Vice-Chancellor’s blog : When the journey is the destination
No, I was not the only one looking forward to Ulf Danielsson’s visit and contribution to the university-wide seminar series on Bildung. That much was clear as I snuck into the lecture theatre – late due to other engagements, only to be left standing in the back. On my honour, I believe all schools and most of our departments were represented in the auditorium.
It takes a master to bring their audience on a journey between stumbling into ditches and star gazing in a way that not only makes time fly, but also provides so much food for thought that then and there, more questions than usual are being asked. Indeed, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
While working on our vision, there was unequivocal input from a number of groups at our university saying yes, Bildung is important to us. On the one hand, it is an extremely current topic, with fake news and populist movements running strong. On the other hand, Bildung is something that should be inherent in our DNA, in our capacity as an organism of knowledge. That’s the very reason we chose to formulate a strategic goal surrounding Bildung as a part of the development area high-quality education. But if you listened carefully at the seminar (actually you didn’t have to listen very hard for Ulf’s message to sink in), that, in a way, is a paradox in itself. That is, for something which in its very essence is eternal and a continuous process to be defined in terms of goals.
Of course, we put ourselves in that situation, because in many ways we believe in the idea of management by objective. And yes, we can discuss the pros and cons of any governance process, but in this case there is no denying that the objective of integrating the Bildung perspective on all our courses and study programmes has generated discussions and initiatives that perhaps would not have been generated at all – or would have taken longer to get going. At any rate, it would not have been such a focused discussion as is the case, that’s for sure.
“What do you mean ‘focused’?” I hear you say. “Is anything happening at all? The Bildung goal is very elusive. There is no definition, nor have we produced a toolkit with general tips and tricks for individual lecturers to use? The faculties haven’t even conducted their pilots yet, and that was top of the general agenda. From a ‘tick list’ perspective, it’s a massive failure. ‘Bureaucracy’ – that virtual world – has suffered a heavy blow. Take that!”
But I just don’t subscribe to that narrative. There is some truth to it, yes. The faculties have not ticked their pilot boxes. Very early on, proposals were put forward for a common definition of Bildung, something we haven’t done either. You may ask, why not? My answer would be, because I don’t think that’s what it’s about. It’s not necessarily about the destination, it’s about the journey. Or to tie in with what Ulf said: If the destination is your only goal, there’s a risk that the satisfaction of committing and dedicating yourself to something becomes secondary.
Now, don’t think for a moment that I buy everything he says, Mr Danielsson. I may not be as categorical as some, but we could perhaps at least agree that the good old days were not all good. I can see striking similarities between my parents’ perplexities in relation to the technology of the day (“You’re like zombie with that Walkman!” or “Do you have to be on the phone all the time? Other people might need to use it. And the phone cord gets all tangled!”) and my own struggle to accept my son’s digital way of life. In the same way, we need to take a good look at ourselves and how we view new study habits and other ways of seeking and managing knowledge than those that we were brought up with.
At the same time, I think the basic arguments are spot on. You know that feeling when you are onto something really good? Maybe it’s just me, but you can feel the buzz. To me, that’s the feeling that Ulf describes; that whatever you do and whatever you learn have to really mean something, so that you can actually feel it and that it has a bearing on your entire being; that some fundamental knowledge and skills are necessary for sure, and they have to become automated to enable you to make plausibility assessments, but also to give wings to your thoughts; and that if your thoughts are to reach any further than to your own back yard, you also need to know about the commonplaces over the hedge.
What has been clear in our follow-ups of the work surrounding Bildung is that we all find ourselves in very different places. (Yes, we do follow-ups of the initiatives taken to meet the goal we have set!) Some are working to identify what Bildung might be on their particular courses and study programmes, in collegial discussions. Others have integrated the Bildung perspective in new programme syllabuses. Irrespective of where we are, it matters. We can’t stay in one place, we can always get further. But I don’t think we’ll ever reach our destination. At least I hope so. Because once we’ve got there, our “destination” inevitably needs to be redefined. To once more follow onto Ulf’s thoughts, Bildung does not provide instant gratification. It requires reflection, it’s a slow process. There will never be a quick fix along the lines of “having the engineers study fiction”. Although in the right setting that may well be a good idea.
We also need to discuss how to present our courses and study programmes and their content to prospective and current students, because we don’t believe that university studies is an information-packed highway towards a profession. University studies should also be allowed to take the form of a meandering forest path, lined with berries and mushrooms waiting to be picked, followed by unexpected precipices, puddles, sunny clearings, open skies and perhaps even a troll, where experiences are turned into the good narratives that make sense of the world. Where there might be rain, despite your weather app predicting the opposite.
PS This does not mean that we won’t continue to follow up on our defined areas of development and goals, I think you all know that. We just need to adapt our approach a little, depending on the question. DS