BBC Radio 4:Professor Tina Beattie - 05/01/2018


Good morning. I’ve recently been preoccupied by thoughts of royalty. This is partly because I binge-watched the second series of The Crown over Christmas, but the royal figure most on my mind is King Midas. Midas was obsessed with wealth. The god Dionysus granted him his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold, but warned him to be careful what he wished for. Midas discovered that even his food and drink became gold, and when his beloved daughter hugged him, she was instantly frozen into a lifeless gold statue.

I think this is a cautionary tale for our times. From the increase in rail fares to the news that a CEO can expect to earn in three days what an average full-time worker earns in a year, we’re witnessing the effects of the Midas touch on many of our institutions and social values. Universities are also affected, for they too are being regulated according to a set of corporate values that threaten their fundamental principles and raison d'être.

I left school at 15, and went to university when the youngest of my four children started school. I’ve just read Paul Kalanithi’s luminous book, When Breath Becomes Air, and it reminded me of why I felt so compelled to continue my education. Kalanithi’s short life was driven by a quest for meaning. He studied literature because he wanted to explore how language makes meaning possible, and he studied neuroscience because he wanted to understand how the brain makes language possible. His book desCRIbes how those questions acquired deep significance when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Kalanithi’s holistic approach to knowledge – his weaving together of science, literature and philosophy – used to be the underlying ethos of all academic learning. For Kalanithi and indeed for all the great figures of ancient and medieval thought, this was essentially a theological quest. It’s a desire to contemplate the wisdom and beauty of the divine, by studying the order and harmony of nature. It’s the ethos upon which the western academic system was established.

But it seems to me our universities too have suffered the Midas touch. The drive for immediate impact and short-term, quantifiable results is in danger of driving out that theologically motivated quest for wisdom that was once the defining characteristic of a university. You cannot worship both God and Mammon, says Jesus. Academic life, like so much else in our society, is now ruled by Mammon.

When King Midas realised his mistake, Dionysus took pity on him and restored his life to normal. He became a wise and generous king, who was mourned by all when he died. I’ve decided to make resisting the effects of the Midas touch my New Year’s resolution.

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