I was in London last Wednesday evening for a meeting of a group of Vice-Chancellors with the Shadow Higher Education Minister. On Thursday morning, I walked along the Euston Road to get the 7.00 train to Sheffield, and was soaked to the skin by Storm Ciaran. I’d just about dried off by the time I got to Sheffield, came into City Campus for a couple of meetings and then had to cycle off elsewhere; by this time Storm Ciaran had reached South Yorkshire and I was soaked to the skin again.
On the train on the way to Sheffield, I caught up with emails and a couple of phone calls, and looked through the morning’s news websites: Storm Ciaran and the extent to which it is evidence of a rapidly changing climate; the conflict in the Middle East and the appalling unfolding humanitarian catastrophe; Rishi Sunak’s AI summit, bringing together governments and tech companies to work out a way forward for technologies which few of us understand and which are developing at phenomenal speed. They are all news stories which have some things in common. They draw together the global and the individual: each of them is the result of complex political, technological, and climatic developments, and they each impact on our personal lives. They are all of them extra-ordinarily difficult to understand. In each of them, we read an account and think we understand the core issue and what might be done about it, and then we read another account and our perspective slips, and we feel we lack the apparatus to reach a judgement based on the depth and reflection it deserves. And yet on each of them, there is widespread commentary by people who’ve already made up their minds, for whom there is a straightforward answer if only, if only, we’d take their word for it.
These are, of course, some of the grand challenges of our time. There’s the challenge of reshaping our lives so that we can live them without wreaking havoc on the climate which will make the next generations’ lives unliveable, whilst knowing that whatever we do now, carbon density in the atmosphere will continue to grow for decades to come. Things, to coin a phrase, can only not get better. There’s the challenge of finding ways for disparate communities, riven by historic conflict and injustices, to live together in something which, if it’s not harmony, is at least co-existence. There’s the challenge of harnessing technologies to be our servants and not our masters, whilst all the while understanding that the things which we increasingly take for granted – on-demand services, responsive technologies – depend on algorithms which stereotype and manipulate us in often shadowy or distasteful ways. And of course there are connections between these challenges. The intensity of conflict over land in the Middle East is driven partly by the ways in which climate change is layered on top of a generational conflict; the conflict in the Middle East is deeply technological: and so on and so on. Getting soaked to the skin is the least of it: we are living in a world changing at exceptional speed.
Universities are, of course, as centres of research and debate, deeply involved in all these matters. We are, all of us, communities which are diverse in so many ways, and global in our make-up. We draw on a wide range of perspectives, and part of our richness is the diversity of views which our community contains – diversity of ideas is as important as any other dimension of diversity. But we also need to accommodate differences of view, respecting others even as we disagree with their views and beliefs. And, perhaps most important of all: the issues I was reading about as my suit slowly dried on the train demand deep thought and sustained engagement with different points of view. They demand that we are ourselves reflective and open-minded. In his own comment on the Middle East conflict on Sunday, Barack Obama, whose gift for finding the right words to express a complex idea is perhaps unmatched, said that Americans [and he meant us all] need to find ways to “take in the whole truth”. It’s a good phrase to bring to any of these huge global challenges which increasingly shape our own daily lives, and it demands a lot of each of us: sustained engagement, hard thinking and, yes, openness to views and ideas which we find challenging. “The next necessary thing”, wrote the great American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way.” And both of those things: looking at the ‘whole truth’ and ‘enlarging the possibility of intelligible discourse’ are what universities are about.