Robert Owen’s lessons for the co-operative university

I visited the Robert Owen Museum in Newtown last week, where I had a guided tour from Co-operator of the Year Pat Brandwood who explained all about Robert Owen’s influence not only on the Co-operative movement, but on a wide range of social justice issues from religious tolerance to womens’ rights. Owen was the polymath of free-thinking whose efforts and funds underpinned the growth of many social movements in the 19th Century.

I had known about the Rochdale Pioneers making a reading room above their first shop back in the early days of their trading, but I was also struck by how educational ideas were mixed into Robert Owen’s thinking and actions.

The schoolroom at New Lanark
The schoolroom at New Lanark

In this picture, we can see children engaged in dance and colourful pictures of animals on the wall. This sort of schooling has little in common with the serried rows of desks we associate with schooling from Victorian times through to the post-war period, and shows the kind of free-thinking individual Robert Owen was.

Medal inscribed: 'The knowledge that the character of man is formed for and not by him, can alone produce universal charity and love.'
Medal inscribed: ‘The knowledge that the character of man is formed for and not by him, can alone produce universal charity and love.’

If you really want to get a lump in your throat, and feel your eyes welling-up, try this Robert Owen quotation for size:

‘The knowledge that the character of man is formed for and not by him, can alone produce universal charity and love.’

It is as powerful an evocation of the power of education as I have ever heard, and it places education at the centre of human enterprise. Could co-operation help us re-think Higher Education in the 21st Century? Should universities be considering the formation of character as a more central part of their purpose? In aspiring to high ideals for their students, can universities help construct the kind of capabilities and values in students that we need for a peaceful and ecologically-responsible world? Could the university really be configured as an institution of universal charity and love?

In fact we should be asking the opposite question: do universities have a future if they do not? Could we come to see degree classifications, graduate employability measures and even NSS scores as rough proxy outcome measures for the formation of character? Are universities in the business of creating the market for our best conception of what makes well-rounded and responsible individuals, or simply for serving the labour markets we currently have in place?

Perhaps, perhaps.

One thing I know for certain, is that a co-operative university would have an answer to these questions front and centre in its education strategy.

 All images reproduced from the Robert Owen Museum website and Copyright © 2008 Robert Owen Museum
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