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To Civilise the City?

Raimond Gaita

Raimond Gaita reflects on the changing role of the university

In the early 1980s Don Gunner, a philosopher at the University of Melbourne, told me that the task of the university is to civilise the city. At the time he said this, many academics still believed that the concept of a university entitled them to say that no institution could rightly call itself a university if it did not have a department of philosophy, or classics, or physics. They thought this to be a conceptual truth—one evident after thoughtful, historically educated reflection on the concept of a university.

When Gunner made his remark to me, I worked (and did until last year) at King’s College London, situated on the Strand. Many of the great cultural institutions of London are within fifteen minutes on foot, so I did not take what he said to be generally true of universities. I also thought it was a very Australian, possibly even Melburnian, thing to say. Academics in London and elsewhere had begun to describe what they were doing in managerial newspeak. Rather than hope that King’s could civilise the city, I thought I should hope that the city might arrest its slide into philistinism.

‘Managerial newspeak’ is, of course, a term of denigration, so I must explain what I mean by it and why I fully intend the denigration. It was inspired by the belief that good managers could manage anything provided that the activities of the institutions they managed could be suitably redescribed to enable them to do it. If, for example, you describe what students and their teachers achieve in a university as a product, students as customers, heads of departments as unit managers and vice-chancellors as CEOs, then—this thought goes—good managers from BHP should be able take up management posts in universities whether they have a rich understanding of the life of the mind or virtually no understanding of it at all. The idea proved largely illusory: hardly any institutions seriously tried to implement it fully. Even so, its vocabulary took off, though that was as much an effect as it was a cause of the decline of a concept of the university that could support quasi-tautologies that were the expression of Gunner’s concept of a university.

Many academics went along with it, for at least two reasons. First, they thought that any description of what they did that made the work of management more tractable would not impinge on their sense of what mattered in what they did. People and activities can, after all, be described in different ways for different purposes. The university finance department can describe students as customers, while their employers may describe them as products of one kind or another and their teachers, simply, as students. Many academics believed that for functional purposes those different descriptions could be kept apart. Second, they believed that they could forever keep an ironic distance from the managerial redescriptions of what they and their students did and of the relations between.

That was the century of what a philosopher called ‘the linguistic turn’, when we became aware as never before of thought’s dependence on language. It should therefore come as no surprise that it was hubris for academics to believe that they could retain their distance from managerialist ways of speaking and even, when it suited, to manipulate them in order to outwit their managers and the government that paid their salaries. Though they were often alert—sometimes with aggressive condescension—to such hubris when the military resorted to ugly euphemisms like ‘collateral damage’ or when governments resorted to dehumanising descriptions of asylum seekers intentionally to diminish sympathy for them, they were blind to their own vulnerability to the corrosive effects of managerial newspeak. Yet even in the early eighties it should have been evident to anyone with their eyes open that universities could more easily survive government cuts than they could survive the degraded language in which academics were beginning to speak of what they were doing.

Managerial newspeak flourished and adopted a distinctive idiom and tone under an aggressive and ubiquitous free market ideology, but it is not essentially a product of such economics. It could flourish as well under socialist economies. Indeed it emerged first in Britain under a Labour government before Margaret Thatcher came to power. And the instrumentalist conceptions of the value of university study that it expresses are equally at home on the left of politics as on the right. It was the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott who spoke most movingly against the managerial impulses that were already showing in university administrators in the late sixties.

It is no small matter, the ubiquitous success of managerial newspeak in the characterisation of university life. Students who learn to speak it, confident in no other language with which to express what it can mean to be a student, will not have the words with which to identify the deepest values of their education and thereby to claim its treasures as their inheritance.

An example will illustrate the point. Recently when I gave a public lecture at the Melbourne Law School, in which I lamented the ways managerial newspeak had estranged politicians, civil servants, school teachers, academics and others from the deepest values of their vocations, a student said at question time that he did not object to being described as a customer in his dealings with his teachers. In fact, he went on to say, he welcomed it because it enabled him to hold them to account if they did not deliver the product the university had advertised.

Students have justification for feeling aggrieved, perhaps especially in the more prestigious universities, where pressure on research performance is highest and where, inevitably, academics are torn between giving time to their students and writing papers and applying for grants. Universities are under intolerable pressure to produce research results as a sign of productivity and as a marker of prestige and at the same time to respond to the increased demands that teachers be more accountable to their students. Managers will therefore say, with some reason, that their task, not yet accomplished, is to find the right balance between time given to teaching and to research.

In such circumstances, resort to the metaphor of a balance is irresistible, but it can be misleading. Whether it be in politics, when people speak of getting the balance right between liberty and security, for example, or in our present discussion, the metaphor tends to obscure the fact that there are no value-neutral ways of describing what goes into the scales and how they weigh it. Or, perhaps more accurately, to say what weighing means in this context. When I teach students who study philosophy, I often tell them that I do not set the most important of the standards in whose light they should see what they do. Nor does the department or the university or even the community of philosophers worldwide. My colleagues and I try, with them, the students, to rise to the standards of the discipline, which are set by the work of the great figures in it and also by those, like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, who had a tense relation to the academic practice of it and those, like Socrates, for whom philosophy was not, and could not have been, a discipline.

What I say to them relies on a sense of the intrinsic worth of what they are doing. It requires a continuing, ever-deepening exploration of what it can mean to do philosophy for the love of it, and of the joys and the obligation that love imposes. More often than not, we academics must acknowledge that we fail our students and ourselves when we judge what we do by those standards, but we would fail our students even more seriously if we did not make them and ourselves answerable to them. Obviously the limited family of concepts to which that of a customer or a provider of goods and services belong will not take us far in the direction of understanding what is at issue here. Nor will the metaphor of getting the balance right enable us to understand the disagreements about the deepest values of the academic life and of what it is to do history, or philosophy or physics, for example, well. Or, in the case of philosophy, what it is to do it at all.

I suspect that the student in my example welcomed being described as a customer because customers know—or can set out to know—how to demand value for money. Customers typically know what they want and what counts as getting it. The trouble, however, as I hope my example shows, is that students are initiated into things they don’t understand and which take time to understand. If they are well taught, they discover worlds they had never dreamed of and whose exploration requires disciplines that, at their deepest, can never adequately be captured in the forms they fill out at the end of the semester to assess their lectures and lecturers. When we describe students as customers we do not create a suitable means to enable them to hold their teachers to account. We make many of their teachers servile because they become fearful. We then betray the trust of the students and their teachers.

The concept of a university to which Gunner appealed is now defunct. No institutions that are called universities—from the most to the least academically distinguished—think seriously of what they do under that concept. Few academic managers feel the need to consider whether the courses they might introduce or axe are consistent with a serious conception of a university. The protest that one cannot have a university without a philosophy or a classics or a physics department falls on deaf ears, or provokes the irritated response I heard from a minister of education in Britain. Told repeatedly at a meeting with philosophers that one could not call an institution without a philosophy department a university, he replied, ‘In that case, we will call it something else!’

Does it matter that the concept is defunct? Has something important been lost? And even if there has, is there any point in lamenting it? Had its time not come? Can we not simply identify what is good and what is bad in higher education and try to develop what is good and eliminate what is bad to the extent that it is possible? To these questions, I answer with a yes and a no.

The English philosopher Michael Dummet asked recently whether we would have thought that no institution without a philosophy department could justifiably call itself a university if philosophy had developed only recently. He might have asked the same question of most of the disciplines in a university and the answer would have been the same: we would not have thought they were necessary to a serious understanding of what it is for an institution to be a university. The rhetorical point of Dummet’s question is, of course, to suggest that the claim that an institution could not justifiably call itself a university unless it had a philosophy department disguised a historical accident as a conceptual truth. He might have gone on to say that it often goes with a fantasy about a golden age of university life. And though he would not, others might go on to say that such fantasies are the expression of elitist nostalgia.

That may be a fair response to the way that some—perhaps many—people defended the concept of the university as an institution that was home to a distinctive form of intellectual life. It is true enough that we must look backwards to discover times when the concept of a university represented an inspiring idea. But when we do, we need not look to institutions and practices that one believes measured up to the concept. We need only look to times when their practices were answerable to it. Nor need we look to something like the Platonic Form of the university.

The best thought about the university was not about a Platonic Form of it. Nor was it about a historical paradigm. It was thought that was inward with the distinctive form of the life of the mind that universities nourished—thought in dialogue with a history of reflection that goes back at least to Socrates. It was that historical depth, rather than a metaphysical essence or a historical paradigm, that ensured fertile reflection upon one, historically accidental, form of the life of mind—the academic form. And that same—quite contingent—historical depth also secured for the concept some distance from times and places to make it possible for thinkers to judge that their desires, their purposes, their aspirations and even the spirit of their times were faithful or faithless to ‘the idea of a university’, which though expressed in the singular was, of course, never just one thing. This is thought of a kind that may deepen without limit, and that can never be exhausted by a set of definitions. To the student who believed he was empowered by being described as a customer, I would emphasise that this kind of reflection on what it is to be a teacher or student in a university requires inwardness with values slowly apprehended by living the life of the mind in community with fine exemplars of it. And as I noted earlier, it can awaken new desires and make us responsive to values we have never before encountered. The dialogical, interdisciplinary enactment of that reflection constituted what used to be called a community of scholars, with all the unworldly connotations that expression rightly evokes.

Exemplars matter and therefore it matters who one takes them to be.

The value of the life of the mind, what it can humanly mean, can only be revealed in the reflective appreciation of the way it deepens the lives of people who care for it. We do not have a sense of it independently of such exemplars. If you want to know what justice is you should look to the just man, said Aristotle, but of course you must have eyes to see. The same is true of our understanding of the life of the mind in all its forms. Or, to change the metaphor for a better one: examples will inspire us only if they speak to us in a language that lives to us. By the same token, language that reveals value of any depth depends on examples to make it vital.

I hope that it is evident, even to someone who believes that they deserve the hostility directed against them at present, that the humanities play a fundamental role in the critically reflective dialogue that should be the mark of a university community. In saying that, I do not wish to revive polemic about the ‘two cultures’. Discussion of the humanities needs to be rescued from the assumptions that informed that debate almost as much as it needs to be rescued from the poisonous inanities of the culture wars. The fundamental impact of science on our understanding of what it means to be human is undeniable. It has deepened immeasurably understanding of ourselves as creatures of the earth and as material beings in the universe. Neuroscience has altered our understanding of the mind, and evolutionary psychology has had considerable influence on moral psychology and, through it, moral and political philosophy. (It has also fed reductionist impulses in real and pop philosophy, but that is another matter.) Recent developments in technology have affected our lives directly in dramatic ways and altered our ways of thinking about and imagining ourselves.

Self-evidently scientists live the life of the mind as surely as their colleagues in the humanities. The BBC revealed this beautifully to a non-specialist audience some years ago when it screened a program on the origins of the universe. It went on for more than four hours and though I could hardly understand a word of it, I was glued to the television for the duration. I was exhilarated by the joyful love of the world, mediated in this case by a love of its beauty, shown by those high-flying astrophysicists. It gave me a new and deepened understanding of what the study of science can mean in a human life, of what it can be to pursue it for the love of it. Or, better: it enabled me to see the point of Simone Weil’s remark that it is misleading to speak of the love of truth: one should speak instead of the ‘spirit of truth in love’.

Yet only when they are engaged with the humanities are the natural sciences able to contribute to an understanding of the human meaning of their discoveries—indeed of their meaning, period. Only when it is engaged with moral, legal and political philosophies that are historically informed and imaginatively engaged with art can evolutionary theory, for example, deepen our understanding of the human condition. And though it must be informed by examples like the one I gave from the BBC, reflection on the value of truth, of what it is to seek it in the spirit of love as those astrophysicists did, is reflection best suited to the humanities. But the present conditions of academic life undermine the critical distance from the times, from convention and fashion, that the humanities require to honour their obligation to the need we human beings have to understand ourselves.

Academics now tend to cut their subjects down to a size that is tractable enough to meet the demands of accountability. Impressive technicality, a kind of high-flying thoughtlessness, can shine in such conditions. This is true even in philosophy that glories, but increasingly without justification, in the fact that radical self-criticism is of its essence. Wittgenstein suggested that philosophers should greet one another by saying, ‘Take your time.’ One needs time to muse, to meditate. Meditative reflectiveness does not issue quickly in publications and is often not sure of itself. It is seldom impressive on its feet. Yet for those of us who are not geniuses, it nourishes critical reflection, enabling one sufficient space and time to step back and to examine assumptions one might otherwise not have noticed.

Just as the emphasis on high-flying research performance undermines critical reflection, so it undermines teaching more surely. Even academics who work in the best departments in the best universities seldom produce work that is read by more than a handful of colleagues before it is forgotten. Yet for such mediocre achievement they cut corners in their teaching—by assigning more of it to postgraduates, by increasing the number in tutorials to ludicrous levels and by seeing students less often, for example. Many of them would be fine teachers and some would be wonderful—thus doing more for their students than they can by writing and more for their discipline. One could weep for the waste.

Worst of all, perhaps, the way universities now distinguish research-active academics from those who are not leaves little space for those who write little and have not attracted grants, but who are up to date with their disciplines and whose reflective engagement with them makes their contribution to the intellectual life of their departments and, in some cases, to the life of the university, invaluable. In that way they also contribute to the research culture of their departments. Don Gunner was such a scholar, as were some of my most challenging teachers even when I was a postgraduate. As much as people who write books and refereed articles, academics like them—genuine scholars and thinkers though not researchers in the contemporary narrow meaning of the term—need time free of teaching to be the inspiring teachers and colleagues that some of them are. Yet the descriptions of what they do that are implicit (though obvious) in the research requirements of most contemporary universities denigrate what they have to offer and humiliate them.

Because the institutions we call universities are in complex ways socially, politically and historically imbedded, it would be foolish to suggest that one could adequately characterise how they are and how they have come to be that way solely by philosophical elaboration of the decline of an idea.

The idea of a university had life when there were few universities. When their number increased dramatically, institutions that could lay no claim to it were granted the title university. When I say they could lay no serious claim to the title, I am not commenting on the quality of the work that was done in them. I mean that they were not institutions that had ever thought of themselves as answerable to the conceptual truths that defined the idea of a university, truths of the kind I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. It therefore became impossible for any of the universities to define themselves in terms of an ever-deepening exploration of those truths.

That will not change. On this matter there is no going back. Insofar as a university education is partly defined by the fact that it is acquired by living in a community that must continuously rise to the obligation to reflect on what it means to be a student or a teacher, responsive to the ideals that define the deepest and most rigorous standards of their disciplines, the upshot of the expansion of the university sector is not that many more people enjoy university education: it is that no-one does. This is but one of many examples in which the morally compelling pressure of egalitarianism eroded the very nature of the institutions to which it demanded broader access. The bitter irony in the case of the universities is that the distinction between the most and the least prestigious universities has reasserted itself, but with nothing like the now defunct concept of a university to restrain its more baleful consequences and to give academics a voice in which to speak back to increasingly authoritarian managers.

It would be foolish to talk of the radical change in the institutions called universities over the last forty years or so without addressing the social and political circumstances of that change. It would be equally foolish to think that one could characterise the plight of the universities, let alone understand it, without understanding the values that distinguished universities from other institutions of higher education and that determined the character of the disciplines within them. That means we cannot characterise or explain the plight of universities without understanding how they have come to be dominated by a largely instrumental conception of their nature. Whatever understanding we achieve about that will be in considerable part the work of history and social theory. But the offerings of those disciplines will not take us far unless they are informed by an imaginative conceptual grasp of what that instrumental ideal has displaced. That will, in its turn, depend on inwardness with the life of the mind lived in pursuit of understanding for its own sake—an inwardness that requires sympathy for the joys and obligations of that life. And the fruits of such inwardness cannot be expressed in managerial newspeak.

To avoid misunderstanding, I acknowledge without reluctance that vocational and professional courses have always been important to universities. Never before, however, have they determined the idiom, set so much of the tone, transformed the language and set the goals of the institutions to whose essential identity, if not to their attractions and prestige, they had previously been marginal. For a very long time the humanities have had to establish their credentials against the prestigious claims to knowledge justifiably advanced by the sciences, and against the attractions of the professional courses. Only recently, however, have the need to attract outside funding and the attraction of courses that guarantee secure employment so radically transformed the ways that universities understand what they do. So great is that transformation, so complete the success of managerial newspeak that some essential disciplines of the humanities and the sciences—philosophy and (even) physics, for example—have become mendicants for a respected place in institutions that should honour them, but honour instead the study of hospitality and gaming.

A British minister of education said a few years ago that although he had nothing against people who wanted to study classics, he did not see why the state should pay for them to do it. Though I was surprised that he said it, I was not surprised that he thought it. Many people do. He thought that none of the instrumental benefits of a classics education could justify its expense, and that the state should not pay academics to enjoy its intrinsic worth.

Earlier I wrote that managerial newspeak was as much the effect as it was the cause of the decline of the concept of the university to which Gunner appealed. Its energetic arrival on the academic scene was enabled by the difficulties academics everywhere faced when they tried to defend the intrinsic value of their disciplines to their paymaster. It was like a weed establishing itself where grasses had died. Much of the student protest movement of the sixties, which many of my generation now romanticise as expressing an ideal period of university life, wanted the universities to serve the interests of the revolution or at least those of social justice. A concern with the intrinsic value of academic study was often scorned as intellectual masturbation. Even subjects in disciplines and sometimes whole disciplines were hijacked to serve the radical cause. At Flinders University the course in moral philosophy was renamed American Imperialism in Vietnam. I imagine that was not what Gunner had in mind when he said that the task of the university is to civilise the city. But then, I think neither he nor I realised that the concept of a university as a distinctive institution of higher education no longer had life in it.

Some conceptions of intrinsic value go deep; others, however, are relatively shallow. Expressions such as ‘for its own sake’ and ‘for its intrinsic value’ mean something only in the context of a common understanding of how to characterise, more positively and fully, the value of something pursued ‘for its own sake’. When such common understanding is absent, those expressions often convey the vague thought that something that should not be pursued only for its instrumental value is pursued only for that value. Or they convey something very thin, like the idea of higher pleasure of the kind to which John Stuart Mill resorted when he tried to explain why the life of Socrates dissatisfied was preferable to the life of a pig satisfied.

For a long time we have been bereft of such a common understanding, one that would enable us to give authoritative voice to a conception, positive and deep, of the value of academic forms of the life of the mind. I have a passion for philosophy, and until back trouble set in I had it for mountaineering. Both yield higher pleasures but, quite rightly, the taxpayer does not pay for both. If the intrinsic value of university studies is nothing more serious than the pleasures that accompany the disciplined exercise of the powers of the mind, then it is right that serious people should look to their extrinsic benefits, be they political or economic.

The reason we find it difficult to argue persuasively for a more serious conception of the intrinsic value of study is not because philistines dominate our audience. Nor is it because of the effects of high unemployment on students or the effects of market-driven policies on staff and courses. Such economic and political factors are important but, like their expression in managerial newspeak, their impact on the universities is as much effect as it is cause of our inarticulacy. In the sixties the universities were vulnerable to the call that they serve the requirements of political idealism. They are now vulnerable to the pressures to serve the economic imperatives of the nation. In both cases their vulnerability has been partly a function of the fact that those who defended them, sometimes passionately, could rarely articulate a vision of the life of the mind that would move people to see something serious and deep where they had not seen it before. It went together with the loss of the concept of a university as something more than a high-flying institution, three stages past kindergarten, that excels at research.

This is a cultural phenomenon, a quite general conceptual loss, and has little to do with individual failings of character or intelligence. The concepts we need are beyond our reach in the way that we capture when we say that a form of speaking has gone dead on us. The spread of managerial newspeak was facilitated by the replacement of the idea of academic life as a vocation with the idea of it as a profession. At a certain point the concept of a vocation became as anachronistic as the concept of chastity. When that happened our sense of the value of truth and its place in the characterisation of academic life changed. What one makes of talk of the love of truth, of truth as a need of the soul, of the need to be concerned with truth over vanity, wealth, status and so on, will be different according to whether one’s conception of academic life and its responsibilities is structured by the concept of a vocation or by that of a profession.

In his notebooks, Wittgenstein agonises over whether his work is infected by vanity. ‘Infected’ is the right word, I think, or ‘polluted’ may be, because he was not worried that vanity would increase the number of mistakes he made, or in other ways distort the content of his work as we think of that content when we lecture on him—on the private-language argument or on rule following, for example. For him the spirit in which philosophy is done is intrinsic to its nature. Seen in the light of the conception of a philosophical life, including an academic philosophical life, as a vocation that is perhaps not remarkable. In the light of a conception of that life as a profession or career, it is likely to seem precious or neurotic. And we would acknowledge that it would be absurd to characterise Socrates as a great professional, and we know that is not because the option was not available to him at the time. But it would not be absurd to say that when he said, under the threat of death, that he could not give up philosophising because the ‘unexamined life is not worthy of a human being’ that he expressed an ethical necessity intrinsic to his sense of philosophy as his vocation. It is true that philosophy was not an academic discipline for Socrates, and Wittgenstein had a complex relation to the discipline. But though the expressions ‘academic philosopher’ and ‘professional philosopher’ are now virtually interchangeable, it was not always so.

The intensity with which Wittgenstein and Socrates engaged philosophy—the way it claimed them—is increasingly alien to the spirit of the times, which looks upon it with urbane condescension. The condescension is not new. Here is Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias attacking Socrates and all he stands for. Plato must have felt its power because it is one of the greatest speeches in his dialogues.

It is a good thing to engage in philosophy just so far as it is an aid to education, and no disgrace for a youth to study it, but when a man who is now growing older studies philosophy, it becomes ridiculous, Socrates … When I see a youth engaged in it, I admire it and it seems to me to be natural and I consider such a man ingenious and the man who does not pursue it I regard as illiberal and one who will never aspire to any fine or noble deed. But when I see an older man studying philosophy and not deserting it, that man, Socrates, is actually asking for a whipping … Such a man, even if exceptionally gifted, is doomed to prove less than a man, shunning the city centre and market place, in which the poet said men win distinction. He will spend the rest of his life sunk in a corner and whispering with three or four boys and incapable of any utterance or deed that is free and lofty and brilliant.

When I read that to students, they smile knowingly because they believe they have the measure of him. They think he is a philistine. In their hearts, however, most of them agree with him, as I believe do most of their parents and perhaps even many of their teachers. If one leaves aside for a moment his claim that the continued study of philosophy demeans an older person, then what Callicles says in appreciation of the worth of philosophical study is a good statement of what most students and their parents seek in a ‘liberal education’ and what many people would hope for if they hoped that the university would civilise the city. He does not offer an ‘extrinsic’ reason why young people should study philosophy. He praises it for cultivating certain qualities of mind—an imaginative appreciation of and concern for what is ‘fine and noble’—which is presumably conditional upon an absorption in the subject for its own sake. He believes that the study of philosophy for its own sake is necessary to a certain kind of personal cultivation. He could also agree that the study of philosophy tended to make its students more thoughtful citizens. For these reasons he would acknowledge that we need good teachers of philosophy. He would not grant, however, that a life devoted to philosophical study, or to put it more generally, a life lived in a love of truth, could be a life worthy of a noble spirit. Perfectly aware, if only because of Socrates’ example, that philosophy could inspire an absorption that lasted a lifetime, he denies only that it could be a worthy absorption.

In its worldliness, in its enchantment with ‘the market place where men [and women] win distinction’ and from where it looks with disdain upon the ‘ivory tower’, the modern academy sides with Callicles against Socrates. Callicles, though, would speak more strongly on behalf of the humanities.

If the satiric tone of that last sentence rings true, even faintly, then you may see why I say that our task—in the post-university era, as it were—is to see how much of the intimations of depth, in our rhetoric of ‘the intrinsic value of the scholarly and intellectual life’, are honestly and lucidly accessible to us in living and authoritative speech. It is tempting to represent this as a task to discover what we really believe or what we can honestly and consistently believe after we have examined the conflicting intimations of our ways of speaking. But discovering whether we can strike a non-rhetorical note in our talk of the love of truth, for example, is not a matter of discovering whether we believe in the love of truth. It is more like coming to discover which of the concepts whose structures we can still abstractly articulate are still fully available to us for living use. That discovery and striking the right note are interdependent. It is rather like finding which admired ways of living are real options for us without sentimentality or bathos or some other form of inauthenticity. Only radical political and social change, I suspect, will make that possible.

Socrates—not the historical Socrates but the character in Plato’s dialogues—developed various arguments to respond to Callicles. Plato gave us the character to show what a life committed to philosophy can mean. It is the character, at least as much as the arguments he developed, that has haunted Western culture. That is why Plato the poet is as important as, and inseparable from, Plato the philosopher.

I now turn briefly to something that seems implicit in Gunner’s statement about the role of the universities—namely that academics have an obligation to participate in discussion beyond the academy. It would of course be absurd to claim this is true of all academics merely in virtue of the fact that they are academics. And though I will not argue the matter in this essay, I think there is no justifiable description of university academics, even those working in, say, political theory or political philosophy, from which one can generate an obligation that they take part in the kind of public discussion that is now conducted by people who are called public intellectuals. A narrower description of them as employees of the state might generate obligation to contribute expertise of one kind or another, but that is another matter.

Leaving obligation aside, would it be a good thing if academics were more generally involved in public discussion? For any given period of time, that depends on the state of the academy and of the academic disciplines within it.

Take just philosophy as an example. Again, we are not contemplating a Platonic Form outside history, but philosophy as an academic discipline practised in universities at particular times and in particular cultures. One’s answer, therefore, to the question ‘Would it be good if philosophy were to be more involved in the public arena?’ will partly depend on how one judges the state of the discipline at that time. Sometimes a discipline is in decline because of reasons internal to it or external pressures on it of the kind under which academics now labour and that undermine the kind of reflectiveness that can protect philosophy (and other disciplines) against conformity, not to mention fashion. When it is in decline, especially if it has succumbed to pressures that undermine radical self-criticism, let alone radical criticism of public policy, then philosophy’s entry into public life by means of various ethics committees, for example, is likely to be less than edifying. That said, when people for whom philosophy matters judge, rightly or wrongly, at any historical moment that philosophy is in bad shape, they will hope that it recovers and that philosophers will again take part in public discussion without doing more harm than good. However bad it may be for a public intellectual culture to have bad philosophy, it is worse for it to have none. Despite the relatively recent and welcome addition of philosophers to the guest list at writers festivals, philosophers have a negligible impact on public discussion in Australia. Hardly ever is a relatively serious book of philosophy reviewed in the literary pages of the newspapers or even in the literary magazines.

Gunner made his remark to me at a time when many Australian academics and intellectuals were estranged from ordinary Australians. Australia seemed to them to be a cultural desert. Many fled at the time, mostly to England. Then none would have dreamed of living in a country town. Now of course it is different. Melbourne intellectuals follow Australian Rules football. They live in country towns. Writers festivals, festivals of ideas and public lecture series flourish all over the land.

At the same time, however, universities have retreated from the public institutions of culture, largely under the pressures of accountability, especially over research. Even interdisciplinary work within universities, regarded as desirable a few years ago, is now discouraged because publication in disciplines other than one’s own earns no points for one’s department. If you are a philosopher who has contributed to a book of essays on a novelist or poet, your department will not thank you for it, nor will the department of literature because it gets no credit. And a narrow conception of, and focus on, research discourages, indeed implicitly disparages, engagement with cultural institutions outside the university unless that engagement is narrowly professional—the provision of expertise of one kind or another. In many universities even academics in the humanities are discouraged from writing books rather than for A-grade journals.

Recently an academic organised an international conference on the work of a well-known writer and academic, to which academics from at least six disciplines, joined by novelists, poets, playwrights and a screenwriter, gave papers of high quality over a period of two days. One of the academics who gave a paper—a distinguished professor—said the conference reminded him of why he became an academic. Yet the person who organised it was vulnerable to the criticism—which indeed he received—that since under the present regime such a conference earns his department less points than an article in an A-grade journal, he should have devoted his energies to writing one.

Some years ago I argued at the Melbourne Writers Festival, to an entirely unconvinced Ramona Koval, that writers festivals and the broader literary culture focused too much on Good Writing (capitals intended) and not enough on good thinking. Some people say that where there is good writing there is also good thinking, but that is not true except perhaps at the highest level. Anyone who has read my work will know that I do not need to be convinced of the importance of art, especially literature, to our understanding of what it is to be human. But in the absence of any serious engagement with the various discursive modes of thought characteristic of the academic disciplines, the kind of emphasis on good writing and on storytelling that writers festivals and even festivals of ideas promulgate, will, I fear, contribute to a new kind of anti-intellectualism. That it has already set in shows itself in the fact—Robert Manne first made me aware of the extent of it—that so few people engaged in public discussion feel the need to respond to criticism by way of anything that looks like sustained, rigorous argument. We no longer regard ourselves as seriously answerable to one another for what we say in cultural and political polemic.

How might it become different? A couple of years ago Bernhard Schlink gave one of two keynote addresses at the Melbourne Writers Festival. He is the author of The Reader, a bestselling novel that was adapted to film and earned Kate Winslet an academy award. Schlink is also a professor of legal philosophy in Germany. In that capacity he spoke at the Melbourne Town Hall about his book—developed from lectures at Oxford—Guilt about the Past.

The festival screened The Reader. Afterwards Schlink spoke about the film, his novel and the book on which he had reflected a night or two earlier. The theme common to all three was how to respond clear-sightedly, politically and morally, to the discovery that someone you love and admire is guilty of the crimes of the Holocaust or was, in one of many possible ways, complicit in them.

Some thought highly of what Schlink did at the festival, others did not. For my part, I have no doubt that the kind of thing he did was a fine illustration of the way literature speaks to us against a background of a shared understanding formed by other arts and by more discursive modes of thought, in this case the philosophy of law. Only against that background can a work of literature find its voice and only against it will its readers form an educated critical voice with which to respond. By inviting such a range of critical voices into the conversation that constitutes the shared understanding that we call culture, writers festivals and festivals of ideas can play an important role in the way citizens are able to think and imagine themselves.

I don’t know how to answer for the universities. I do not know what is realistically possible for them in anything like the present conditions in which they seek funding. Those conditions are likely to become worse.

I have described how universities now appear from the perspective of a concept of the university that is defunct, and indeed, from a particularly unworldly perspective on that concept. My aim has been to describe what we have lost. It is not to lay blame for the loss, to suggest that we could recover what is lost or, or that everyone should agree that it is a loss, or even mostly loss and little gain. To a degree that was inconceivable in the sixties when academics were chronically suspicious of involvement with business and the military, for example, universities now welcome them onto campus. The problem with that is not that it directly threatens the independence and integrity of academic research and teaching. Rather, the worldliness it expresses and consolidates generates an impatient hard-headedness about accountability that undermines the meditative critical reflectivness that I described earlier. The difficulty is not so much that of speaking truth to power, but of speaking truth to a very attractive urbanity—sometimes even to glamour—that deprives most of what is taught in a university of the power really to shake us. ‘Tell me, Socrates, are you serious or are you joking?’ Callicles asks incredulously in response to Socrates’ profession that it is better to suffer evil than to do it. ‘If you are serious,’ he goes on to say, ‘then the whole of human life is turned upside down.’ He then gives the speech that I quoted earlier.

When academics enter the public domain, engaging with an educated, well-read, hard-thinking public, they do it best when they go beyond their capacity to give expert advice. They do it best as citizens in critical conversation with other citizens. Of course, usually it will show that they are academics, but the public conversational space I have in mind is one in which no-one takes for granted that even very good philosophers, historians, literary critics, physicists or evolutionary biologists will contribute only for the good. Even distinguished moral and political philosophers, after all, may speak from the perspective of narrow lives and narrow reading outside, and even within, philosophy.

In concluding, I return to the student who was pleased to be described as a customer. Had I thought of it, I would have recommended to him an essay by Hannah Arendt. It is called ‘The Crisis in Education’, written in the 1950s and published in a collection of her essays entitled Between Past and Future. She writes:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something foreseen by no one, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Arendt’s remarks are a fine statement of the public duties of a university. When a university provides students with a space that protects them from the pressures of the world—from worldliness, in the sense in which I have been speaking of it—and from the pressures that conspire to make them children of their times, then it fulfils its primary public obligation, compared to which any obligation that academics may have to engage with the broader culture outside the university or with politics is secondary. It is a space in which they are invited to form new desires and ideals in the light of values that they had probably not dreamed of and certainly had never before fully understood. The unworldly connotations of the expression ‘a community of scholars’ should not be a source of embarrassment.

If I have succeeded in making that plausible, then I will also have made plausible the argument that we must preserve the unworldly space in which university teachers are able to reveal to their students what it means, mostly deeply, to devote one’s life to an academic vocation—to live an answer to Callicles. They will then reveal to their students, who will go into the world to live many kinds of lives, a value in their education that nourishes them more deeply than the kind of liberal education that many people praise. Perhaps Don Gunner had something like that in mind.

This is a version of a speech Raimond Gaita gave at the University of Melbourne in 2011 as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series.

Read the response to this essay from University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis, ‘The Australian Idea of a University’.

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