As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome; no matter which route you take, the destination will be the same. So it can seem, that our trajectory is inexorable, unstoppable. Of late I see the world around me slipping into this frame of mind and it makes me by turns shiver with fear and shake with anger.
For one thing, the expression is not one of hopeless resignation but of recognition of an extraordinary achievement – 80,000 km of hard-surfaced highways built 2,000 years ago and many still in use. At the famed destination, the Golden Milestone (or at least of gilded bronze), a powerful symbol of conquest and engineering prowess. How striking moovel lab‘s algorithmically generated visualisation of the phrase from 2015 and how elegantly it invokes sentiments of unity, cohesion, connection.
Furthermore, there is no inevitability to decline, no unopposability to implosion. We know deep down that there are alternative ways forward, can imagine much better futures. Yet seemingly we lack the courage or conviction to pursue them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in higher education. Narcissistically engrossed in the contemplation of an awful caricature of itself, it dallies with earnest self-mutilation. Like the quack healers of political economy, our leaders convince us that the end justifies the means: that for any gain we must first endure pain. But whose gain and whose pain? The latter certainly yours and mine, the former, very probably not. And what, exactly, is our destination? You tell us, comes the reply; your views are important; we cannot achieve a common vision of the future without your help. We must all pull together.
Assuming for one headily optimistic moment that we can agree on a destination, does it matter how we get there? Do all roads lead to the same hazily identified endpoint no matter what? No, of course they do not. As much as our destination matters, it matters equally how we reach it. Can we meander off into the back streets of neoliberal oblivion confidently believing that Rome is just a few blocks away? Sure. Rome isn’t going anywhere. But nor will we be, except in ever-decreasing one-way circles.
Destinations are, in any case, largely elusive personal constructs, the imagined stuff of legend. As Robert Louis Stevenson famously remarked, more than to arrive, our ideal is to stay travelling towards them in an agreeable state of hope. Thus, if our aim for higher education, is the common good, our path towards it must at every step pursue the common good, not the generation of personal debt: it must be a road we can confidently recommend to others. If we hold that knowledge is a hard-fought gain, fruit of sometimes painful self-criticism and challenging social interdependence, we should travel in good company and be ready for the bumps. If we value our and our neighbours’ heritages and can conceive alternative forms of integrity, then the journey should be an epic one, a grand tour, taking in creative detours, speculative dead-ends and unscheduled stops to admire the view.
Of course hope and delusion are close cousins; some destinations turn out to be mirages. For example, the roads of market-driven economics and data-driven AI metrics promise El Dorado but take us nowhere: they conduct us ever deeper into solitude and mistrust. There are no AI short cuts to reason, no fuel-saving digital highways to our recruitment targets.
But take heart, the Romans had it worked out long ago. Keep sight of your miliarium aureum and all your roads will lead to it.