Universities in a Changing World 5: The Pull of History


December 3rd, 2013

no comments

What does a university education mean?

How well do universities transmit – or perhaps – translate this message for the modern world. And in this very diverse world, are there many meanings, a few, or just one? Let’s explore this.

As an 18 year old leaving Wales for academe, I was encouraged to believe the maxim “get an education and get out” . Wales held few prospects – even speaking Welsh was frowned upon as deviance – in an era when nationalism was rampant. Does History repeat itself as Scotland prepares for a possible independent future? What then for Scottish Academe?

Some Scottish institutions are older than most English ones, with a strong tradition derived from carrying “the message” to the uninitiated starting in the 15th Century. It is no accident, I believe that Scotland is so closely associated with taking engineering across the world.

Bologna is reputed as the oldest university – even older than our proud Oxford. Interestingly, it started as a series of groups called ‘nations’ that protected people from other lands who wanted to study Canon Law and other religious thinking in Italy.  Oxford is nearly as old, and similar in its early fascination with religious thought, which led to riots with local citizenry, and academic dispute that is believed to have resulted in break-away academics decamping to Cambridge.

Much of this proud tradition of dissent is lost but we can trace modern examples in the 60s (CND or ‘Ban the Bomb’) and political unrest – notably at more red-brick institutions like LSE, Essex and Sussex. Indeed the crime of ‘nuisance’ was prosecuted to curb the activities of those fomenting unrest in the 17th Century. For the most part this ‘political activism’ has been condemned over the ages using words like anti-social or undemocratic, and we have seen a strong tendency in the UK to see such dissent as improper – note how the press often reports on protest activities as if minority views were – in some way – misguided.

We can point to examples where protest has succeeded even more recently – mostly dogged perseverance – even today, but perhaps it should concern us that students who are (perhaps) more dependant and the law (and society) is less forgiving. Who can remember what happened to Trenton Oldfield?

So what? You might say.  Perhaps you would agree that new ideas and dissent are close relatives – new thinking coms from questioning the accepted order. Discovery comes from challenging the accepted paradigm. If that’s true, our universities need to encourage the qualities of subversion that undermine what  exists to replace it with something different – and possibly better.

Often organisational change follows the same path of difference, guided by the participative methods of Organisation Development. The history of universities and those within them provides a clear sense of the value of a university education. It can also help us draw attention to the risks inherent in unthinking conformity.

When I see young people today challenging the traditional models of employment – even in difficult circumstances – I am heartened that instrumentality is recognized as another mechanism of political influence: newly educated people will continue to challenge the norms of the day. Recognising this enables us to engage in debate whilst acknowledging difference – something the world sorely needs just now.

As practitioners in OD, what is our role in saluting and using the pull of history?



















As long as companies see maximizing profits as their purpose they will be unethical. Moral purpose – doing good, not doing harm, giving to society