CGHE Seminar 39

Critical thinking, university autonomy, and societal evolution; thoughts on a research agenda

  • Gordon Redding, UCL Institute of Education

Societies appear to progress to modern levels of economic and social quality to the extent that they are able to foster within people high capacities to think for themselves, to reach informed judgments and to persuade others.

At the political level there is also a need to hold the society together while at the same time adjusting its workings to allow for evolutionary change. This entails a balancing act in which at times of change there are tensions to be resolved, or lived with.

One such tension is the current one between fostering critical thinking and responding to pragmatic logics such as those of the labour and finance markets. The capacity to manage such stresses may be shaped by the society’s cultural and civilizational heritage.

Although homo sapiens have evolved with high levels of consciousness and intentionality, these come to be enacted differently between societies, leaving some societies more prone to conformism under certain precipitating conditions.

It has been the traditional role of HE to assist societies in such transformations. This entails transferring the heritage, while re-interpreting it, so as to enhance two societal capacities needed for stable continued evolution: innovativeness and cooperativeness.

For this task universities need high levels of autonomy, or ‘actorhood’, so as to be able to counter the pressures from competing external interests. This provides a basis for comparing universities and their societal contexts.

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Gordon Redding

Gordon Redding

Gordon Redding is a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the UCL Institute of Education. He works on comparative societal systems and the question of societal progress. He spent 30 years in Asia and founded and directed the University of Hong Kong Business School, and he was Director of the HEAD Foundation (Education for Asian Development) in Singapore. He also worked in France as Director of INSEAD’s Euro-Asia Centre. He recently co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Asian Business Systems and is co-editing a forthcoming Oxford Handbook on HE Systems and University Management.

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