Is the job of the university to civilise the city?

Raimond Gaita is a philosopher who writes well, almost conversationally. You can understand him even if you are not yourself a philosopher, or a student of philosophy. He has written a long, rather meandering piece in the current Meanjin about the problems of the modern university. As always with him, I read it as carefully as I could and, as almost as often, I rather disagreed with it. In order to tell you why, I have to summarise his argument, and that’s not easy, because it does wander.

There was once a view that no institution could properly call itself a university unless it had a department of philosophy (or classics, or physics — he and I have both  heard such statements). When such statements were generally agreed, it was also accepted that the university was a sort of civilising influence on the rest of society, or should be. It was there to civilise the city. Those days are gone. The managers have taken over, and the new language is Newspeak — students are now ‘customers’, or even ‘products’. We are losing, or have already lost, the ‘deepest values of academic life’, which is ‘the life of the mind’ — such a life can exist outside the university. And the life of the mind is important, because it deepens the life of those who care for it. It is better, after all, to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.

The great truth, it seems, is that when university life was a relatively rare thing people took the life of the mind more seriously. Now that university life is available more or less to everybody it is really available to nobody, because it has been cheapened to the point of irrelevance. The creation of new universities has been a disaster, because the newer universities ‘had never thought of themselves as answerable to the conceptual truth that defined the idea of the university’.

I hope that I have done a decent job in summarising his argument. Somewhere in it he says that he is not harking back to a glorious past. But he does say that we cannot get back even to the time when it was agreed that real universities had departments of philosophy. That wasn’t so long ago — the mid 1980s, I should think. It is part of his argument (which is really a set of assertions) that university education now has become almost completely instrumental: the university prepares you for a job of some kind, or perhaps a pair or a set of potential jobs.

When was it otherwise? My undergraduate years at the University of New England  were in a faculty of arts that did possess a small department of philosophy, and a few students did enrol in its courses. But not many, because most of us were there to acquire a BA and then a Dip Ed., and then go out into the NSW Department of Education’s high schools, all crying out for our services, because classes were rapidly increasing in size. Our motives — I think I can speak for most — were instrumental. We wanted a life as an adult (that came at 21, then), money, a car and an end to childhood. The university was a means to an end.

Now the university didn’t see itself quite that way, and I became a junior member of it in time. It recognised our motives, but did its best to provide us with its sense of what was also valuable: dedication to truth, a preparedness to read widely, an interest in big questions and big ideas, and taking pains over what we did. I wouldn’t have called that ‘the life of the mind’. Rather, it was an indication of what it meant to be professional about anything that had to do with knowledge.

Gaita may be right in that universities of the past had the spirit, or took the style, of their faculties of arts. My impression of the University of Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s is that the professional faculties took scant interest in ‘the university’. They were occupied with the profession and its concerns, and in delivering new professionals to it. The vice-chancellors of that time were almost always from the humanities, and they certainly talked about intellectual issues, and no doubt mentioned the life of the mind more than once.

He is right in arguing that the 1960s saw a change, in that more academics now stated that the university had a responsibility towards society as a whole, and to change it in various ways. The radical scholars of that time, who were largely successful in attracting students, had no particular interest in the life of the mind. They too had an instrumental attitude to what they did.

I spent twelve years at the University of Canberra, one of the newer universities, and could find nothing really different in its attitudes to its students or its fundamental role in society. It seemed to me yet another Australian university, very like Macquarie University where I spent the 1970s. Like Macquarie then, it had a strong feeling that students were important. In my view Australian universities have always had a strongly pragmatic, instrumental sense of what they were for, and departments of philosophy within them have always been small.

Perhaps it is true that when everyone goes to university the experience is different. But the benefits for our society are great. I think that most of us discover the life of the mind as we mature. But it is not the main reason for our being, even if it is for the best philosophers.




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