Rowan Williams, in a lecture at Canterbury Christ Church University last September, excerpts of which were read as part of the Oxford Corporate Collegiate Service at the University Church tonight:
What then is a university for?
I want to argue that universities historically have existed not simply for the pursuit of learning, but for the pursuit of intelligent citizenship…. The point of a university in this sense is, I would say, very clearly and very significantly to promote intelligence in public discourse…. But I do believe that public discourse requires critical edge. It requries the ability to weigh different perspectives, and the ability to argue in public. In the Middle Ages and in many other contexts, part of the significant purpose of university education was to equip you in what used to be called rhetoric—the ability to mount a good argument in public, and the ability to know what the difference was between good and bad, relevant and irrelevant, arguments. Pick up any one of the public media organs,… listen to any number of public speeches, and you’ll see that the capacity to distinguish between good and bad, relevant and irrelevant arguments is not a capacity in huge supply, and it is very important that somebody should be there to take responsibility in furthering it…. A university is part of the equipment of a healthy, self-critical society, because it trains the intelligence. It trains the intelligence in argument and honesty. It trains people in the capacity to engage with honesty and intelligence in public debate. But for that, it needs a view of what intelligence is about. And the Christian tradition offers a robust and very resourceful account of what intelligence is all about, relating it to the divine image, to love, to the overcoming of fragmentation, the fulfilment and reconciliation of people, the liberation of mind and heart. The point of a university is to foster the honesty of public discourse, and to do so by taking seriously a whole range of intense and, yes, specialised research activities…. When Cardinal Newman in the 19th century wrote his celebrated essay on ‘The Idea of a University’, he did so not simply out of a narrowly or an abstractly theological set of concerns, but out of a set of experiences of the intellectual life which had their heart and their impulse in one particular Anglican university of his day. The University of Oxford at the beginning of the 19th century was in many ways an extremely hierarchical inflexible and rather dull place. But there were one or two settings within that university where this capacity to ask fundamental questions of each other, this expectation of intelligent public discourse as the result of university education, were a reality.
And so it is of the University of Oxford in our day. In the service, this was followed by the organ suddenly swelling and the massed choirs of seven colleges leaping to our feet to sing “Jerusalem,” as the University proctors and bedels in all their regalia escorted the preacher of the University Sermon to the pulpit. I couldn’t help but beam, and sing fortissimo. There are plenty of people I know who have dedicated their lives to universities and university teaching who would find this expression of academic identity alienating, if not outright b.s. Which is fine; it doesn’t have to work for everyone. But just as going to evensong reminds me that there’s more in the world than profit and publish or perish, wearing an academic gown and performing university ceremonies reminds me that there are larger truths and ethical obligations to which we pledge ourselves when we make our lives inside ivory towers. And being so reminded gives me the strength to keep going.
It’s Sunday of fifth week of Hilary Term: halfway through the first year. And still, always, my first love is lost causes and impossible loyalties.