QOTD (2011-10-30); or, On What Matters

Professor Stefan Collini, concluding his remarks at Cambridge on “The Very Idea of the University,” 11 October 2011:

We all in our way have an obligation to try to hand on to our successors an institution that has managed, through difficult times, to keep alive and embody what is most precious in this particular idea of the university. Organised scepticism is one of its animating principles: that questioning of all claims to truth, no matter how familiar or well-established, and no matter how elevated the academic or political authority who makes them….

As I hope every student who passes through this university comes to realise, the house of intellect is in one sense necessarily a democracy. Yes, of course we have our rituals and our hierarchies, but in the end, across a supervision room or seminar table or lab bench or wherever, the powers that ultimately govern our doings are the better arguments and the better evidence, and it doesn’t matter who puts them forward.

So whatever decisions we make in the present about our funding or our institutional structures or our forms of teaching or assessment, or the hundreds of other practical things we have to decide about, I think we have no choice but to be committed to handing on to our successors an institution which is still able across the whole field of human activity to challenge the current state of understanding, and which is always free to suggest that there are other places to start and other things worth understanding. And keeping that spirit of inquiry alive—really alive, not just paying lip service to it when we put all those lifeless abstract nouns into those life-destryoing report forms, but keeping that spirit of inquiry alive—is what all of us, in this room and in this university and in other universities, have to regard as our priority.

I should make clear that this does not seem to me a comfortable or easy position. In fact, it’s a very radical notion in its way, because it says that we’re committed to this kind of freedom of inquiry come what may. And what may come are not just government directives or external decisions that we may regard as misguided and even damaging, but—an even truer test of our mettle—what may come includes those moral and political values to which we, as ethical agents and responsible citizens, feel a strong commitment: values which these days often take the form of, for example, ensuring for others a genuine respect and equality of treatment and improvement of life chances, and so on. Those are all hugely important things, but they’re not, I submit, primary and distinctive responsibilities of universities, and at times they may even conflict with the prime task of extending understanding. This is not the least of the ways in which the very idea of the university is such an outrageous one.

If we are only trustees for our generation of the peculiar cultural achievement that is the university, then those of us whose lives have been shaped by the immeasurable privilege of studying and teaching in a university are not entitled to give up on the attempt to make the case for its best purposes and to make that case tell in the public domain, however discouraging the immediate circumstances. We owe it to those who preserved and enriched the traditions of inquiry which we have inherited, and we owe it too to the generations yet unborn who should not be denied the precious opportunity to wander through the galleries of the human mind with no more fixed purpose than a curiosity to understand how such mangifience came to be and how it can be renewed and extended. A sense of our place in this longer history chastises the petty vanities and foolish crotchets of the present, but it can be inspiring; and we reflect that, even in circumstances that may have looked to them as little propitious as ours do sometimes to us, no previous generation entirely surrendered this ideal of the university to those ontological fantasists who think they represent the ‘real world’. I deliberately choose there that rhetorical excess, because, as Newman well knew, such verbal serpents can be the carrier—even though it can in no straightforward propositional sense be the statement—of the mind’s drive for fuller and deeper comprehension, a drive which it is the function of universities to allow to pursue its endless quest without being subject to the requirement to produce some measurable practical outcome in the present.

Please do not abandon this idea of the university, however debased you may think any manifestation of it has temporarily come to be. Tending to this idea may remind us, amid distracting circumstances, that we are indeed merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create and which it is not ours to destroy.

All twenty-one years of my life in universities, I have had the sense that I belong to something much larger than myself, much larger than my family and all the people my family knows, much larger than my friends and my colleagues and my professors and all the people my friends and colleagues and professors have ever known. This is why I’ve not left yet and could never imagine leaving: these institutions together stand for something palpable and valuable in the web of things that make us human and alive and worth wondering at.

I recommend that you follow the link above and listen to the whole of Prof. Collini’s talk, only whose last five or so minutes I have transcribed here. In fifty-one captivating minutes, he makes an eloquent and at times even fist-pumping attempt to carve out a cultural space for the university past and present that runs counter to, and at times even directly critiques, the dominant cultural rhetoric of output, productivity, and other economic terms that we today suppose universities are generally good for boosting. He points out that in the so-called “real world” that universities are claimed not to be sufficiently accountable to, people don’t just work as mindless automatons the way the language of business and industry might suggest. Rather, they wonder and wander and love and question their purpose in life, and they often actively seek out the ideas that the University (as Platonic form) stores for the sake of those who seek ways of understanding where they fit into the world and how the world fits into them.

But if there is anything that is lacking in this sermon (for so he self-mockingly calls it) by one of my all-time heroes where the cause of defending the idea of the university is concerned, it is that he presents the university as a rather static institution: withstanding the vagaries of time, of trends, of economic systems, and tended by custodians who seek to keep it true to its founding principles. To an extent, this is indeed what is so marvelous about the university, and believe in it so passionately that I hope to be fortunate enough to grow up to be one of those stewards of human knowledge myself. And to be sure, Collini does impress upon the listener the fact that the university is always moving knowledge, always stretching its boundaries further and testing every intellectual proposition put to it on the most rigorous of grounds.

But—if I may be so presumptuous—what I think he leaves out is the lifesaving grace (if you will; Collini started this off by calling his summing-up a sermon!) that universities may grant those who find human flourishing within their walls. There are reasons he might have done so: it sounds absolutely silly to talk about this, especially if you’re a rather famous, eminent, and brilliant Cambridge don. But I am a 21-year-old undergraduate, and it is my role in life to be silly, so that is precisely what I am going to proceed to do. We caretakers are not guarding all this knowledge for nothing: we are guarding it so that eighteen-year-olds may come to stay for a while and learn that they have best selves, and that their best selves are worth being. Of course, not all eighteen-year-olds discover this in universities. But some—and I can speak only from my own experience—cannot find it anywhere else. These, I find, are the ones most likely to take a life sentence, to become the next caretakers. But even those who do not know for three or four years that they are growing within and beyond themselves may find themselves years later thanking those fustian caretakers for keeping alive something eternal so that it might inside them become quite dynamic indeed.

As I write this, I find that I am sounding to myself rather Platonist and perhaps even rather Hegelian, which is either the product of a day spent writing about the influence of Hegel in Symonds’ early scholarship on Greek literature or a reflection of the reactionary Victorianism that characterizes a great deal of my own critique of political economy these days. Just about eight months ago now, it was reading Arnold and Ruskin (and not, in fact, Marx a year before) that gave me a sense of possibility outside the totalizing rhetoric of capitalism, of industry, of production, value, return, reward, winning, profiting, gaining, optimizing. Of course, as Collini argues, it’s the rational inquiry that universities support that can help us to recognize that we all live according to more discourses than that of political economy after all. But we shouldn’t forget, I think, that when that happens it’s not just that we have a better society right now, or that human understanding is safeguarded, in some abstract way, for the next generation. It’s also that hearts and minds are changed within universities. Speaking as someone who feels myself growing and becoming almost by the day, I know that’s an absolutely extraordinary and beautiful thing.

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