Came across this interesting speech, Idea of a University for the XXIst Century, by Professor Mark Eyskens, former Prime Minister of Belgium, during the conference of the International Association of University Presidents on July 12th 1999. It’s a lengthy essay that veers in many different directions throughout but offers some thought-provoking discussion about the numerous conditions effecting universities and the role they should take to adapt. Here is an excerpt:
The present evolution of the cognitive processes and their application in the knowledge and network society force the universities to review the relationship between specialisation and general training, between analysis and synthesis and, even more fundamentally, between a scientific enquiry which focuses only on the how, and an intellectual approach which also asks why and which does not reject a value assessment of thought and action.
Specialism and generalism
The only statement in my doctoral thesis on economics, which I wrote many years ago, which proved to be really important was not one of my own sentences but one written by John Stuart Mill. This British economist, who lived from 1806 to 1873, using a premeditated lofty idiom, stated that, ‘A man is not likely to be a good economist if he is nothing else’.
This declaration of principle has followed me, surrounded me and besieged me for the last 36 years. Because either you try to look out over the parapets which surround the ‘vegetable garden’ of your knowledge, in which case you are derisorily termed a ‘generalist’, a dabbling dilettante, someone who knows less and less about more and more. Or you dig ever more deeply into the soil of your own vegetable garden, and then you are referred to sarcastically as a narrow-minded specialist, someone who knows more and more about less and less.
Creative originality or ‘conventional wisdom’?
The young researcher, driven by the ambition of pushing back boundaries and breaking new ground, faces a terrible dilemma. Either he formulates something new and arrives at an original result or innovative insight; in that case there is the maximum risk that the result of his research is completely wrong and false. Or he builds a scientific argument the conclusion of which convinces through pertinence and hypothetical-deductive and mathematical-logical correctness, and then there arises a maximum probability that his research is not original, and that he is parading old ideas as new ones. As a consequence, the young researcher faces a forked road that, whichever choice he makes, will plunge him into a bottomless fatum: either his thesis is correct but sadly banal, or it is original but hopelessly false.