Imagining new imaginaries for the university

Are we so caught up in the vagaries of this increasingly strange moment in history that we’ve lost our ability to imagine a different kind of future?

My colleague, Dr. Annie McCarthy, was telling me recently that in one of her lectures, she asked the class to raise their hands if they felt it was possible to conceive of another way of doing things: a different political model perhaps, or a way out of capitalism. No one raised their hands. She wasn’t asking them to come up with a solution, she was only asking them if they thought an alternative solution was possible. They didn’t. And it made us wonder, as we sat pondering this – are we seeing a shift away from explicitly imagining alternatives to the status quo?1 Are we even still capable, as a society, of envisaging these alternative imaginaries?

Reimagining the university

This is the key question that Professor Ronald Barnett, a Philosopher of Higher Education, has been pursuing in his work for many years already. In two of his more recent books, ‘Imagining the University’ and ‘The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia’ he puts forth the argument for optimism, positing that there is a better way for universities; that if we can imagine it, we can make it happen, because imagination is based both in the present and in the future:

“It is not that the utopian imagination does not live in the real world, but that it does not live only in this world. Consequently, a test of the utopian imagination is the extent to which it opens new ideas of the university, and the extent to which those ideas open themselves to evolution along the planes of being of the university.” 

Referencing Foucault, Barnett contends in Imagining the University that there is a ‘discursive regime’ – i.e. a way of speaking and discussing ideas that is so pervasive as to become inescapable – at play in discussions of universities (and indeed, the world at large) that precludes the consideration of alternatives to neoliberalisation, marketisation and capitalism more broadly. But systematic application of the imagination can create ideas, and “ideas can change reality, for ideas can turn into reasons for action, which in turn can become causes of change”.

Barnett has used this sense of the future imaginary to come to a conclusion about what kind of future university he would like to see – something that he calls, ‘the ecological university’ (even naming his most recent book after it, as mentioned above). An ecology, in biology at least, refers to the set of relationships existing between organisms and their environment (including with other organisms). But the term has been thoroughly appropriated as a metaphor by social scientists to refer to the relationships that exist within complex systems, such as within universities, and between those systems and their environment, such as the way a university is interconnected with broader society.

This is the key move in The Ecological University. Barnett posits that universities are interconnected with, and implicated within, at least seven different ‘zones’ of the world: 1) economic (currently the most dominant zone, overshadowing all others) 2) knowledge 3) learning 4) culture 5) persons 6) society more broadly and 7) the natural world. By more evenly redistributing the attention universities pay to these seven zones of their ecology, they will not only come to realise their full potential as institutions that have ‘an active concern for the whole Earth; even the universe’, but will also always be emerging, never fully realised, and therefore constantly adaptable to new circumstances as the world moves forward.

Practical Imaginaries and Appreciative Inquiry

I like both these books for their insistence on the possibility of positivity. However, while they are more interested in the big picture ideologies of these possible future universities, in this post I’m also interested in how the hearts and minds of the people who work in universities could be moved to embrace this new imaginary. This is something I’ve discussed at length with a colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Bonnie Milne, a lecturer with a longstanding international career in and out of academia. Bonnie’s key life and work philosophies are linked to ‘appreciative inquiry’, and I think this could be one of the missing links between where we are in universities now, and what Ronald Barnett imagines us becoming. I asked Bonnie one day how she would use appreciative inquiry to improve a university.  Later, I made notes, because I found what she said really striking:

Bonnie’s focus is on action – action research, student-centred teaching, consultancy that gets things done and enables change. I asked her, if she was in charge of a modern-day university, what would she do to change it? She told me she would hold an appreciative inquiry summit. Appreciative inquiry works on the basis that every person is already whole and that they already have the capacity to solve their own problems. It’s a means of helping people to help themselves by asking them questions about when things have gone well, their most positive experiences, their aspirations based on real things that they’ve seen work. Using these positives, they can then work out the path to how they can achieve those things in the situation they are trying to improve. Appreciative inquiry does not offer advice or solutions, it only offers questions for the participants to find their own solutions.

So an appreciative inquiry summit would involve getting the entire university staff into a single space and asking them about times or examples when their university has been the best version of itself, when it has really lived up to its values in the most positive ways, provided the best experience for students, the most positive times for staff, and then using that, and through the experience of everyone’s involvement, you would help everyone at the university to take responsibility for making the university better, and change people’s attitudes of learned helplessness.

What would it take for universities to employ this particular kind of positivity? A charismatic leader? A reduction in workloads that would allow people more brain space to think positively? More money? I’m not sure. But I think it could be the beginnings of a first imaginative step. In some ways, it’s not even that big a leap from the current neoliberal philosophy in universities – encouraging people to help themselves – but with the ecological ideology of Barnett’s ideas mixed in – helping people help themselves, in order to help others and help make the ecology better.

Imagining the future

Imagination and the imaginaries of various social worlds have long been a point of interest for anthropologists. Often, however, this is the imagination of either the past – filling in the blanks of history with ethnographic imagination – or the present – using the sociological notion of ‘imaginaries’ to denote ‘a broad understanding of the way a given people imagine their collective social life’. It’s not often enough, in my opinion, that we use our imaginative toolkit to look to the future – and to envisage options that can, at the very least, give us hope for the future of our public institutions, and not least, the university.

As always, please let me know what you think, either in the comments below, by email, or on Twitter or Facebook.

[Feature image: Blue Sky Thinking by Dr. Annie McCarthy – Menzies Building 2005, Monash University. Reproduced with permission from the photographer]

  1. Not to say that no-one is doing this – sociologist Erik Olin Wright even has a book called ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’ about this very thing: []

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