Bringing back the true meaning of universitas

By Dr Caroline Stockman, Research Fellow

Some questions in life cut across traditional divisions in academia. What is culture? Who is the global citizen, if he exists at all? What is considered progress and decay in our society? Such questions lie at the heart of the values held by all human kind. They cannot be ‘owned’ by a particular discipline. They are deeply personal, and yet shared.

Academic research has recognised the great merits of interdisciplinary studies, and certainly Cultural Studies (or cultural studies?) welcomes a broad horizon. Now also in the educational organisation of higher education, a critical investigation of these questions can take place in a non-departmental set-up, and a liberated teaching mode.

The University of Winchester has celebrated the launch of the Institute for Value Studies, which has now run its first term with modules such as Culture: High and Low, and Cosmopolitanism: Political Values in the Age of Globalization. Each of its modules is open to all students and staff at the university, from any department or faculty. Crucial is the commitment to liberal education, of which ‘value studies’ is one form.  It was developed by Dr Peter Hajnal, Dr Thomas Nørgaard and their colleagues at the European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA) in Berlin between 2003 and 2011. The work was supported by the Endeavor Foundation in New York. Based on the Value Studies curriculum, ECLA was recognized as a German university in 2011. (Soon after, ECLA got a new owner and became Bard College Berlin.)

So in each module, a small group (maximum 12 in total)  of staff and students from different departments convene weekly to engage with value questions about politics, culture, ethics, art, religion, education and humanity in general. Key to the teaching philosophy is genuine and democratic conversation around primary reading. The atmosphere is intimate and yet totally open, personal, yet rationally grounded. It is a social space of collaborative reflection.

So imagine a class of fully engaged academics (students and staff alike), an active conversation between like-minded people, around questions which intrinsically matter to us all. In Culture: High and Low, this means active engagement with primary texts of Matthew Arnold, Ruth Benedict, TS Eliot, Raymond Williams, Neil Postman, McKenzie, Roger Scruton, Terry Eagleton, and many more. From the course description: “The distinction between high and low, or highs and lows, runs like a red thread throughout the module and invites us to reflect on our basic assumptions about progress, decadence and hierarchy.

The core premise is that we are intrinsically linked through that invisible web of meaning that shapes our life. Therefore we all have equal rights to engage with theory, and perhaps a moral duty to address the central values and questions of human life together, in a free-flowing, meaningful conversation. A community of learning tackling “the whole, total, the universe, the world” through reading, reflection and conversation. Bringing back the true meaning of universitas.

We welcome collaboration and new ideas – get in touch if you’re interested.