledge and the Post Modern Condition.

The strategic starting point and shared background for the discussions were:

Fundamental and Philosophical

  • What are we educating for?
  • Is a university education, something that lasts between three to five years at the start of adult life, the correct response to a rapidly changing world? Should we think more in terms of life-long learning and non-traditional programs?
  • We cannot change the academy without first rethinking ourselves as learning beings. What are the different shapes of learning?
  • If we begin to move outside the academy, can we imagine a form of institution that will act as gatekeeper for the flood of new knowledge?
  • How are universities fulfilling their traditional role today?
  • How will knowledge and learning be reflected in the values of society?
  • How can learning continue as a life-long process?
  • Where will young people go to seek knowledge and wisdom?
  • What will be the value of scholarship?
  • How will all this be reflected in the changing values and organization of society?
  • If the university's role in teaching is phased out, how will education and scholarship be bound together in the future?
  • Will the university maintain its moral stance by:
    1. refusing to be pressured into action only as a factory that prepares students for jobs?
    2. participating in the debate on the future of society, and in a way that is free from political and ideological pressures?
    3. remaining accessible to all?
    4. taking a leadership role?

Market Place and Financial Pressures

  • Universities need money to function. But the financial and administrative sides have passed into the hands of those who act like CEOs, looking to process and documentation. Is this becoming more prevalent or have things always been this way?
  • It appears that the system of universities is now running the scholars. Is this an irreversible step?
  • Who will take a critical stance against the vested interests of governments and corporations who tend to see universities as "knowledge factories."?
  • Students today see themselves as clients. In turn, the university must act as a service industry. This service must be affordable, convenient and of high quality. Many students prefer online education at home with customized courses.
  • Education is a business dealing in hundreds of billions of dollars. Venture capitalists and multinationals are now getting into the act. Companies are putting the best professors from all over the world under contract.

Trends for the Future

  • Our myth of the university is that of a community of scholars dedicated to research, new knowledge and fostering enquiring minds. Was this ever really the case and is it true today?
  • The trend is to ever more specialization. Science publications double every 10-15 years. This means scientists can only keep at the leading edge of research through increasing specialization. Universities cannot maintain every specialization in a department so specializations will be distributed throughout various universities and research institutions. Researchers will then have fewer chances to speak face to face with other experts in their field.

Rethinking the University

  • Do present universities have too many constraints for them to change?
  • Should we create new small academies -- maybe outside the universities and outside the cities?
  • Rather than having a campus in each city, should we be thinking of a distributed university?
  • Are there already valid communities of scholars outside the universities and does the Internet represent one valid alternative?
  • Universities are stable institutions yet non-creative. On the other hand, creative small groups may not be stable or sustainable.
  • It is assumed that competition between universities is of benefit. But what effect is it having on teaching and is it the source of the present 'race to the bottom'?
  • Is academic freedom truly a thing of the past? All institutions, whether formal or informal, need funding to operate and this means being open to external influences.
  • How can we translate our fantasies about some ideal academy into practical suggestions for change?

Research and the Universities

  • Will research fragment itself from teaching?
  • Research now has to be justified in terms of (short-term) results. To what extent is pure research in science, the arts and humanities really suffering?
  • Do we need new institutions and contexts for doing science?
  • Does society really need more science and more knowledge? To what extent is this a function of economic pressures?
  • Tests are not the best ways to judge admission to graduate school. We need something that helps to assess creativity and imagination.

The Internet and Communications

  • Once, a great deal of research was carried out by amateurs outside the walls of the university. Later, research, particularly in the hard sciences, was almost exclusively the province of the universities. What will be the case in the future?
  • Is the Internet and virtual reality creating change in consciousness and in ways of thinking and interacting with the world? Could this provide a new context and a new environment for the university?
  • The Internet appears to be creating new types of universities. What forms will these take?
  • Video and Internet courses can be given again and again. This service may be taken over by the text book publishers with teams of scholars to create and update courses. Already one company offers a video of 'the greatest lectures' and one university offers degrees via the Internet ?
  • What will be the function of the increasing number of independent scholars, corporate think tanks and universities, informal organizations, networks of conversations, distance education and the Internet?
  • Interacting with cyberspace presents a new set of sensory to a (virtual) world and people spend increasing periods of time in cyberspace, and as the Internet becomes richer in the downstreaming of visual, sonic and sensate material, how will human attention, perception and consciousness change. Will such changes demand new forms of learning and new structures to knowledge institutions

II EMERGING ISSUES and THEMES

Discussion was broad and far-reaching. At times the conversation echoed the concerns expressed in section I, above. But as the group became more familiar with the discussion, and as individuals became more familiar with one another, a set of issues and themes emerged. These were seen as requiring more exploration, either at some future meeting or through working groups of some of the participants. The summary points below are in some ways related, while in other ways they can and should be considered as "stand alone" topics.

The changing definition and role of 'elite'

For better or worse, elites have played an important role in society. With their deeper and broader focus, elite values and concerns encouraged longer-term concerns and horizons. While some elites still remain their role appears to have been taken over by sports stars, entertainment, media and business figures. Their existence is more ephemeral and they seem to care less about the longer term. With the collapse of the historical elite, who will take the time and trouble to foster a longer-term vision for society?

Working definitions on the role of knowledge

The group was concerned that the word "knowledge" is being used too loosely. There should be more rigorous and broadly agreed on working definitions on the role of knowledge, especially as it is situated in the continuum from data, to information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

Data and Knowledge

For several decades we have lived within an "information explosion" to the point where there is an ever widening gap between raw data and a coherent body of understanding. A deeper investigation is needed into that point of transformation when data become true knowledge.

Commonalties across disciplines

Disciplines have become too protective and defensive of their boundaries. The result is increasing fragmentation of knowledge and a decreased acknowledgment of the commonalties across disciplines (including the arts).

Authority and influence in society.

Similar to the changing role of the elites, are changes in the role and function of institutions, "experts", traditional figures of authority and others whose past role lay in informing and influencing society. The transformation of these roles reflects the changing underlying values of society. In turn this is subtly influencing the ways in which society knows, understands and governs itself. At present these changes are largely implicit. To understand them more clearly they should be brought from the background and made explicit.

Changing role of the university

Key challenges are reflected in: the struggle between continuity/tradition and need for change; mass education and vocational training versus 'elite' education/research; relationship to 'public good'; 'transformative' role of the university (at individual & societal levels).

There has been a shift from learning as an end, to learning as a means to an end; from learning as a good thing, or as a public good, to learning as a way of making a living and creating human capital. Clearly both roles are valuable, but in an era of "bottom line" thinking how can the university continue to be seen to engage in activities that don't appear to have an immediate payback?

Ways of learning

Learning and understanding are continually changing. Are there alternative ways of learning? Are there alternative ways of fostering creativity and innovation? If the university feels too threatened by pressures to produce tomorrow's workforce, where will the new learning take place?

Biodiversity of Knowledge and Knowledge Groups

Natural systems rely upon biodiversity for their survival. Yet increasingly universities, are becoming monolithic institutions, and knowledge is being categorized into rigid groupings. We need a wider ranger of organizations and institutions that complement rather than compete and engage in multifaceted ways to organize knowledge

Story telling rather than imparting information

Early information theorists pictured information as flowing down a pathway from an active transmitter to a passive receiver. New models suggest something closer to a co-creation of stories and mental spaces in which the "teacher" does not assume such a privileged position but respects the receiver of knowledge as an active participant. In this way a diversity of stories can be created and differences (of culture, discipline and ways of learning) respected. This co-creation of stories may be a useful way to inform the public about science and as a model for interaction between the arts and sciences.

An Academy without Urgency

A great deal of academic work takes place under pressure, with departmental meetings, the need to publish and conferences around specific themes. The participants in Pari appreciated the value of coming together "without urgency", and in open ways that allowed for a free and creative exchange of ideas and was tolerant to different opinions and diverse ways of working together. Such spaces for encounter should continue to be fostered.

Contemplation

Associated with the issue of "urgency" is that of contemplation, those periods of silence, which can often be the source of creativity. Under pressures of urgency, the information explosion, demands of the market-pace, comodification of knowledge and the corporate structure of the universities it is increasingly difficult to create a time and a space for contemplation.

Ethical issues

In the traditional disciplines, such as physics and chemistry, the professional areas of medicine and law, as well as within the newer fields of biotechnology and bioengineering and the range of genetic endeavors, there are a number ethical issues to be discussed, if not resolved. Where will this be done? In whose interest is it to convene these discussions?

Value of 'orchid' disciplines

Reference was made of the so-called 'orchid' disciplines (those disciplines not explicitly linked to returns to society and currently seen as either a luxury or parasitic). In the past, a range of disciplines in the humanities were taught and promoted for their own sake, since they were part of what was broadly understood to be culture and knowledge. Students with degrees in arcane areas also made valuable contributions to society. But today, there is a tendency to view exotic disciplines as not returning investments quickly enough and so universities are tending to drop such studies. What is the long-term cost to society in losing scholars from these "parasite" disciplines? Does all learning have to be justified by a return on investment? More emphasis should be placed on showing the ways in which arcane areas of learning can lead to new insights and define the values of a society, and on the ways skills are transferable to areas that have more immediate application to the needs of society and the workplace.

Value of fundamental science

With the stress on immediacy, producing workers for the new economy and meeting the needs of corporate sponsors, there is little room for truly fundamental science and, in particular, for speculations that lie outside mainstream areas. In the late 1980s, for example, vast numbers of theoretical physicists were engaged in research on superstrings. This had a snowball effect for, with funding readily available in this area and graduate students demanding to do research projects on superstrings, more and more academics left their own areas of theoretical research to join this band-wagon. This situation left little room for the exploration of alternatives such as twistors, pre-space, Clifford and Grassman algebras, etc - a situation that continues to the present day.

Value of new 'edge' studies

Similar to 'orchid' and fundamental science studies, there is little appetite for universities to offer support for those areas that exist at the edges of the traditional disciplines, for example the science of subjectivity.

The role of the Internet in distance education

Can this technology serve as an effective substitute for one on one interaction? To what extent will distance education have to become distance entertainment in order to hold the attention of the students? And what will be the role of the Internet in research and publication? What about issues of plagiarism? What will become of that information that presently exists only in hard copy in specialized libraries and is not available in digital form? Might this be overlooked since it is not easily available to students and researchers?

The incarnation of knowledge

In the world of cyberspace, distance education, and pressures of the market place, knowledge is increasingly in danger of becoming abstracted from daily life. We should remember that we are physical beings, with feelings and bodily sensations. Moreover, we live in specific environments and have relationships and obligations to the community and society that surrounds us. Participants felt that the Pari meeting was unique in that it took place within a rich medieval, physical environment and strongly involved the village community. Future meetings should stress these aspects and remind us that our discussions are talking place within a physical world and that their impacts on society have a moral and ethical dimension.

Compatibility of democracy and scholarship

For many, a fundamental aspect of democracy is mass education. Is this goal, met in part by the university, compatible with the need for, and value of, new learning and scholarship? As governments promise jobs and education that are relevant for careers and incomes, what happens to critical thinking and speculative research?

Compatibility of vocational education and scholarship

Will we evolve to a system of vocational/professional education for the masses at the expense of scholarship or with broader scholarship and learning for those whose concerns are not immediately related to the job market?

Competition and the university

Competition is much trumpeted as leading to a better outcome in a variety of areas. In many cases this works to provide a better product, in keeping with what consumers need and demand. But in what ways will competition lead to better universities? And should we treat students as consumers? If so, in what ways can we make them better informed consumers? And will this be at the cost of the broader and more traditional role and function of the university.

Holistic education for the whole person

With the emphasis on increased specialization, there is a tendency to disregard the notion of 'holistic' education for the whole person. In what ways can we move from educating people to make a living, to educating people to coping with living -- and indeed, be creative with living? Associated with this is the need for true life-long learning, rather than seeing the acquisition of skills information as being confined to a few university years at the start of a career.

Creating new learning

Where does the 'new' originate? What is the source of creativity and innovation? New ideas usually originate in areas at the fringe of established disciplines and are first incorporated in a tentative and sometimes playful ways. When consideration is focussed on the bottom line, will we find that we have cut off an important source of creativity and innovation?

Whose values?

Education can be seen as an emancipatory act. Teaching can be viewed as a moral activity. But can these value-laden views be maintained when the university, or academy, is seen as a way of supplying highly skilled workers, workers valued by society.

III CONCLUSIONS and NEXT STEPS

There was broad agreement that lively and creative discussion had taken place. This was especially true since most of the people around the table met for the first time, had come from different disciplines, different parts of the world and brought different points of view. Yet, while the meeting was rich and valuable, it was clearly only a starting point and all participants felt it was important to discover ways of continuing the discussion and fostering other, similar, encounters.

The sense from the meeting was that some form of actions or activities could and should readily flow from the discussions. These would include:

1. Establish a Mechanism to Facilitate More 'Discussions'

The need for a formal umbrella organization was identified. This would encourage and facilitate more events involving cross-disciplinary exchange. Several participants felt it important that the initial meeting should not lose momentum and suggested meeting twice a year. Not only could smaller groups meet to discuss more specialized topics - such as pre-space, active information and the connection between art and science - but broader groups to consider wider issues. The spirit of the meeting could also be maintained through regular small meetings of those who live more locally, also when any of the original participants happen to be passing through Italy.

The name of Accademia dei Pari was suggested for the group - signifying, in Italian, an academy of equals, but also a pun on the name of the village of Pari. Such a group need not be created within a formal, bureaucratic structure but could be loosely structured, somewhat after the Platonic Academy of Renaissance Florence. Members would come and go depending on the topics to be discussed, while the central core would remain the village of Pari, its people and its "spirit of place". Pari, a medieval town in Italy, seemed to be an ideal location for such a center and reflected the much-supported statement that "the future has an ancient heart". David Peat agreed to act as a coordinator within Pari to encourage further meetings, liase with the village and assist in a search for funding.

It was suggested that the Academy should work in partnership with, or come under the umbrella of, the Pari Center for New Learning. This Center provides an opportunity to explore ideas and to develop new skills through seminars, workshops and courses. It is also dedicated to fostering the cultural and economic development of Pari. While, in part, the Center would support itself through fees for courses, support for the Academy itself may also have to depend on private sponsorship and some public subsidies.

Other suggestions for funding of the Academy and or the Center were made. These included private patronage, donations and a membership or supporter's fee. A more ambitious plan was to see the Academy, and the Pari Center for New Learning, as key players in a program for the overall economic and cultural development of Pari. This Pari Project would be a test case for the economic development of small regions and an alternative to the traditional route of general tourism.

2. Key Principles for Future Events

From the diversity of conversation, consensus emerged around key initial principles that would guide future events of this nature that take place under the broad umbrella of the Accademia dei Pari and the Pari Center for New Learning:

  • ensure a safe and creative milieu for the exchange of ideas
  • provide an effective forum for groups of up to twenty participants
  • integrate art and science, mind and body
  • be in harmony with the town of Pari, honoring and building on its traditions and history
  • foster a setting of mutual respect and complementarily amongst participants and between participants and the citizens of Pari
  • involve citizens of Pari, especially youth, in appropriate/key aspects of the event
  • ground intellectual discussions within the social and human contexts

3. Format Ideas for Future Events

While the Accademia dei Pari could function the traditional ways, as a forum for academics, its novel features should be maintained for future gatherings:

  • integrate quiet times for reflection and contemplation
  • involve the youth and citizens of Pari in appropriate aspects of the agenda
  • recognize the importance of meal time and evening events as complement to/extension of 'meeting times'
  • integrated techniques to optimize safety and trust amongst participants so as to promote risk-taking and creativity
  • provide opportunities for personal fulfillment
  • incorporate stimulation for mind and body
  • complement time for divergent thinking and discussion with a convergent focus
  • complement role of lecture/transmission communication with dialogue and narrative

One of the most interesting (and pleasant) features of the Pari meeting 'The Future of the Academy' was the interaction of the group of participants with the local community. Their hospitality and friendliness was wonderful, very much in the spirit of ancient cultures, where honouring guests was an absolute commandment.

The Associazione "Sette Colli" (The Seven Hills), headed by Tommaso Minacci provided the venue for the meeting itself, in a lovely building at the top of the hill, and accommodation ; some of the (now few) youths helped Maureen and David with the reception and secretarial work, the women of the village provided excellent Italian food; Maestro Dentler's cello concert, organised by David Peat, was attended and immensely appreciated by the people of Pari. This was preceded by an open session in the Parish Church of San Biagio where the meaning and purpose of the meeting was discussed with the township.

On the last night, Sunday 10 Sept., the guests and the town got together for an evening of songs and music, which included folk Tuscan 'stornellate', some quite bawdy, but extremely funny (for those who could appreciate the wit). Sadly, it became clear that no young person from the village (there were many in the audience) knew any of the old songs, and that when the older generation goes, the songs may also go forever.

The next morning, after breakfast, every participant was presented with gifts of local olive oil, wine and honey, three typical and most symbolic gifts in all Mediterranean countries (the expresso coffee powder was an extra from modern Italy). The very spontaneous and easy interaction between participants and the community has been a very valuable aspect of the meeting: everybody felt that it must be encouraged and regarded as an integral part of future activities of the 'Accademia dei Pari'.

Pari's very rich history - reaching back to Etruscan times- its traditional arts and skills, local customs and character, all deserve to be, not only 'preserved', but re-discovered and given new life. This is one important aim of all the participants.

Your comments and reactions are welcome. They can be posted directly in the Discussion Forum on The Future of the Academy.

Those who would be interested in funding or supporting this Academy should write to info@paricenter.com.

(Acknowlegement: Thanks go to Dennise Albrecht for the notes she kept during the meeting and for the writing of this report and to Virginia and Roy McWeeny for writing the paragraphs on local color.)

 
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