A culture of learning and culture

In the final part of the interview Ulf Waltré asks Lars Strannegård about the intangible value of culture as part of education

8 min read

Read part 1 and part 2 of the interviews.

Do you think there is any risk that universities stop being relevant when genuinely good substitutes develop on the internet, such as Khanacademy and Coursera, that offer lectures, education and tests all through internet. Is there any reason for modern universities to adapt?

Do you have two hours? This is one of my favorite subjects. If I try to summarize it a bit… for universities that don’t belong in the top tier this is an extremely big problem. For bigger universities, it could also prove to be problematic. For the likes of us, it’s only an opportunity. It’s obvious that we should use the same tactic. The fact that you sit 300 students and listen to some guy lecturing with power point pictures is absolutely pointless. This is something that just as well could be done at home through the internet.

I guess it’s a tradition as well.

Yes, it’s a tradition as well. There is a nice feeling to it, but it’s not an effective use of time. You could see it like this. Higher education gives a lot of pros. If you graduate from a prestigious academic seat, you get unlimited future benefits. Scientific studies have found that you live longer, you live more healthily, you are more likely to get married, have children, you are more likely to be happy about your sex life, you will have more friends, and so on. There is a strong positive correlation with an education from a prestigious school and all of those things.

Then the big question, and what we don’t know, is how higher education causes all of that. If you enroll to some courses from a high profile university, such as Harvard or Stanford, will you get all of these benefits? No, probably not. Then what is it? Maybe it’s not just knowledge. You might know just as much, content wise, but the positive effects don’t follow because all of it is a socially complex system. You’ve built your networks, you’ve learned to interact with people and so on. What students do here, they meet, engage in the student association, drink coffee in the cafeteria, write for some magazine and discuss back and forth with an editor. You can’t do this if you’re staying home in India, studying some Harvard courses. Obviously what you’re doing right now is also part of your education. This is also something that Stockholm School of Economics provides. All of that is a part of education and it can’t be isolated from grades once students leave. It’s the million dollar question – what can be transferred over to the internet, and what can’t?

An education is supposed to create critical thinking and reflecting individuals that make well-informed and apprehensive decisions. This is the goal of higher education, and it can be reached through a great variety of methods. It’s not without good reason that in England you can study Russian literature and then go right into McKinsey.

Of course there are analytical abilities and methods of grappling with knowledge. You could argue that it doesn’t even matter what you study, but rather to learn a way of thinking. But then we also offer courses that are of high importance for understanding society. You get both of them. You learn how to learn while also taking in complex material. But then it’s not true that the students don’t have use of the things of learn. It’s something that people say.

I’ve asked two of my elder siblings that have studied to become engineers what extent of their studies that they use in their jobs. Both answered between 5 and 10 %.

It’s the same thing again. They’ve also learned ways of thinking. They would not be able to get hold of their jobs without their educations.

Maybe they wouldn’t even be able do their jobs if they had only studied the courses they deem vital for doing their job. It’s difficult to isolate these synergy effects, but I still think they’re there.

If we move on to art and culture. What do you think it is about art and culture that is special? You started talking about this earlier.

It’s that… it doesn’t have a purpose. It’s pure expression, you do it for the sake of nothing. What makes it so special is that it’s so hard to understand. Also, how it can create these kinds of emotions. It’s also a way to work with self-reflection – what do I experience, why do I experience it in this way, why does it have any effect on my whatsoever. It’s also an entrance to historical understanding.

Art and culture are entirely integrated with human activity and interactions. It’s something that’s just so damn special about watching a painting that touches you in some way. But then, like I said earlier, it’s another way of communicating and it’s very refreshing that it’s not something that is fully rational. It’s something that doesn’t add up. In times like these, when everything could be said to be over-rationalized, when everything should be accountable and categorized. You don’t really know what it is, and it has some kind of higher value. It’s a little bit like love or religion. It does something with you that can’t really be explained, and it’s really exciting.

How do you think we could best develop the consumption of art – both looking ahead and looking back the last fifty years?

Just like everything else, art becomes more and more packaged, branded and fitted to our lifestyles – like all human activity. We can choose to look at in different ways. You may see it tragically, believing that everything beautiful diminishes, or you can see it as way for art to reach out to a broader mass of people. You see it much more today, aesthetic expressions are much more common today. Whether you go into a retail environment or a café. Our whole society is going through an aestheticisation.

The term broadens as well – what art is, what art is defined as, which expressions it may use…

Yes, exactly. I actually think it’s a really thrilling time we’re living in. It’s Marcel Duchamp time after time. In a store or an ad campaign. I choose to see it as a positive development, instead of only seeing it as interesting with prices, auction houses and the measurement of quality through money.

There is a relatively widespread idea about companies being something ugly, about commercialism being something ugly. If then art is something beautiful, indestructible and innocent, what should be the best possible path of bridging art with business?

That idea is a modernistic construction, to separate those two. The two have never been separated. Just look at how it looked during the renaissance or whenever. Aesthetics and beauty have always been ways to express affinity, power and status. It’s nothing new, it has always been like that. Just look at Venice, take a walk in Paris and look at the Louvre, it was supposed to be fine art in itself, living a life of its own. They are manifestations of various kinds, but still, the works in themselves have something fantastic about them. It’s a preposterous idea that the two would live entirely separate lives. Just like economy and culture, they are entirely integrated with one another. Then it’s just a question of what kind of glasses you’re wearing.

Now our time is up, but I’d like to ask one final question. You’ve managed several cultural projects as well as being a member of a broad array of boards with a clear cultural profile. What opportunities do you have as president to enforce cultural matters and do you have any idea about how you can accomplish this at SSE?

My mission is to turn SSE into a more knowledge intensive environment and I think that art and culture are big parts of that. The school will have more of such expressions, partially in education – the curriculum – but also in the environment as a whole. I think that it’s one of the most important knowledge carriers and if you don’t use culture as a knowledge mediator, I don’t think you’re doing your job.

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Read more about measuring intangibles in Jim McClelland’s piece here.

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