There are two facets, two approaches in dealing with learning, research and culture, and which have some advantages of their own, but unfortunately are perceived as standing in the way to each others. The first approach is that to insist on the idea that we need even more skilled leaders, fundraisers, and managers who are able to direct large research programs and groups of scientists. An idea where everything is directed towards a huge well organized managerial and industrialized system that pressures people to produce practical results as early as possible, deemphasizing any attempt to look further for discoveries that aim at knowing for the sole pleasure of knowing. The second possibility, on the contrary, might be that we should rediscover the ancient human ‘impetus’ to understand nature, the drive to independent and creative thinking, the spirit of the natural philosopher, who pursues the freedom to develop one’s own research program, and liberates everyone’s intellectual independence and potentials, independently from its possible applications.
True, in this market driven world, the latter alternative sounds too romantic. But didn’t modern society bet too much on the former one? After all, where from came the great minds that transformed the world materially? From schools and universities where they learned only the real world practice preparing them for their future jobs, or from institutions that foster also theoretical approaches of pure thought, like philosophy and a humanistic practice like music and arts? It is an established fact that most inventors, geniuses and not rarely corporate leaders too, did not attend schools which focus exclusively on a technical apprenticeship aimed solely at attaining a professional certificate.
What is really needed in the field of college and university education at this historical stage of the scientific, technological and human development, is the freedom to ask again for one’s own question, and having the time to do that, without the danger of not being able to make it for a living. Nowadays we begin from imparting the already established knowledge into the child’s brain, but do not exercise people in posing questions that should lead to that knowledge. Instead, it should be the other way around: learning that starts from questions that lead to knowledge. Our concept of education is still too much focused on the choices to be made today in order to get a degree that will guarantee a job tomorrow. The inner drive towards ones own realizations, aspirations, spontaneous questioning and creativity are still too much subordinated to the impossible guess of what a decade away job might look like, and that children and students are forced to learn in order to make it for a living in a future global competitive market. We still didn’t learn the lesson that these prediction rarely turn out to be correct anyway. Moreover, jobs are usually about the production of material things. Therefore, from childhood onward we are told by our society and learning system to focus on the external world, on the empiric data, on the strictly material knowledge and experience. But no time is allowed to listen to ourselves, to investigate our own inner depth, to search for the inspiration and passion which comes from within. The exclusive concentration on few intellectual directions to the exclusion of others, retracting the support to individuals working on their own approaches, has led us to an academic environment incapable of going beyond the status quo. Given this state of affairs, which is more or less consciously felt by students and potential bright minds, has led many to renounce entirely to their career and nowadays are no longer working in the field their heart was longing for. Or, on the other end of the line, for example, most of those who got to the top of the scientific academic hierarchy have become not scientists who manage research, but managers, politicians, bureaucrats with the only difference that they have a degree in science.
New selection criteria must be found, where the person, the scholar, the scientist is chosen, not for their sterile scholastic preparation, but for their ideas, ideals, aspirations and passions. And even the actuality of the line of research they propose shouldn’t be considered essential. Funding must not be granted to someone only because the line of research is actually considered the most trendy, but, at least a part of it, should be devoted to alternative, risky and unconventional paths.
University courses should become more flexible, that is, it should be conceived first of all not just as a place where to acquire knowledge and solve problems. Amassing knowledge shouldn’t be its main preoccupation. Nowadays, with the advent of the information age and the internet, everyone who can read and write is perfectly able to download every kind of information needed also without the help of a teacher or professor. They are no longer a key figure for information retrieval, whereas their function should be that of showing students the way of how they can become able of finding that knowledge by their own. Education institutions should be a place where people learn to learn, and learn to ask questions, and learn what has to be learned by themselves, with the help of someone who is not an instructor, a trainer or a drill sergeant, but an adviser, a counselor, a guide, a coach, a tutor, a mentor, an attendant who facilitates our own and personal search for knowledge and self-enfoldment. Let us call this figure a ‘facilitator’. A good problem solver is someone who has learned to ask good questions first. Students should no longer be treated as empty containers to be filled with intellectual notions. Ph.Ds, post-doc and researchers should not be considered like mere employees who have to obey orders passively and blindly.
Too much emphasis has been set on intellectual rigor, on mathematical perfection, on mechanical skills which are too exclusively focused in reproducing quickly specific tasks and by fast problem solving with zero tolerance for failure. But a creative process rests on the freedom to fail in a system that abhors uniformity. How idiotic would sports be if it would apply the same selection rules for marathoners and sprinters? It would be so idiotic as our present educational system. And, as Sir Ken Robinson explained , an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, “we have developed a culture where mistakes are stigmatizes”. Whereas, every scientist who has some direct experience in participating to a research project, be it in a purely theoretical subject or by performing experiments in a laboratory, knows very well that most attempts to find out for a new scientific truth have to go first through a huge amount of failures. An education that institutionalizes fear of failure is de facto an authoritarian system, per definition. It gave us lots of efficient executors indeed, but it killed also the spirit of the creative thinker. In this kind of environment, the ‘seer’, the intuitive thinker, the creative artist, the genuine talent and the genius are naturally de-selected from the outset. Human beings are too diverse to be enclosed in a single academic educational approach. There are a lot of diverse talents, approaches and styles. And yet, most of the current universities impose only one possible path. These institutions should open themselves to all the human characters: to the analytical, the intuitive, the artistic, the unconventional, the ‘rebel’ minds, etc.
We hear frequently people talking about the autonomy and freedom of science. But, in this regard, most research centers of today are the problem not the solution. They look exclusively at the speed and precision of intellectual reproduction and potential for manufacture, possibly added with good communication skills of the individual, but motivation (intrinsic or extrinsic) is officially seen as secondary. A free progress environment is necessary because there are several young students or potential students who feel the inner drive to question on the deeper meaning of things, who have an opening towards alternative approaches, who have great inspirations and aspirations, and could serve the collective development of a nation. But, when they enroll in a college, they have to discover that there is no such thing like the opportunity to express themselves. The individual development is hampered. They are forced to repress their own inner potentialities, and are compelled to follow lines that are not their owns. If they want to make a career, they have no other way out than sacrificing all to a study/work and professional path which has nothing to do with what their inner soul calls for and with what their real destiny should be. Not only, many of these are led to believe that there is something wrong in them and fall in depression and stress and finally abandon entirely the studies they have pursued for several years. Nowadays, those who perceive an urge to go beyond a mere analytical and superficial understandings of the physical world, those who want to focus on specific subjects because there is an inner drive to do so, must set aside these yearnings. They would like to progress and change and evolve but are forced to inhibit even suppress their own evolution.
Nowadays everyone is talking about ‘excellence’. But what is excellence? Setting up highly selective institutions who bring together the so called ‘best brains’ and order them to do what is required from the top like chickens in a hen house? Every manager would deny this, all unanimously tell us that they look for creative and original thinkers. But facts are quite different. “Work under pressure and in multitasking” is the motto and main pedagogical ideal of several top academic managers. A pedagogy that tells what, when and how to do the job. Every attempt to put forward ones own ideas, projects or alternative approaches is felt as an irritating attempt to overthrow their authority. Obviously they are always a bit disappointed that, despite having under their power grip several people who eventually published lots of scientific papers, not much groundbreaking stuff has been discovered. There is a pressure which generates fear, anger, sadness, frustration and ultimately hampers the emergence of a further consciousness in most individuals working in industries and research centers. And if things continue to go wrong the pressure is enhanced. But it should become clear instead that the solution is not to insist in doing more wrong things. An entirely new approach is needed. Real excellence can come only from within. And this fact remains alien to most teachers and academic figures today as in the past.
 L. A. Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Penguin Books, 2009.