We are to address the role of the university in providing and sustaining an intellectual life; more specifically, a life in the humanities—a humanist life. So let us begin at the beginning, with an account of the earliest universites, which evolved from earlier schools some time around 1200. There is a fair amount of history and quotation in this post, gentle reader, but I hope you will not let that put you off from the body of my actual arguments.
The mediaeval liberal arts curriculum was oriented towards careers at court (eg. arithmetic for accounting) or in the Church (eg. astronomy for the computus). The best liberal arts students graduated to theology, the most prestigious subject of study; others to law or medicine. The Church stood by, with blessing or condemnation, ready to snap up the cream for its own. In this respect it resembled the rich multinationals that finance university programmes today (eg. Hewlett Packard at MIT), only its authority was paramount. It was the Church and its minister Bernard that condemned Abelard in 1130 and again in 1144; it was the Church that condemned Aquinas in 1277, along with the heretical Averroist Siger of Brabant; it was the Church that fostered the growth of the friars at the Sorbonne in the mid-thirteenth century. So it would seem a little strange, would it not, if someone were to claim that the mediaeval universities were in any way autonomous?
The university corporations of the Middle Ages at the height of their power were not responsible to anybody, in the sense that they could not be brought to book by any authority. They claimed, and succeeded in making their claim good, complete independence of all secular and religious control.Thus Robert Hutchins, in The University of Utopia (1953). The American reformers of the mid-century were, in fact, full of mediaeval dreamings. In a recent book, William Haarlow quotes Stringfellow Barr, co-author, with Scott Buchanan, of the massively influential 1935 Virginia Plan, which outlined a university curriculum based on the Great Books:
The [reading] list reflected the title of [Buchanan’s] Poetry and Mathematics and the connection between these two modes of thought and expression; between the medieval trivium and quadrivium that he and Adler and McKeon had argued about in the days of his seminars for the People’s Institute.And indeed, in Poetry and Mathematics (1929), Buchanan has more to say about Richard McKeon, the great mediaevalist scholar (and student of the Neo-Thomist Etienne Gilson), whose work on the liberal arts curriculum would prove so influential to the educational theories of his contemporaries. Only a year after the drafting of the Virginia Plan, Hutchins could already write, in The Higher Learning in America:
The medieval university had a princple of unity. It was theology. . . The medieval university was rationally ordered, and, for its time, it was practically ordered, too. But these are other times; and we are trying to discover a rational and practical order for the higher learning of today.He goes on to deny any specific system, but he insists that his ideal university would consist of three main faculties—natural sciences, social sciences, and metaphysics. Metaphysics, in other words, is for Hutchins the queen of the humanities. And he had good precedent: Newman (Idea of the University, 1852) had written that ‘all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator’. Before that, Coleridge and Bentham had drawn up schemata showing the interrelation of different fields of knowledge, and their ultimate Platonic unity—a project going all the way back, through Peter Ramus and John Dee, to classical antiquity.
How strange this seems to us! Some of us are positivists; others postmodernists—all of us firmly against metaphysics. If you go to a second-hand bookstore, at least in America, ‘metaphysics’ now means ‘New Age gibberish’. Wittgenstein, we suspect, is chuckling maniacally from the clouds. But Hutchins is squirming: for as he has it, ‘consciously or unconsciously we are always trying to get’ a metaphysical system. The intellectual trends of the next sixty-odd years would prove him quite wrong: we have drifted further and further away from wanting any sort of system. We have drifted towards Toulmin and Wittgenstein, towards the postmoderns and Feyerabend, towards an anthropological sort of relativism. Nobody, it seems, except perhaps a handful of desparate Catholics, still wants a metaphysics at all, let alone a metaphysics at the hierarchical summit of the humanities. Even before the surge of relativism, J. A. Rice had complained that St. John’s College, still famous for its Great Books programme, ‘trains its students not for the church, as Oxford did then, and not for any office in or under an oligarchy, but for something pleasantly vague: to be artists in the art of thinking, Neo-Thomist dialectitions [sic], lawyers, without law’.
And yet the historical and prescriptive beliefs of Hutchins and his ilk stand as the vague foundation for the way a large proportion of our humanities departments are today structured. We still, most of us, believe in the ‘liberal arts’ and the ‘Great Books’: and the liberal arts and the Great Books are, for better or worse, essentially a metaphysics.
In 1408, the humanist Guarino of Verona returned from his studies in Constantinople to open a school in Florence. Later, the school moved to Venice, and then to d’Este Ferrara, where it eventually became the arts faculty of the new university. Guarino’s course began with an ‘elementary’, which taught students to read and pronounce Classical Latin; it continued with the teaching of grammar, and then of history, geography and mythology. Large amounts of memorisation and repetition were not only required—they were, naturally, the very basis of the education. Students would proceed to learn tropes from the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetoric, and to a lesser extent from the orations of the real Cicero, and finally build up an insider’s knowledge of Latin by reading authors like Pliny and Augustine.
When Guarino’s students left his school, they could read and speak Latin extempore, compose formal letters and orations, imitate poems and recite ‘facts’ of etymology and classical history. More to the point, their attitude to social authority had been irrevocably shaped by an awe and deference towards classical texts. They had become good, contributing members of society, and would go on to get well-paid jobs at the court or papal chancery. Their parents, of course, lapped it up. In Guarino’s school, as in the mediaeval universities, education was in the service of civil obedience—of the State. (It was, Mencius, much more a 'pretext for Party training' than it is now.) The same sort of conditions held in late Victorian and Edwardian England, and the last, scant vestiges of it can be seen in the sort of education I received at public school—Latin and Greek from age 10, lucky me!
The practices of Italian humanism, unlike those of thirteenth-century Paris, do not depend on a hierarchical metaphysics or theology. But they still depend on a Platonic understanding of human character, an unfailing faith in the moral value of classical literature, and a social structure still essentially aristocratic and authoritarian. Both paedagogies trained for uniformity and diligence; neither for creativity or freethinking. Both, amazingly, managed to produce young men of astounding creativity and free thought.
If our modern educational ideals can be described, with any accuracy, as a confluence of the mediaeval liberal arts programmes (as interpreted by mid-century American theorists) and the revival of text-based humanism, how can we make sense of a system whose social and metaphysical foundations have been almost eradicated?
One of the most common complaints about traditional liberal arts paedagogy is that it is inherently élitist—‘dead white males’ and all the rest of it. An education, it is claimed, should be for all. Anti-élitism, curiously, was one of the motivations of the liberal arts theorists as well—although the arguments are, invariably, rather confused. In The University of Utopia Hutchins writes that ‘everybody can and should learn’—and adds the rather sinister corollary, ‘I should welcome any method by which people are seduced into forming the habit of learning’. In his 1953 critique of Hutchins (‘one of the best, wittiest and most unanswerable things I’ve ever done’), F. R. Leavis accuses him of naïve democratism. Hutchins is quoted—
If leisure and political power are a reason for liberal education, then everybody in America now has this reason, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately have it. If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it.Mortimer Adler, Hutchins’ co-conspirator on the Chicago Great Books project, had similar ideals in mind when he extolled the 'learning which belongs to everybody and should be the common culture in which everybody participates’. The liberal arts programmes are proposed to create a generalist educated democracy alongside the specialist departments of academia, with the Great Books providing society with a common currency of historical thought. Democracy, in fact, cannot reasonably function in a society lacking a liberal education—as Hutchins writes: 'If the people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous.'
Leavis thinks this ridiculous: élitism, of a sort, after all, is necessary for any stable society: 'It is disastrous to let a country’s educational arrangements be determined, or even affected, by the assumption that a high intellectual standard can be attained by more than a small minority'. Or again:
The attempt to establish a democratic educational system in Great Britain has gone on the assumption that far from everybody has the capacity to justify his or her presence at a university—if ‘university’ is to mean anything—and that there must consequently be a severe sifting.Leavis, no less than Hutchins, wanted an 'educated public'. But although Leavis approved of Alexander Meiklejohn's liberal arts programme at Wisconsin (1927-32), he was sceptical of 'unrooted global eclecticism', of the mish-mash of classics of all disciplines proposed by Hutchins and Adler. Like many critics, he advocated the expansion of higher education, but wanted to restrict the growth of the university, which he identified with Oxbridge and put in the role of a dominant centre; as R. P. Bilan puts it in his 1979 book about Leavis, 'if the university is to help create the new educated public it must itself be a real centre and thus attempt to counter the increasing specialization that has, ultimately, led to the loss of a centre in society'. And at the centre of the university would be not metaphysics or the sciences, but a humanities structured around literature: and then not a canon of Great Books, but a 'living tradition'.
Despite his criticisms, Leavis was much like Hutchins. Both, for instance, deplored the positivists like Snow, who equated life with 'mortality tables' or 'standards of living'. But Leavis' arguments, unlike Hutchins', were entirely ignored. Universities have multiplied and fragmented—the 1963 Robbins Report, which Leavis denounced, promoted science over the humanities, and advocated more universities in response to growing demand. The Further and Higher Education Act (1992) allowed polytechnics to start calling themselves 'universities', leading to an even more crowded marketplace.
Even more damagingly, for a Leavisite—the university has grown drastically farther away from the common man. Academics are perceived as an irrelevance at best; at worst, as a threat. Professional writers hardly talk to English professors, just as, if Mencius is to believed, programmers hardly talk to computer science departments. There has developed a professional—not an intellectual—élitism, or rather a ghettoisation. And the 'school of resentment', as Harold Bloom has termed it, has sprung up to level charges of social élitism wherever it can. The feminists, post-colonialists, Marxists and so on—all reject the Hutchinsian notion that the Great Books represent a common culture: they see in it only the vested interest of the all-encompassing Patriarchy.
So the academic humanities have lost their metaphysical justification, their wider place in a social or political hierarchy, and their noble humanist purpose. Is there anything else, Doctor?
The causes of the media’s sniping at the University are not individual resentments but a more general uncertainty as to the role of the University and the very nature of the standards by which it should be judged as an institution.I quote Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996). Readings diagnoses yet another problem with the humanities: their unhappy transition from being the ‘custodian of national culture’, and thus the Koh-i-Noor in the nation-state's ideological crown—whether Humboldt’s Germany or Wilson’s America—to being the useless appendage of a ‘transnational bureaucratic corporation’. And Readings is quite right to note the trend—he discusses, among other things, the rise of the university’s administrative sector and the development of corporatisation and branding. Like me, he sees the university as having outlived its own purpose, only he has a different purpose in mind:
I would prefer to call the contemporary University “posthistorical” rather than “postmodern” in order to insist upon the sense that the institution has outlived itself, is now a survivor of the era in which it defined itself in terms of the project of the historical development, affirmation, and inculcation of national culture.Despite his misgivings, he does not propose a radical answer:
So what is the point of the University, if we realize that we are no longer to strive to realize a national identity, be it an ethnic essence or a republican will? In asking such a question I am not suggesting that I want to blow up the University, or even to resign from my job.His prognosis, in fact, is pretty weak, and amounts to a subaudible mumbling about 'dissensual dialogism' and 'thought beside itself'. Perhaps he would have been able to flesh out a more worthwhile response one day—but he died before his book's publication. Ah well. Still, Mencius is on hand with the solution turned down by Readings: 'the Henry VIII treatment—unconditional abolition and confiscation' of the universities. I wrote a short rhetorical reply here, which was flippant but nevertheless contained the germ of my actual views expressed in this post. The problem with Mencius' post is that its proposals rest on a wild and totally unsubstantiated claim that the 'universities are directly responsible for almost all the violence in the world today', on a few charming anecdotes about 1970s Hegelianism and 1990s computer science, told at considerable length, and. . . well, that's about it. But the cages rattle and the Menciophilical mob roars with delight, as it so often does. (He really is a very convincing demagogue, especially if, like me, your judgements are easily swayed.) The other problem with his post is that he doesn't address the humanities at all. For some reason he seems to prefer them to science departments. So his post is of no use to us here.
But why preserve the academic humanities? What would we lose if they went? What could we imagine in their stead? Could they be replaced, as our commenter Michael has suggested, with a sort of unofficial academy or society of study? It's a tempting thought. We can think of the standard examples: Ficino's Florentine Academy, Gresham College, the Royal Society, the circles of Erasmus and later the various Republics of Letters—even the Académie Française. Why couldn't we restore groups like this, and restrict our own humanist activities to them? We wouldn't need any metaphysics, any political hierarchies, any justification to the taxpayer, any Noble Social Purpose. The problem of bureaucratization would be irrelevant. We would be amatores.
The problem with this is a question of leisure. The members of the above societies all had proper jobs—and jobs, moreover, that fed and sustained (and thus legitimated) their interests and talents. But they also had considerable free time in which to study. As Mencius notes, in a recent comment here, 'a humanist was either an aristocrat, or a professional serving a largely aristocratic market'. Because they were operating in an essentially aristocratic milieu, they could afford the leisure time required for amateur study. Court and Church alike are conducive to educated leisure.
But we don't have the leisure any more. We can't afford it. And the work that most of us do—whether in finance, media or the service sector—hardly sustains our interests and talents. Those who fiddle numbers by day, and read old books by night—those few—are forced to lead a divided life hardly conducive to serious reflection or intellectual progress. Some of us might be patronised by loved ones, or subsidised by earlier financial success—but such situations are scarce. This is the situation of a society oriented around the middle classes.
And while it is nice to be Chris Miller—a non-academic lover of the arts—if we were all Millers, the sorts of books that Millers like to read wouldn't get written. We would never make any new discoveries; our thoughts would tread the old paths again and again. In the modern world, if not in Ficino's or Newton's, academic study makes possible non-academic study.
So while we may, like Michael, wish that universities 'as officially sanctioned diploma mills were eliminated', we are forced to conclude that in order to satisfy large numbers of humanist-minded individuals—or even to satisfy those intelligent and talented enough to produce worthwhile results—the existence of professional institutions is necessary.
The problem, then, is how to establish a professional environment for humanism, without being prey to all those factors that might render the institutional humanities retrograde, obsolete, and lacking in social function? How do we come to terms with a world increasingly inimical to 'purposeless' intellectual enquiry? How can we do what we like to do, as a paid community, and do it with dignity?
I'm not sure I can answer this yet. But there's the problem at least.