Learning from the Enlightenment: cooperation is the key to progress

Learning from the Enlightenment: cooperation is the key to progress

“The philosophers and artists of the 16th and 17th centuries would have been bemused by the thought that their work had no effect on the world”

There’s something about working for a collaboration agency that makes me an optimist about the deeply cooperative nature of being human. The caricatured Darwinism that strips all success back to an elemental individualism is belied in all mammals by conscious or unconscious cooperation.

A long conversation on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week discussed the three hundred year march of progress in the West. (At 2:36:00) The benefits may be unevenly distributed, and there is a gnawing sense that the young are not benefiting as much as the middle-aged, but nonetheless most people now live longer, healthier, wealthier and more satisfying lives than even the most optimistic Enlightenment thinker could have conceived.

Universities fed, and were fed themselves, by the expansion of the last three centuries. The restless inventiveness of many academics led to social and industrial innovation. Universities educated graduates who used their knowledge in cooperation with others to produce social goods.

Over the past 10 years, the commitment to intensify this cooperation has been reinforced in every meeting I have attended.

Last week, I was at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with a group of others thinking about a specific conundrum of our times: big data and computer science is one of the hottest industrial developments today, yet computer graduates are the most unemployed group among university-leavers. One of my colleagues from a sector skills council said it was the most cooperative group she’d seen in her years trying to sort out the tricky problem.

Later that week I was with a group of academics from across the arts and humanities looking at how their work creates impact. Again, I was struck by the sophistication of the debate and our shared willingness to engage with the complexities of the ways that academics interact with the world around them.

Not for them a simplistic distinction between academic purity and engagement. And if you go back to the birth of upward sweep of innovation, the philosophers and artists of the 16th and 17th centuries would have been bemused by the thought that their work had no effect on the world. The point was to change it, and cooperation is the key.

David Docherty is CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB)

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