Can Western Universities be Saved?
This is in the nature of an interlude. At the time I am writing there is in Australia controversy over the Australian National University in Canberra, which although it has happily accepted money from Chinese to set up a “Confucius Institute” and money from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey for Islamic studies institute, has rejected funding from an Australian magnate's will to set up a centre for the study of western culture!
The deal was apparently all set when leftist students and staff protested – objecting to Western culture as the scourge of the earth – and the university capitulated to them. Staff anf students at other first tier universities have been quick with pre-emptive protests. More moderate media commentators have been lamenting this Marxist knee jerk reaction and the loss of intellectual freedom it represents.
I'm going to paste in one rather long article from last Saturday's “Australian”. It is long, and I don't agree with all its assertions, but it gives an expert sociologists insights into the demise of Western culture that is pertinent to the discussions in many of my previous blogs. So I commend it to you. (PS highlights are mine)
One further step in the demoralisation of the academy has just taken place, care of ANU senior management caving in to a minority of noisy radical students, one which, while small in itself, can count on background support from most of the academic staff in the humanities. There is a long history behind how we, as a society, have let this come to pass. At issue is what has transpired in the humanities and social sciences, not in the rest of the university.
The Western university as we know it today was founded in the Middle Ages as a Christian institution. It was predicated on unquestioned and unifying faith. Within the faith, its central task was theological, to explain the works of God to man and to train minds for that interpretative work. The university was transformed by the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment, into a humanist institution. In this, its second phase, culture replaced God as the transcendental force that welded the unifying vision. We are now well into a third phase in which the university has a confused idea of itself, and inasmuch as it has direction, it is to be found in pockets still under the influence of the ghosts of the old beliefs.
This history is best clarified by a closer look at the humanist era. The humanist university drew its lifeblood from three related ideals. One was aristocratic, that of the gentleman, a character ideal. The assumption was that the good society depends on a social hierarchy led by a cultivated elite, one with a strong sense of civic duty. That elite was defined by the character of its individuals.
The second ideal was that of “civilisation”, which was imagined as the pinnacle of human achievement. It depends on the most intellectually and imaginatively gifted, in trained application, producing great works. Civilisation has created the gothic cathedral and the steam engine, Hamlet and the Sistine ceiling, Newton’s laws of motion, graceful town planning, hygiene, democracy and codified law. The works of civilisation show humans at their highest, transcending mundane everyday life; making of themselves something immortal and godlike; and creating both powerful tools for the conquest of necessity and objects of supreme and edifying beauty.A fresco featuring Plato, Arisotle and The School of Athens in the Vatican.
The third ideal was a utilitarian one, that culture and knowledge are useful. In Matthew Arnold’s formulation, deriving from Socrates, knowledge will make a person better and happier. Ignorance is the source of misery and evil. Humans who have knowledge will find it more difficult — in the extreme version, impossible — to do ill. They will be more rational about their lives and therefore make them more pleasurable and fulfilling. These qualities applied to society will result in it, too, being reformed and improved.
This humanist optimism had gone by the end of World War I, as German sociologist Max Weber reflected in a 1918 lecture titled “Knowledge as a Vocation”. Weber’s question was whether the university is possible in a godless and prophetless time, a time in which the traditional ultimate values had lapsed and no new ones had appeared. Weber observed that many were looking to the university to provide the meaning that had gone out of a disenchanted world. However, knowledge cannot provide meaning in the ultimate sense of answering Tolstoy’s questions: “What should we do and how shall we live?” Nor, according to Weber, should it try. Prophecy does not belong in the lecture halls.
What then remains? Weber finds three functions for the university: the advancement of knowledge, the teaching of methods of thinking, and the imposing on students of a clarity and consistency of thought within the framework of already given ultimate values. At this point, Weber’s defence of the university collapses in unacknowledged contradiction. The one function that preoccupies him is the third, but it depends on already given ultimate values, the lack of which is the problem that stimulated his lecture in the first place.
Weber concludes by defending the virtue of intellectual integrity, founded on the individual teacher’s own conscience. The implication is that rigorously disciplined scholars dedicated to their own branches of knowledge will communicate enough moral authority to their students to fill the metaphysical void.
Behind this flattering absurdity, Weber has described the modern university: where there is authority, it is in individuals obeying their own consciences, usually in isolation, an odd dispersion of one-person sects to be found sprinkled thinly through an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
In the US, there were examples of the survival of the old education, especially in the liberal arts colleges, often centring on courses teaching the great books of Western culture. Chicago and Columbia were notable. The Ramsay initiative at the ANU sought to revive this noble tradition.
In the 20th-century wake of the humanist university, there was one quite different strategy: to create a politically active institution. In the ashes of the last “idea” grew the university as training camp for political and social reformers. Here the university again followed the church, in compensating for a lack of belief in itself with political activism. Weber knew the phenomenon in the German universities of the 1890s. It reappeared in the 1930s with the sacking of Jewish professors, the burning of books and Heidegger’s rectorial address at Freiburg in which the eminent philosopher urged commitment to Hitler.
In the 30s it also appeared in other countries, England for instance, where a Marxist socialism became the fashion among intellectuals. The political motivation returned in the 60s and has continued ever since, this time pioneered by leftist students demanding that radical social reform replace learning as the main activity of the university.
Activism was energised by a displacement of religious zeal into politics. With the death of God and the marginalisation of the churches, salvation came to be sought in social crusades and highly charged moral causes, loosely guided by Marxist ideology. One might have imagined that the main historical lesson of the 20th century would provide a cautionary tale, that redemptive politics — whether communist or fascist — leads not to utopia but to a human wasteland strewn with a hundred million corpses. The universities, free from any constraining reality principle, were blind to this lesson.
The politicisation of the university continues unabated. For instance, until a decade or so ago, courses teaching Shakespeare and Jane Austen remained common. Today, if the creator of the classic novel is to be found in any English literature department, it will probably be because of her picture of colonialism — in reality, so trivial amid the magnificence of her work as needing a microscope to find.
The demoralisation of the humanist university was compounded by a profound attack launched by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880s, in a castigation of intellectuals, and indeed of the entire Western ascetic tradition of scholars and priests. Sorel, Spengler, Benda, Rieff, Allan Bloom and other later critics of intellectuals have been much under his influence, although their work is pale by comparison. Weber’s 1918 lecture is troubled precisely because it accepts Nietzsche’s case and cannot get around it.
Nietzsche’s argument contrasts instinct and knowledge. The history of civilisation is the history of increasing repression, of steadily proliferating checks on the instincts. This development is against nature. Healthy, strong, admirable human individuals are decisive, they see things clearly and can act on what they see — their instincts are good, and they obey them.
The high level of repression concomitant with civilisation produces people, by contrast, whose passions are tepid, who dither, who are ineffectual and who take to moralising in compensation for their inability to decide and to act. Hamlet is the literary exemplar. He lost the instinctive sense of what is good and bad, what is worth doing and what is not, and lived under the delusion that he could reason himself into action. It follows that the celebration of knowledge, epitomised in the philosopher and the university, is not a mark of progress, not the banner under which human life will be made better and happier.
In effect, Nietzsche makes two points. One is about the human types who pursue knowledge; the other about the function of knowledge itself. The first point is that it is the worst people who become intellectuals, types who are devious, inhibited and rancorous. Not only is repressed emotion sublimated into thinking but the overcharged intellectual faculty is then commandeered to manufacture tortuous justifications of bad motives as good ones, of bad acts as reasonable ones.
The recent politicisation of language in the universities exemplifies this. In diametric opposition to the principle of free speech, students are discouraged from saying what they think lest they transgress approved usage and risk being damned as a “racist” or whatever the current target for righteous indignation. It is as if they are being trained in political inhibition.
Nietzsche’s second point is that knowledge has helped us become more comfortable, not better or happier. The best societies have strong cultures. Culture is rooted in myth, not knowledge. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge is a sure sign that the sacred myths have lost their authority. In particular, academic history is an abstract endeavour and only appears once real ties to the past have withered — family ties, tribal ties and communal ties. Our own Anzac Day illustrates this in its revitalised mythic force.
The last part of the argument is that the increasing repression of the active individual, combined with the canonisation of knowledge, has killed God. There are no transcendental powers left in a rational world. Where comfort is the highest value, it is the stomach, not the sacred, that rules. However, without belief in a higher order of some kind, human life becomes meaningless, losing purpose and direction.
Weber’s defence of the university is against modern culture as interpreted by Nietzsche. The task of the university is not to restore the spirit or revive the heart. In any case, Weber is too pessimistic to believe in that possibility. His modest claim is that the university allows specialist disciplines and that they have a virtue as long as their practitioners obey their ethos, that of intellectual integrity.
We know, early in the 21st century, that Weber’s uncertain defence of the university does not work — as a conglomerate of specialist disciplines vaguely unified at the individual level by an ethic of intellectual integrity.
Nor is a polytechnic a university, and, in any case, it only suits the natural sciences and perhaps such in-between studies as business and the various professions. A university draws its sustenance from the ultimate questions about the human condition, and therefore it centres on the humanities (including the social sciences). It always has.
The university requires a unifying and guiding vision. Experience in the past century proves that, without such a vision, it becomes demoralised, and those teachers who are not completely listless in their vocations tend to become rancorous, teaching against the authorities and truths of the inherited culture in what they themselves often celebrate as a “critical” or “radical” manner. This is not criticism in the sense of open-minded scrutiny of a text in order to gain access to some truth.
A university depends on collective belief in universals of goodness, beauty and truth — and that they carry with them some kind of transcendental value. When that belief fails, all that remains is to tear down and to shock — what the contemporary academy has unselfconsciously legitimised as “deconstruction”. The high priest of modernism, Marcel Duchamp, entered a urinal in an art exhibition in New York in 1917. His intention was to shock but also, more seriously, to challenge that there are no standards left by which to say that my porcelain urinal is less beautiful, good or true than any of the works of the old masters. Duchamp has carried the day, both in contemporary art and in university arts faculties.
A further cost of the collapse of confident belief in the university has been the failure of academics in the past two decades to resist bureaucratisation, to their own further detriment. Fifty-five per cent of those employed in Australian universities today are administrators. This is not the place to go into what they all do, or don’t do, in an institution devoted to teaching and research. Academics have joked, borrowing from Yes Minister, that the perfect university for the new order of management is one in which there are no academics and no students. Indeed, there is little chance that these vast structures of senior and middle management, with rare exceptions, will have any sense of the higher purpose of the institution they run. Recent events at the ANU are, given this context, unsurprising.
The humanist university has run down. The Christian university, founded in medieval form, is too culturally alien to the contemporary West to be revived. The church, the one institution that could replace the university as the master teacher of eternal truths, is in a state of hopeless disrepair. Yet the university is here to stay, for a bureaucratically organised society will, of its nature, maintain an educational hierarchy, with the universities at the pinnacle.
Nietzsche saw that cultural demolition will start with ascetic individuals, ones subject to high levels of instinctual repression, complexity of psychological disposition, given to thinking, those very individuals to fill the ranks of the priesthood, the academy and the caste of artists, writers and musicians. When they begin to lose their faith, they turn on the gods that have failed them.
It is commonplace that the most virulent critics of the pope and the Church of Rome are priests with faltering belief or laity in the process of defection. There is a sense of betrayal, a rage against the sacred walls that have crumbled, against the past authorities that still roam around uneasily in the individual unconscious but no longer command.
And “rage” is not an overstatement. George Orwell lamented towards the end of World War II that the whole left intelligentsia in Britain had been secretly pleased whenever the Germans won a battle. Orwell called himself a socialist at the time, and while he no doubt exaggerated, the visceral intensity and irrationality of national self-hatred is exemplified here — preferring Hitler to your own people. There is very little left at any level in the universities with the spine to resist this kind of cultural self-loathing.
The rage against a culture that has lost authority has percolated more and more widely through left-green political culture, if usually in more mellow tones. Generations of students in schools and universities have now been subjected to Marxist ideology, teaching them about the West’s capitalist exploitation of other peoples, of its own minorities and of the disadvantaged in general. That the West is evil has become the default reading for much of the tertiary-educated upper middle class. Yet only a small, noisy minority are rancorous. For most, a vague reflex view of the world has come to prevail, ignorantly held and often naive, while occasionally grounded in genuine empathy for those who are less well-off.
It is, of course, true that Western history has its negative episodes, but which society or civilisation hasn’t? Realist comparisons show the modern West, especially since 1945, in a very favourable light in terms of quality of life, fairness and respect for universal human rights.
The hatred of Western civilisation that has arisen in the cultural elites draws on one further motivational strand: power envy.
The very success of the West, in creating the most prosperous, the most powerful and the most just society the world has ever known, creates its own irritant. Those who are unhappy with their lives, insecure in their identities and anxious about their future may come to resent the extraordinary privilege, comfort and opportunity into which they have been born. Their society is successful and powerful; they are not.
What follows is identification with the “wretched of the earth”, those victims who are helplessly disadvantaged. This first appeared among radical university students in the 1960s, in a ludicrous inversion of the reality that they were a uniquely privileged generation of spoiled rich kids.
University rancour has commonly surfaced in a condescending disparagement of ordinary people and popular culture — for cheap taste, crass materialism, jingoism, xenophobia and syrupy values. The reality is that Western popular culture, by contrast, has retained a healthy belief in universal moral laws, in the value of the beautiful and in the ultimate significance of truth.
Power envy is linked with a paranoid reflex, which holds that if I can destroy what has power and persecutes me, then I myself can gain that power. Hence the radical hostility to the main power on our side, the US, and, increasingly on the left, to Israel — as the one prosperous, democratic and successful country amid the wretched stagnation of most of the Middle East.
Where to now? Central to any viable idea of the university, whether Christian, humanist or other, is a retelling of the human story as a kind of epic, with gravity and dignity, following the diverse ways it plays out its fateful tragedies. This requires interpretations of the story that reveal that life is more than an egoistic performance governed by power struggles.
All humans want answers to the big questions of where they come from, what they should do with their lives in order to make sense of them and what happens when they die. Deep engagement with the best literature, art, music and philosophy of our own Western culture is fundamental. Today’s students crave just this sort of education.
Here is the aim of the Ramsay Centre for western Civilisation, which will almost certainly have to set up its own independent institution if it is to prosper.
It is vitally important for the country that it succeeds.
John Carroll is professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University. johncarrollsociologist.wordpress.com