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Broadening the curriculum

Toward liberal knowledge

Author - John Heywood


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A second point about specialisation arises from the desire of governments to increase the supply of qualified manpower in particular fields. The experience of the last 60 years is that manpower forecasting is both difficult and hazardous. During some of my research in the early 1960s I found that a factory in the English Electric Group that made turbines and the like for power stations wanted a local university to provide a high level master’s qualification in welding. It required about eight such engineers but did not offer that university any other source of supply making the development of such a degree impracticable. Two years later that factory was closed. Shortly afterwards the North Sea Oil and Gas industry where such engineers would be needed began. Last week the British announced plans to build huge offshore wind farms and claimed to be the leaders of the technology in the field. But they also said that there was a shortage of appropriately qualified manpower that might inhibit the attainment of the project’s goals. The question should be not whether there is a shortage and what to do about it but what generic skills are needed and who possesses them? Industry should look beyond the titles of qualifications. Market forces will then do the rest.

Experience of the problems of employment in response to socio-technological change seems to have convinced politicians and pundits that workers need to be more adaptable and flexible. At the same time they have offered very few thoughts on how to create a social system in which people can with confidence be adaptable and flexible. Clearly changes in attitude will be required by both employers and employees and these will not come about lightly nor in the short run. What then can higher education do to help the changes that are required?

In the first place policy toward higher education has to change. It has to be about the common good and not simply a device for producing economic prosperity. It has to be about social and personal well being. That can only come about from an education that is broad based, by this I mean one that has as one of its primary aims the enlargement of the mind. That I propose is done in two ways, the development of a knowledge base that runs hand in hand with the development of a skills base.

In The Idea of a University Newman proposed a theory of liberal education that had as one of its primary aims ‘the enlargement of mind’ with which he associates the terms ‘philosophy’ and ‘wisdom’.[8] It seems to be coincident today with what many educators call ‘the development of the whole person.’ The argument presented here is that because knowledge has become increasingly fractionalised there is a need for an education beyond school that re-asserts the primacy of ‘enlargement of mind’ as a goal of education. Such an education is necessary in the sense that it should help the student to ‘connect views of the old with the new;’ indeed with the current explosion of knowledge one might add the new with the new. Its purpose is to give ‘insight into the bearing and influence of each part upon every other, without which there could be no whole […] It is knowledge not only of things but of their mutual relations.’ […] ‘enlargement consists in the comparisons of the subjects of knowledge one with another. We feel ourselves to be ranging freely, when we not only learn something, but when we also refer it to what we know before.’ This would seem to be consistent with that present-day view of learning that it is the process by which experience develops new and reorganises old responses. This is clearly what happens or should happen within courses. Without it there could be no development or movement within a course but demonstrating that knowledge has been acquired is no guarantee that there has been enlargement. Newman said

it is not the mere addition to our knowledge which is the enlargement, but the change of place, the movement onwards, of that moral centre, to which what we know and what we have been acquiring, the whole mass of our knowledge, as it were, gravitates. And therefore a philosophical cast of thought, or a comprehensive mind, or wisdom in conduct of policy implies a connected view of the old with the new; an insight into the learning and influence of each part on every other; without which there is no whole, and could be no centre. It is the knowledge, not only of things, but of their mutual relations. It is organized, and therefore living knowledge.

(Sermon 14: Wisdom, as Contrasted with Faith and with Bigotry)

This insight is to be achieved through a comprehensive or universal knowledge.

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