This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Andy Salmon – Pro-Vice Chancellor External, Bath Spa University
‘The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.’
Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination
This short article is designed to provoke thought. Using the century old ideas of the Surrealists I will argue that, like them in the 1920s and 1930s, we stand on the edge of an educational revolution that requires radical new shapes. I’d argue that our current position is rigid, abstracted, partial, preclusive and often mechanical where it needs in all cases to be specifically the reverse. Furthermore, when talking to students and employers they want agility, resilience, creativity, passion, systems thinking. In short, it often seems like the structure we inhabit in higher education actually stands between both parties and almost gets in the way, rather than enabling.
Surrealism in Britain was originally termed ‘Super-realism’ by it’s prominent champion Sir Herbert Read, but he fell into line after the First Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, acknowledging it was less catchy. Whatever the title though, the point remained the same, as Andre Breton stated, Surrealism was an attempt at absolute expression by the ‘Unification of interior and exterior reality … confronting one another on every possible occasion … reciprocal attraction and interpenetration … interplay of forces all the extension necessary for these two adjoining realities to become one and the same thing.’ (Andre Breton, David Gascoyne, ‘What is Surrealism?’ pp.49-50).
My first point would be that we need to return to such an ambitious wholeness. The furore around Chat GPT and its much more sophisticated successor GPT-4, has revealed many tacit truths about our vulnerability to predictive text. Wallace Stevens also stated that ‘the imagination is the sum of all our faculties’. Underneath, if we’re honest, I think we’ve just confessed how much of our higher learning is in fact partial rote mechanism, rather than a reciprocal interpenetration of interplaying faculties cojoining on the mutual plane of the opposing senses of interior and exterior reality.
The surrealists were accordingly wedded to movement rather than stasis, embodiment rather than abstraction. As Herbert Read says in The True Voice of Feeling (p.152) ‘The tendency to geometric and symmetric form is universal … killing the originating vitality versus a continuous process of transformation … and the possibility, under stress, of further evolution in human consciousness’. This is not necessarily against our love of data, KPIs and TEF/KEF/REF frameworks. It is much more a warning about mistaking measurement for animation, confusing the interior motivations with external appearances. To a startling degree, the Surrealists had a deep commitment to embodiment. As Read stated in Poetry and Anarchism in 1938, surrealism in ‘its concrete reality this body [Surrealism] is a bundle of coordinated activities-limbs, muscles, cells- all of which are in movement’ (p.59). Witness COVID 19- how quickly the inside can be turned outward.
On the other side of the dialectic, we have increasingly obvious imbalances. 1.4m more people will leave the workforce in the next decade than can possibly join it. Throughout the education system we have an all-time record of 800,000 NEETs; the same number of people as those who graduate every year in the UK. While graduate unemployment runs at 11.7%, against a national all-age average of 3.1%, we have an hourglass economy with huge shortages in key areas such as digital, healthcare, sustainability, project management and large corporations such as Microsoft report 95,000 vacancies, whilst the bootcamp initiatives will have had over 100,000 participants by the end of 2023, the majority being graduates. In short, the ‘exterior reality’ of our current undergraduate degree provision is not answering our ‘interior’ needs. We need new shapes driven by new imaginations, akin to Read’s identification of Hegel’s necessary dialectic where ‘between one phase and another … intervenes an active principle … of opposition and interaction (Hegel) … two elements so opposed to each other yet so related that a solution or resolution is demanded …a new phase or equilibrium … qualitatively different’. (The Philosophy of Modern Arts, 1951,p.115)
How might we achieve this? My instinct is to go a bit Surrealist. Namely, we need to start seeing the ‘active principle [of] opposition and interaction’ as a positive intuitive force. 75% of Gen Z prioritise sustainable purchasing over brand. The Bank of America has labelled them the ‘most disruptive generation ever’. Free from the orthodoxies of mortgage and pension determination, envisaging a climate cataclysm within their lifetime, horrified by all that drove Black Lives Matter, incredulous at the difficulties the LGBQT+ community have, they are demanding we think and behave differently. Likewise, employers have moved from inclusion as virtue signalling to understanding its financial imperatives. What might agile, resiliency, collective learning higher education for an inclusive upskilling and reskilling population look like? How might we deliver it in blended formats? How might it be chunked across accessible time periods? Above all, how might it deliver the depths our unpredicted human understanding that is the core of Surrealism and beyond GPT-4?
The historical parallels between now and the 1920-30s are not hard to spot. One difference perhaps is ontological scale. As Yuval Harari stated whilst in previous centuries the central challenge has been exploitation, ‘in the twenty first century the really big struggle will be against irrelevance’ (Devos, 2020). What is at stake is not different tribal interpretations, but what it actually means to be human at all, and how in response to AI the answer is something sustainable.
In 1951 in his book on the essential nature of the imagination, Wallace Stevens nailed his colours to the mast in response to precisely this question of our core identity:
’The imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth; and while I know how difficult it is to express it, nevertheless I am bound to give a sense of it. Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Nothing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite presentations a horror of it. But there it is.’
The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination).
This is remarkably close to Read’s citing of Surrealism as ‘wonder’ a year later:
‘The renascence of wonder …cthe general aim of surrealism as I conceive it. Just as curiosity is the faculty that drive man to seek out the hidden structure of the external universe, thereby enabling him to build a body of knowledge which we call science, so wonder is the faculty which dares man to create what has not before existed, which dares man to use his powers in new ways and for new effects. We have lost this sense of the word “wonderful”.’
Herbert Read, The Philosophy of Modern Art, p.141., 1952.
Surely ‘wonder’ and the ‘nobility which is our height and depth’ is the final sustainable purpose of education? Arguably, incrementally, we have been removing this essence for decades. Meanwhile, in a typically surreal dialectic fashion, the times have increasingly been revealing at first sub rosa and now quite blatantly, that what we really need is a ‘renascence of wonder’, replacing our exhausted acceptance of ongoing distortions with a new vitality, seeking the instinctual passions of those we enable be they students, employers, our local and global places and communities. We need with urgency to adhere with our full ‘super-realised’ imaginations to ‘what is real’.