The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution

By Nicholas Maxwell

The crisis of our times is that we have science without wisdom. This is the crisis behind all the others. Population growth, the terrifyingly lethal character of modern warfare and terrorism, vast inequalities of wealth and power around the globe, destruction of natural habitats and rapid mass extinction of species, pollution of Earth, sea and air, the impending disasters of climate change – even the elections of Presidents Trump and Putin: all these relatively recent crises have been made possible by modern science and technology.

In order to make progress towards a better world we need to learn how to do it. And for that we need institutions of learning rationally designed and devoted to helping us solve our global problems – make progress towards a better world. It is just this that we lack at present. Our universities pursue knowledge. They are neither designed nor devoted to promoting wisdom, to helping humanity learn how to tackle global problems — problems of living — in more intelligent, humane and effective ways. This is the key disaster of our times, the crisis behind all the others: our failure to have developed our institutions of learning so that they are rationally organized to help us solve our problems of living — above all, our global problems.

Having universities devoted almost exclusively to the pursuit of knowledge is a recipe for disaster. Scientific knowledge and technological know-how have unquestionably brought great benefits to humanity. But they have also made possible — even caused — our current global crises, above all the impending crisis of global warming.

We need urgently to bring about a revolution in universities around the world so that their basic aim becomes to promote wisdom, and not just acquire knowledge – wisdom being the capacity to achieve what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom including knowledge and technological know-how, but much more besides. A basic task of the university would be to articulate our problems of living – including our global problems – and propose and critically assess possible solutions, possible actions, policies, political programmes, ways of living. Public education about what our problems are, and what we need to do about them, conducted by means of discussion and debate, would be a central task of the university. Social inquiry and the humanities would be conducted so as actively to help improve major problematic social endeavours, such as politics, industry, agriculture and finance, so that these endeavours become less harmful and more genuinely beneficial. Almost every department and aspect of the university needs to be transformed.

Dr. Nicholas Maxwell, University College London

Nicholas Maxwell
[email protected]
Science and Technology Studies
University College London

5 Replies to “The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution”

  1. Perhaps humans need to go back to square one and see what can be changed in their way of thinking which would concur with that which occurs in nature. The previous sentence may sound confusing and far-reaching, but the nature of things are simple in their complexities. It wasn’t a stretch for Darwin to link humans to nature, and his rendition about the Descent of Man has never been taken out of the religious context into which it has fallen.

  2. For all social and natural sciences pertaining to human economic activities, I suggest the following: a new physical law: if any use of material or living environment makes money, it should be investigated as possibly and ultimately destructive of that environment and/or of that living species, and very probably of the ecosystem which is linked to these.

    Why? Because all human economies that do not generate positive trophic flows in the ecosystem are ultimately unsustainable and lead to collapse (of the economy, and in the worst case scenario, of the ecosystem itself). This is based on our growing understanding of the role of human role as a hyper-keystone species in maintaining positive trophic flows and maintaining species diversity.

    1. My view is that, in order to solve the grave global problems that face us, we need (a) to get clear about what the problems are, and (b) propose and critically assess possible solutions – from the standpoint of choosing those which, if implemented, solve the problem in a way which is effective, just, intelligent, and humane. We need to get our governments to proceed in this way. Above all, governments need to act to transform power-production, transport, industry, agriculture, use of power (for heating buildings for example) so that emissions of CO2 drop to zero as soon as possible.

  3. We do definitely need to see ourselves as a part of the natural world – and we should see human learning as a development, and improvement, of animal learning. Animals learn how to live – how to solve problems of living – and that is where we should put the emphasis too. Animals fail, however, to improve their basic aims in life. Those aims are set by evolution: survival and reproductive success. We have the possibility of improving our basic aims in life: not just survival, but survival, and the flourishing, of life of value; not just reproductive success – nor just reproductive success reinterpreted as reproduction of things we have produced (businesses, books, ideas, etc), but reproductive success within the limits that the planet can cope with without the degradation of the rest of the natural world. Given that we have been created by Darwinian evolution, which assigns a fixed aim to animals and does not encourage evolution of basic aims, we have reasons to suppose it will be difficult for us to improve basic aims as we live. I believe this to be the case – both at the individual level, and at the group, social and institutional levels. Indeed, our current global problems have arisen because we have been unable to modify aims millions (or billions) of us pursue, when undesirable consequences of our aims, our actions, emerge. Hence my thesis: we need a new kind of inquiry designed to help us improve our life aims and methods as we live, so that we may both realize what is genuinely of value to us in life, and together make social progress towards a better world.

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