[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Free thinkers?

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John Gray: Free thinkers?
The Times Literary Supplement, 1997.1.24

    THE IDEA OF A UNIVERSITY John Henry Newman By Frank M. Turner 366pp.
    Yale University Press. £25 (paperback, £12.50). - 0 300 06404 7

    The University in Ruins By Bill Readings 238pp. Harvard University
    Press. £18.95. - 0 674 92952 7

    THE FUTURE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM By Louis Menand, editor 230pp.
    University of Chicago Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley. £19.95. -
    0 226 52004 8

    According to Jose Ortega y Gasset, in The Mission of the University
    (1944), "When a nation is great, so will be its schools." Is the
    obverse true of universities? In the English-speaking world, at least
    since Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman, universities have commonly
    represented themselves as institutions devoted to the transmission of
    culture. Neither Arnold nor Newman imagined that universities could
    create the culture they existed to express and renew. They took for
    granted that culture lay around them, at times inchoate or dormant,
    but pervasively present in a common national life. They differed
    widely in their view of the place of Christian belief in that culture
    and, correspondingly, in the role they attached to universities as
    vehicles of the secular traditions of the humanities. Newman conceived
    the task of universities as that of nurturing civilized people
    ("gentlemen") who embodied "intellectual culture". He did not suppose
    that such culture could transform an irredeemably fallen world. By
    contrast, Arnold had high hopes of culture as a transformative
    influence on industrial civilization.

    Despite these differences, Newman and Arnold had in common a very
    definite idea of the intellectual culture that it was the task of
    universities to propagate. It was not practical or vocational
    knowledge, it had nothing to do with amassing information and it
    served no external - economic or commercial, say - purposes. In their
    view, to defend universities on the ground that the pure research that
    goes on in them ultimately confers practical benefits on the societies
    that support them is to neglect and even to spurn the distinctive good
    that universities foster. It is to make of universities utilitarian
    institutions, whose goals are set outside them, and thereby to
    compromise their distinctive ethos. To defend universities in these
    terms is to sell the pass.

    In Frank M. Turner's useful new edition of Newman's The Idea of a
    University, university education has a decidedly anachronistic, even
    quixotic, aspect. What is strangest in Newman's idea of a university
    are not its Christian commitments. It is what it more generally
    presupposes - a common national (and supra-national) culture. This is
    a contrast with the situation of universities nowadays that recurs
    repeatedly in the essays by contemporary educationalists and
    philosophers that accompany Newman's text. In Newman's time, Christian
    faith might not have been universal in Britain, but it had not yet
    become marginal. In our time, in European countries at any rate, the
    idea that a national culture should or could rest on any single world-
    view, religious or secular, is suspect; but national cultures are not
    for that reason becoming weaker. Bill Readings tells us that the
    withering of the nation-state "is not the same thing as claiming that
    nationalism is no longer an issue". The issue is rather, he suggests,
    the depoliticization of society and culture generated by the rise of
    the modern bureaucratic state. Yet one of the most striking features
    of recent history is the disruption of bureaucratic rationality - in
    the European Union, for example - by the return of the national
    question to the very centre of political life. Here, like many
    academics, Readings mistakes the bureaucratization that is going on in
    universities for a wider social trend, when the dominant tendency in
    most late modern societies is precisely the reverse. Indeed, one of
    the reasons for the increased marginality of universities is that, not
    for the first time, they are adopting a model of administration and
    management that has long been abandoned in the larger economies and
    societies they are meant to serve.

    A central theme in Readings's The University in Ruins is that the
    development of universities has occurred in tandem with that of the
    nation-state. The culture that universities reproduced was the
    national culture constructed along with the institutions of the modern
    state. Now that the nation-state is (according to Readings) in
    decline, we must accept that the modern university has become a ruined
    institution. Those ruins must not be the object of a romantic
    nostalgia for a lost wholeness but the site of an attempt to
    transvalue the fact that the university no longer inhabits a
    continuous history of progress, of the progressive revelation of a
    unifying idea.

    In the context of English-speaking countries, and especially of the
    United States, Readings's provocative formulation captures one source
    of the increasing marginality of universities as cultural
    institutions. The loss of confidence in themselves in this role must
    be due partly to the break-up in the wider society of tradition. To
    this extent Ortega must be right: universities cannot manufacture a
    culture where none exists.

    Yet this is surely only a rather small part of the explanation for the
    dwindling cultural leverage of universities on the societies they
    serve. As he himself recognizes, Readings's account of the condition
    of contemporary universities is not far removed from that of Allan
    Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987) - a book whose
    rapturous public reception provided a better argument for its gloomy
    diagnoses than any advanced by Bloom himself. Cultural warfare over
    "the Western canon" and formulaic controversies about "relativism" are
    far from being universal features of contemporary university life
    throughout the world. They are episodes in a local debate about
    American identity. In that debate it is the stance of
    "multiculturalism", rather than the neo-conservative defence of a
    banal version of "the western tradition", that best reflects the
    realities of American life today. Moreover, although the sectarian
    rancour with which multiculturalism is debated seems peculiarly
    American, the historical context of multiculturalism is far wider than
    the United States. All western societies are having to adjust to a new
    global context in which their intellectual traditions increasingly
    form only one strand in cultural life.

    In finding this adjustment to the loss of western hegemony difficult,
    universities are no different from many other social institutions in
    late modern western societies. Readings's asserstion that we are
    witnessing the emergence of an "essentially unipolar society" is, once
    again, nearly the opposite of the truth. The globalization of economic
    and cultural life that is under way today is a "de-centring" movement.
    Its effect is to diminish the leverage of western societies in many
    parts of the world, and at the same time to make western societies
    more culturally plural. This is a world-historical development whose
    profound implications academic multiculturalism - itself a
    protypically western phenomenon - has scarcely begun to grasp.

    Several of the contributors to Louis Menand's collection of essays on
    higher education, The Future of Academic Freedom, address the question
    of whether universities can be justified as expressing a distinctive
    ethical and intellectual culture, and, if so, how that culture might
    itself be defended. Ronald Dworkin argues that, although academic
    freedom is not a simple derivation from the right to free speech,
    nevertheless it expresses the ideal of ethical individualism that
    animates liberal political morality. In this view, the local practices
    of American universities are embodiments (no doubt imperfect) of
    political first principles. Richard Rorty takes his stand on local
    practice and forgoes any appeal to first principles.

    His essay is an elegant and forceful restatement of the pragmatist
    view that institutions do not need "foundations". Elaborating on a
    famous remark of Eisenhower's, he declares that "any religion that is
    dubious about American democratic institutions must have something
    wrong with it. I should claim that any philosophy that is dubious
    about the folkways that we call 'acad-emic freedom' must have
    something wrong with it." Despite their divergent philosophical
    standpoints, Dworkin and Rorty both take for granted the principle
    that the ideal of the university can be realized only in a liberal
    political culture that is much like their own.

    They share this common presupposition, in part, because their context
    of discussion is single-mindedly American. In this they differ sharply
    from Edward Said, who in the collection's most wide-ranging essay
    defends the ideal of freedom of inquiry by reference to the historical
    experience of universities in many parts of the world, including the
    countries of the Middle East.

    For Said, there is no single paradigm of the university as a social
    institution. Universities are as diverse as the societies that harbour
    them. Yet this does not mean that universities are obliged to
    articulate the cultures in which they find themselves. On the
    contrary, as Said argues, intellectual freedom demands that people in
    the academy be ready to risk their identities as practitioners of
    particular cultures in order to understand the cultures of others. A
    free thinker in the academy is bound to be a nomad, not a celebrant of
    any one cultural identity - that of American liberal individualism,
    say. Interestingly, he finds hints of this understanding of
    intellectual freedom in the writings of Newman, whose prejudices are
    otherwise so manifest. Said quotes Newman's "incomparably eloquent
    statements" affirming the necessity, in a university education, of
    knowing "the relative disposition of things" and avoiding the partial
    views that express the narrow identities "of slaves or children". As
    Said observes, that he was speaking only of English Catholic males
    only slightly deflates the profound truth of what Newman is saying. If
    I understand him rightly, Said's moral is that the project of
    intellectual inquiry to which universities are devoted cannot be
    confined - or seek to confine itself - within the limits of any one
    particular cultural identity, howsoever liberal it may be.

    What is refreshing and salutary in Said's essay is its recognition
    that no amount of institutional or legal protection for academic
    freedom can secure it where the spirit of free inquiry is lacking.
    Intellectual freedom cannot flourish when universities themselves are
    battlefields of culture-warriors. The danger of multiculturalism in
    academic life is the hardening of oppositional identities into
    self-enclosed intellectual communities. But this is a mirror-image of
    a liberal hegemony in which the experience and histories of people
    from other cultures are recognized only in so far as they validate the
    superiority of "our", liberal forms of ethical life. The domination of
    political philosophy over the past generation by a school of
    liberalism that takes all its reference points from recent North
    American experience, interpreted from a standpoint of legalism and
    individualist rights theory, is a species of solipsism in intellectual
    and academic life.

    Of course, it cannot be said that the heg-emony of this peculiar and
    parochial variant of liberal theory in the academy is a violation of
    academic freedom, as that is presently understood. But it is an
    example of a widespread self-insulation of academic institutions from
    the larger and more diverse political and cultural realities of the
    time. It is the self-referential character of much academic discourse
    which claims to address issues in the real world that accounts for the
    continuing leakage of intellectual energy from universities to other
    spheres of society - think-tanks, the media, even politics - which is
    such an ominous sign for the future of the academy.

    There are many reasons why universities risk becoming culturally and
    intellectually marginal. In Britain, their increasing subordination to
    economic and vocational objectives is a danger to the autonomy and
    ethos of universities more immediate and urgent than intellectual
    sectarianism. But in Britain, as elsewhere, universities will be able
    to renew themselves only if they contain people for whom intellectual
    freedom matters.

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