I can’t actually ever remember a time when I didn’t feel drawn to teaching, even as a kid. When I originally came to Macquarie as an undergrad student it was to become a teacher, a history teacher.
I had a career in sport, I had a career in the insurance industry, I had a career in the music industry, and then I decided to do post grad study which was also in history. Somehow a series of accidents led me into teaching and then into becoming a business school lecturer.
Starting out as a teacher I wish I’d been told I just have to be myself. There’s no need to be worried about your performance as a teacher. For many many years, before every class I would be a bundle of nerves trying to look like some generic academic teacher, instead of just being an authentic me, and teaching in a way that works for me and has students engaged.
I think a big reason why I was brought to Macquarie was because of the research I do on wisdom, which is really quite unique. I became interested in knowledge, and then I started doing work on wisdom. Most of my focus has been on how you develop wisdom in leaders or potential leaders.
It has to be a very practical and applied process. I have a group of colleagues I research with all around the world and Australia. At the moment we’re researching an ancient Aristotelian concept called habitus, more recently made famous by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Habitus is an internal system of habits, or a system of dispositions.
Habitus is a kind of unconscious or subconscious set or system of dispositions that we all carry around and there’s an individual and a social component to it. Because it’s subconscious, we’re barely even aware of these assumptions we make about what’s good and what’s bad, or of our automatic impulses to act in particular ways in particular situations.
What we’re looking at currently is how can a person get into that system of disposition or system of habits and interrogate it? Decide what they need to change, and how do they change it, so very contemplative ways of interrogating these sorts of things are a very big part of that. I’ve introduced mindfulness meditation into my teaching and linked to this we’re also concerned about the role of time. Why is a semester 13 weeks, with a two hour lecture and a one hour tutorial every week except the first week?
Why is it always at the same time every week and is that more time than we need or is it less time than we need? Does it actually need to be structured like this for people to learn? You have to get beyond the idea that each student is a bucket and we’re tipping knowledge into them at the appointed time. Knowledge is nice but sense making and meaning and critical analytical ability and the ability to make decisions, and commit to a particular course of action are really important in wisdom.
There is no reason to think having this three hours a week for 13 weeks is actually a great idea if wisdom is what you’re after. Ultimately universities are the natural home for producing wisdom and we have completely and utterly lost sight of that.
We’re into mass production of capabilities or worse learning objectives. What we’re seeing emerging now in Australian universities is a two-tier system. There’s a mass production degree, where the student is doing a degree because that’s what they’ve been told to do, and they’re not really committed to knowledge or wisdom and the university is chasing money through. Then there are the more elite programs, particularly at a postgraduate level that are much more intellectually demanding and also much closer to what we would think of as wisdom as belonging in a university. Yet both versions of the degree are in the same faculty and same discipline. It’s an admission of failure really.
I’m kind of concerned about where we’re going and the automatic assumption that what we need to do is further technologise learning. I’m not against technology, but technology is just an enabler. The bottom line is, if you’re really committed to knowledge and learning and if you’re really committed to translating learning into a way of living, including a way of working, then it includes tacit knowledge, and tacit knowledge includes and is irreducible from a learning and teaching experience that involves direct human contact, eyeball-to-eyeball. Seen from a wisdom perspective, there is an intimacy to the learning process that industrialised teaching can’t do.
We have to get out of this snobbish mode where we look down on the notion of an apprenticeship or mentoring. If we want wise leaders and wise CEOs and wise politicians then we actually have to revisit that notion.
I admit this is difficult in a mass education system, but we shouldn’t use that as an automatic excuse. There should be no excuses for why a university is not pursuing intellectual and social excellence. There are no excuses, that’s why we’re here. We might fail in pursuing excellence on some occasions for all sorts of practical reasons, limited resources, the limited leadership capacity, weak strategic management, but we should have a shot at it, every time, without fail. That’s our job, the university is the natural home of wisdom development.
If we just go down the road of producing quick or easy degrees, I can think of three or four global consulting firms who could do that in half the time and for half the price. But we’re a university, we’re actually about excellence and we’re actually about committing to a set of intellectual values that are located within excellence and that’s what should guide us.
If I ask myself the question, given what we do and how we do it, does the world really need us? Every year I get closer and closer to saying no it doesn’t, because if all we’re doing is producing a standardised commodity, which universities are actually poorly designed to do we become irrelevant. We need the kind of intellectual leadership in the universities that understands this problem and who have the wisdom to say that despite all the constraints we think we can get us back on the track again, towards excellence, and towards reinstating ourselves as the natural home of wisdom development.
Well I’m committed to saying provocative things, and it’s actually my job, and we need more academics to say provocative things, including provocative things about their own universities. Wisdom is in very short supply at the moment and universities need to do all they can to remedy this because no other institution is designed to do it for us.