Most well-established states have universities. It is widely known that a successful tertiary education system is a pre-requisite for states seeking to thrive in the contemporary world. There is intense rivalry between universities which compete for high places in a number of global ranking exercises.
A common understanding of why successful states need good universities rests on a belief that they are there to provide the skills required by modern societies. Governments both here in the United Kingdom and elsewhere harp on about the need for universities to equip students with the skills required in government and in the international market place.
Recently another perspective has gained prominence. Universities it is said, must provide students with the 'student experience' that they want. What universities supply, on this view, must be what the student market dictates.
What is often overlooked in these narrowly functional views of universities is the ethical role they play. I am not referring here to the ethical (and sometimes spiritual) leadership role played by individuals associated with particular universities, such as that provided by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an alumnus of King’s College London, who played such a key role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
What I wish to highlight here is the ethical role played by universities themselves and a fortiori, by all who participate in them.
Skills vs ethics
In considering what universities are for, too little attention has been paid to the ethical role played by all who participate in them. The focus on the learning of useful skills often obscures the ethical dimension of university life.
On becoming a scholar at a university a student becomes a participant in a social institution committed to the search for knowledge. Participants in universities do not understand their institutions to be mere conveyor belts of accepted truths, but places where truth claims, propositions, theories, understandings and explanations, for all kinds of things and events, are subject to critical scrutiny.
It is this critical dimension that distinguishes universities from schools and training colleges. All participants in universities regard themselves as engaged in a search for knowledge. That search may concern grand questions about the origins of life and of the universe, but may also be about more everyday questions to do with implementing health policies or designing better street lighting.
The search for knowledge that is the core goal of university researchers requires a very specific set of social arrangements among those doing the searching. What is required is a safe space for vigorous argument back and forth in which to present different positions, theories and understandings for scrutiny by other scholars.
This academic contest requires of the participants that they adhere to a sophisticated set of rules. Each participant must be accorded a voice to put forward propositions to be tested by others.
This freedom must be accompanied by the participants being publicly committed to honesty in the presentation of arguments and the setting up of experiments. Plagiarism is prohibited. The proper citation of the arguments of others on which a given conclusion rests, must be made. There must be an open dissemination of the product of scholarly research. Hiding or obscuring important findings and arguments is forbidden, and so on.
The full setting out of the social rules of the practice within which free pursuit of knowledge is possible is beyond the scope of this article. But the central point is that, taken together, these rules constitute a set of ethical relationships between all those engaged in the central activity of university life. They are ethical in that for the participants, by abiding by these rules, they are creating and upholding values that are fundamental to what they understand themselves to be.
The ethical values of free speech, academic freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom to publish and intellectual property rights, are not only of importance for those who participate directly in university life, but are fundamental to free societies more generally.
For those who consider themselves free, an ethical value of great importance is the value of truth. They consider it an ethical affront for others, individuals or governments, to deceive them or to keep them from knowing the truth about all matters of importance to them. Thus universities may be understood as putting into practice ethical commitments of fundamental importance to all.
Of course, those people who constitute a given university may fail to uphold the ethical values that are fundamental to the pursuit of knowledge. They can do this in any number of ways: by censoring some voices, by denying scholars access to the relevant literature, by discriminating against certain scholars on grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, gender and so on, by tolerating plagiarism, and by physically threatening others, and so on.
They may undermine the core values by 'dumbing down' their activities, or by selecting people to participate on grounds other than intellectual merit, and so on.
What follows from this argument is that for universities properly to fulfil their ethical role they simply need to do all they can to advance knowledge. What has to be avoided is changing the institution in the direction of a training centre or a place for a pleasurable student experience or a place that advances some narrowly preconceived ideology which might be a religious one or a secular one.
The ethical duty of universities is to question truth claims, to seek explanations, to find good understandings, and not to propound one or another doctrine without question.
Mervyn Frost is professor of international relations in the department of war studies at King’s College London, UK.
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