Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ideals Versus Industry


George Monbiot makes an interesting observation about the threat to society "when scholars sell out". He explains how our scholars or academics are generally the people who promote and hold on to the the higher values and purer endeavours in the pursuit and use of knowledge. There has been an altruistic element to our higher learning institutions where there is an expectation that the knowledge gained from research and the broadening of intellectual understanding will be used to help advance humanity in a positive way.

Historically, China recognised the value of supporting and educating those with promising intellect and using their knowledge and wisdom to support the governance of their nation at every level. In the past, and especially in Shakespeare's time, academics were held in higher regard than merchants.

Monbiot refers to times in the past, especially during times of war and great conflict,  when ideals and values were set aside by scientists and academics in support of nationalistic or political interests where the result was often great human suffering. He describes how we now live in a market driven world where corporates now dictate to Governments in how they should govern in their interests. While academia held the moral high ground there would always be some comfort that new knowledge would be applied ethically and there would be checks to the excesses of commercial interests.

Monbiot expressed the concern that when our scholars set aside the values previously upheld and put the viability of industry ahead of humanity then we are heading to a dangerous place. When scientists support the fossil fuel industry, as if its economic viability is more important than the future of the planet, then we should be worried.

If humanity is to survive on this planet in a sustainable way then we need to be able to adapt and adjust the manner of our existence to the best of our knowledge. If we narrow our education systems to only supporting the industries of today, and ignore the pursuit of wider knowledge, then we are limiting our ability to adapt to an unknown future. If the funding regimes of today were used to support science research in the past then the discovery of DNA may not have happened. Many important science and technological discoveries are serendipitous and to tie future research to existing industries will only trap us into narrow lines of development. If independent thought, based on a sound value base, isn't encouraged then no one will question current thinking or challenge its validity.

The decline of the Chinese civilisation started when the assessments used for educating their literati became prescriptive rather than open ended and innovative thought was restricted. The capture of our scientists and universities by financiers and industry is following a similar line and the values that once drove the pursuit of knowledge has been corrupted. Sadly this is happening while the threat of climate change becomes a reality and humanity is not positioned well to address it.

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