Thursday, 2 July 2009

Up and Down the Oxford Road

The other big theme of the conference is what Universities might be for as we begin to head into the twenty first century. Are we trainers, focused on providing the future work force? Are we cultural enrichers looking to provide students with the passions and interest to sustain them through life? Are we a field of experts for legislators to lean on? Are we pioneers, divorced from immediate society, leading the way with new developments in medicine, computing, the humanities and sciences? Are we the bastions of genuine 'authenticity' in a world increasingly focused by careful considerations of responsibility? Or are we part of GB plc, clear of our accountability, roles and procedures and contributing to the solidity of our nation as a cultural product? If any trend is discernible, it's that we're coming out of this corporate phase and looking forward to a more entrepreneurial future, which has the confidence to reinvent its own, standards and terms of reference.

The opening debate this morning focused on whether we should abandon academic disciplines and focus on learning about learning. Society has never seemed so fluid and perhaps our only wise course of action is to encourage our students to, in the words of Piaget 'know what to do when they don't know what to do.' I think this is sensible, but it doesn't negate the need to teach something be it skills, technique, strategy or knowledge. After all at core our role as academics is to find things out and tell other people about them. I hope we might be about to return to enlightenment principles, allowing disciplines to tear down the walls between them. To really see the poetry in science and the geometry of art. To look for the unities that helps us make sense of the world and make sure however fast we spin and in however many different directions we go we look out for each other.

After hours I found myself catching a bus down to Didsbury, where my own teacher training took place and then, following my own desire paths, meandered back the five miles up the Oxford Road, prompting many memories of Withington, Fallowfield, Rusholme, Whitworth Park and the Victorian University. I used the walk to think about why teaching remains so important to me and why sixteen years on from my PGCE I'm still enthrall to education as a process. It was a symbolic journey from where I was to where I am - as much about time, as psycho-geography.

I guess these acts, walking and teaching, useless in themselves, are linked to mortality and the profound sense I have that the days need not only to be filled, but cherished and made full. Is there anything more to learning than the struggle to keep alive a sense of life's romance? Surely the most enjoyable of times are to be had when conquests are achieved or treasures uncovered.

This would be enough, but there is more. After all it's only through the journey, through the project, through working out the problem together that we see our friends and fellow travellers in action and at their bravest best. If education is not about change it's not about anything, and it's certainly life affirming to celebrate personal developments with students, but more than that it's a privilege to be able to spend so much time working with them on visions for our future, readying them to have a crack at making them a tangible reality. I'm not sure what else there is to do! Maybe the only thing teachers can teach is how to learn?

Time to head back South.

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