We must cherish knowledge again

Podium: From the Fawcett Lecture delivered by the philosopher at Senate House, London
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The Independent Culture
IT IS, of course, especially gratifying to be giving a lecture as part of the celebration of the 150 years since the foundation of Bedford College, now an integral and integrated part of Royal Holloway.

So has it really been an age of enlightenment, the last 150 years?

I suppose that, for women, the time when it seemed most obviously so was after the Second World War, when equality of opportunity, freedom from prejudice seemed almost absolute in the universities. Here, you must realise, I speak autobiographically, with my experience drawn from Oxford.

In Oxford at any rate there was, as far as I knew, no prejudice against women, and though our colleges were austere compared with the men's, and we tried to emulate (for example by establishing wine cellars) as far as we were able, we lived the kind of intellectual life of which Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her sister Dame Millicent Fawcett, and Emily Davies, founder of Girton, could only dream.

Yet there still existed, just, a kind of collective memory of the struggles of the past. In the college where I became a fellow, St Hugh's, perhaps because of a slightly rocky past, there were those who could remind us of our good fortune.

I remember being thankful, when my first two children were born, that we had called them, for good family reasons, Kitty and Felix, since my elderly colleagues could ask after them without embarrassment as though they were cats, to the keeping of which many of them were devoted.

Minor anxieties apart, I have no hesitation in saying that the Forties and Fifties constituted an age of enlightenment for everyone in the universities. We were free to pursue knowledge.

So how is it now, 50 years on? In many ways the pioneers would be pleased. Since 1989 women have outperformed men at A-level. The number of women going on to higher education full-time increased, between 1990 and 1995, by 66 per cent, while the number of men increased by only 50 per cent.

Yet I have to express some doubts and anxieties, not about women, but about higher education in general.

In 1991 Douglas Hague, economist and once guru to Margaret Thatcher, published a pamphlet, Beyond Universities: a New Republic of the Intellect. He argued that the current stage of economic development is strongly based on the acquisition, analysis and transmission of information.

Universities will find that they have to share or even give up their role as what he called the "repositories of information." Instead, there will be increasing numbers of private companies set up specifically to collect, process and transmit information globally. This is what he calls the Knowledge Business.

Universities will thus be bypassed both by students and by those in research. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has recognised the threat posed by "for-profit providers of information", and noted that six companies, including Body Shop, British Aerospace and PricewaterhouseCoopers, have established or are about to establish corporate universities, in most cases entirely online, and with degrees or certificates at the end of their courses.

Can the universities, as teaching institutions or institutions of research, compete with such commercial companies, which make up the "knowledge business"?

The threat lies in the belief that information is all we need, or rather that "knowledge" and "information" are interchangeable concepts. "Information" is, of course, part of the vocabulary of cybernetics, and this vocabulary has entered into our lives with extraordinary rapidity.

Many people think not only that the brain of an animal, any animal, is like a computer, not only that many of its workings can be modelled by a computer, but that it really is a computer.

Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Blind Watchmaker, wrote: "Molecules of living things are put together in much more complicated patterns than the molecules of non-living things, and this putting together is done following programmes, sets of instructions for how to develop, which the organisms carry round inside themselves. What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a spark of life. It is information, words, instructions... to understand life, don't think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes. Think about information technology."

We should deliberately cultivate learning in its old sense, the sense in which it was identical with scholarship and was the result of dedication, and issued not in information, but in knowledge and understanding.