Universities for the future#

by Maurice Nivat, Paris

Universities have survived several centuries after their creation in Europe in the Middle Ages.

No one can deny that they have played a major rôle in the development of the world. Their existence claims that knowledge is valuable, that military strength is not enough to was a state and that knowledge is universal, that knowledge is not the property of this or that group of people but the property of mankind. Knowledge cannot be inherited, is not acquired by birth but is acquired by learning.

Universities have had to fight against many attempts to impose an official truth or to restrict the right to teach the real truth, totalitarian states have all taken measures to prevent the truth to be taught, to be spread by universities and on matters for which there is no absolute truth, they have taken measures to prevent discussion between various possible theories. In this long fight, universities have eventually won almost everywhere, even if they lost during long periods.
Talking about universities one should always keep in mind that the liberty of thinking is one of the most fundamental human rights.

And one should not believe that the fight of universities to maintain the right of searching and reaching the truth has ended. Traditional enemies of research and free discussion are still there: old religions who oppose faith to doubts (and try to prevent Darwinism to be taught is American schools) but also the « religion of progress » which serves various groups of people or big companies to impose new techniques or new products to the world regardless of the consequences they may have and are mostly unknown, propaganda, thanks to the multiplication of channels has never been in history as intense as it is now, even in the most democratic states.

The art of propaganda (which is the art of lying or at least to present a biased aspect of reality, often based on biased statistics) is even taught in universities under the name of « communication ».

Mass education#

Universities at the beginning and until a recent past were reserved to a minority of « happy few »: in that sense, the university of Paris I have known as a student around looked more like the Sorbonne of the thirteenth century than to any of the fifteen universities which exist now in the Parisian area: in mathematics fifteen professors were teaching no more than fifty students when now hundreds of professors are teaching thousand of students. The opening of universities to a large fraction of the population happened almost everywhere at the same time in the whole world around 1970 and the difficulty of « mass education » is one of the main challenges universities have to face in the future. The huge increase in the number of students is a consequence of a deeper phenomenon which has not reached its ultimate stage: machines, robots, automata of various kind are replacing men and women at work in industry and elsewhere to perform most of the repetitive and clerical tasks. The corresponding increase in productivity results in diminishing the number of jobs , and especially jobs open to unqualified people. The production of wealth is still based mainly on agriculture and industry as it was a century ago but a much smaller number of people are engaged in the production process.
May be one of the main reasons of the fall of the Soviet Empire is that it was relying on workers and peasants as they existed at the time of Karl Marx and the founders of the communist ideology: at the end of the twentieth century workers and peasants no longer existed, or at least from a huge majority of the population they were reduced to a minority.

We believe that the universities have a major rôle to play in finding solutions to the main problem every state, every society, every civilization has to solve: inventing ways of giving to every member of these human groups a mean of earning his life and make a decent living.

We even believe that this is the major task of universities in all countries, the developed ones, the « emerging ones » the still underdeveloped ones including the most « primitive » ethnic groups in Amazonian, Papua or Africa.

And this is a very challenging task!

It amounts to give every human being a qualification allowing him or her to find a job and live on that job.


The world has also changed a lot in many other ways: the speed of transportation and more over the speed of communication have made it smaller. Every body can know almost instantly whatever happens in the world. Major companies benefited from this possibility to extend their activity to large parts of the world and a number of them are richer than many small states and may have more power than many state governments. And state governments have built a number of international organisms where to discuss and elaborate solutions to problems which interest the whole world: trade, food, health and more recently climate and energy.

This globalization, which implies that the whole world has to be taken into account, is also worth for knowledge. It has always been true that knowledge ignores political borderlines, scientists of all European states were already discussing between themselves in the seventeenth century. But it seems more than ever true that knowledge is just one, that there no provinces where some local knowledge would be valuable when it is of no value in other provinces, all the local knowledges including the knowledge of African sorcerers are integrated in a single global knowledge.

Another big challenge for universities in the twenty first century is to take into account the whole world and allow an increasing number of people to share this global knowledge.

Universities form different countries, from different continents will have to cooperate, to exchange professors and students, the value of a course or the value of some knowledge will have to be evaluated in the light of several types of thinking and types of civilization.
Linguists have evacuated the idea that some natural languages are « better » than others and come to the conclusion that all languages are as complicated as each other. Globalization impose the same conclusion as concerns civilizations and ways of life.


This is the most frequently discussed point about universities, every body agreeing that universities have to be of the highest possible quality. Discussions focus on the criteria which have to be used to « measure » the quality of universities. The number of Nobel prizes and the number of published pages may be important criteria but one should keep in mind that:

- the most prominent people, genius mathematicians, Nobel prizes, discoverers, deep philosophers, poets have to be surrounded by a number of other people who may be less « good » but make the ideas developed by the most prominent ones understandable. Ideas have a long life after their first apparition in a bright mind and their first written formulation is rarely the best possible. A lot of work has to be performed before they reach a stage where they can be really understood and used by others. The task of understanding, rewriting , simplifying, mixing new ideas with older ones is the task of a majority of universities staff who will never win a prestigious award for that though their work is indispensable.

- the process of learning is a complicated one, and as far as I can see, the strange link which every student knits with his teachers (in fact from his earliest age until very late) is essential. Good teachers undoubtedly exist, I guess that each of us remembers the name and the face of a few teachers he had and knows that they have had a great influence both on his personality and on his future life.
- All this means that universities cannot be run as ordinary administration and companies, « the right man in the right place and efficiency is insured » and it does not suffice to gather a number of prominent people on a campus to get a university.

The quality of students is as difficult to measure as the quality of the teaching staff: undoubtedly, there are boys and girls who are more gifted than others, some learn easily and with no pain and some have real troubles learning. But deciding at some point that one student is good or is bad, in most cases which are not extreme cases leads to nowhere: it is clear that in France quick minds are privileged, but on the long run, slow minds can become excellent if precisely they are given time, this is at least what I have experienced with my own students. My experience also tells me that motivation is the main factor of success: a student of medium quality becomes much much better when he has found what to do, what subject interests him or her and what type of knowledge. There are speculative minds who can play easily with theories and more practical ones who are not at ease with theories but may be excellent applying them to « make » things and solve problems It is very hard to decide who is better!

The essence of knowledge#

The world besides its globalization, besides its invasion by more and more sophisticated and powerful machines is also changing fast in another aspect: the essence of knowledge is changing. This is for a large part due to the concepts and tools brought by Computer Science and Information Processing.

The building of this new discipline has launched a process of understanding in depth the traditional ways of writing, analysing data, images or scenes, taking decision, regulating all kinds of processes (natural, industrial, social...), proving theorems, experimenting, managing and also thinking.

Clearly this process is going on, with a huge number of people at work, computer scientists of course but also specialists of all disciplines. A special mention should be made here of linguistics and biology, two disciplines, the first one traditionally considered as “literary”, the second as “scientific”have been entirely renewed by the possibility of processing huge amounts of data. At the same time a process of mathematization of the world has been going on which started long ago but was enhanced also by the possibility of solving very complex equations: war making, management of large companies or administrations, finance and investing, predicting the weather, surgery, medical diagnosis are now using a number of sophisticated mathematical models which give rise to large computations or simulations on computers.

Recent spectacular developments in research on the human brain indicate that we are not far from major progresses in our understanding of how it works making possible not to replace it by electronic devices but to help it a lot in achieving a number of tasks from the most elementary ones to very complicated ones.

The result of all these efforts has been the creation of a huge number of extremely efficient tools and also a major change in our ways of working, thinking, creating and searching. And a change in the very nature of what we call knowledge. A large part of what was called knowledge is incorporated in data bases or pieces of software and we mainly face the problem to know how to use it in a constant cooperation between man and machines.

The borders which were drawn between sciences in the nineteenth century ( Auguste Comte”s classification) seem to be less and less relevant. Cedric Vilani, one of the Fields medals given in 2010 by the Mathematical International Union says that he does not know whether he is a physicist, a mathematician or a computer scientists, he is working on Boltzmann equation and in fact he does not care in the least to be physicist, mathematician or computer scientist, he uses whatever method, concept or tool which allow him to go further.

Nanotechnologists are mixing at molecular level nano organisms mixed with mineral molecules, the frontier between living beings and inanimate particles is no longer relevant. The people designing Information systems to run a company are computer scientists, in this respect that they use mainly concepts and methods from CS to distribute the necessary information to every member of that company from the general manager to the lowest level employee: their systems are not tool for the management, they are the management itself. The border line between science and human science is also vanishing as concerns the management as it has vanished as concerns linguistics.

The best universities of the future will be those which will take into account the complete reshuffling of disciplines which is being achieved now and anticipate the future new definition of knowledge which will result from these changes.

6 October 2010

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