Desiring the Idea of the University

The longing for a liberal university where arts and sciences freely interact, rather than compete. 

October 15, 2013

Yesterday, I sat outside on a blustery and frankly quite chilly English summer day to discuss ‘the idea of the university’ with four colleagues. I convene a social theory reading group that has a mailing list of over fifty, including academics, university professional services staff and postgraduate students from my own and nearby educational institutions, all who made a deliberate decision to sign up to the group. It has been running since the beginning of 2011, when we started by reacquainting ourselves, or in some cases newly encountering, the sociological classics: Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel. While my interest in the group stems from pleasurable memories of late evening seminars as a rebellious undergraduate enrolled on an interdisciplinary paper entitled ‘Socialism’, I can’t express the motivations for most people joining this group. Most of them have never attended a meeting. Yet, there is a small core of hardened social theory enthusiasts that keep the momentum going, and recently we have been considering and discussing the nature of universities.

The reading for yesterday was a piece by Gerard Delanty entitled ‘The Idea of the University in the Global Era: From Knowledge as an End to the End of Knowledge?’ and we also watched the CRASSH 10th Anniversary Lecture Series on ‘The Idea of the University’ (a series of 6 lectures delivered at Cambridge University in 2011). The Delanty piece and the CRASSH lectures made reference to the history of universities and how they have been conceptualised over time by Kant, von Humboldt, Newman, Veblen, Jaspers and others, arguing that the university is historically and contextually specific, and right now its context is economic and technological globalisation. To generalise from yesterday’s reading and lectures, it seemed to me that despite this context, the idea of the university is dominated by the longing for a liberal university where arts and sciences freely interact, rather than compete, academics are considered scholars rather than technicians, and the state intervenes in our work only as a disinterested source of funding. The speakers at Cambridge acknowledged that this ideal is sorely tested within the current political, economic and social conditions, yet Stefan Colloni argued that such longing exists not just within the academy, but is also a lingering and pervasive popular desire. These reflections upon the university lead me to hazard a guess at why our social theory reading group has so many invisible members. The members of the group live life as busy professionals at the business end of higher education. Reading social theory connects to our deepest desires for scholarship and intellectual freedom, even while our reality consists of validation committees, student evaluations and action planning.

Colloni, a professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University, argues in his CRASSH lecture that in spite of the commodification, marketization and instrumentality of contemporary higher education, spaces exist within universities where we can fulfil our liberal dreams. A post on the Guardian by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett suggests there are still plenty of students who go to university to ‘expand the mind’. Of course, after convening a social theory reading group where we toss around in conversation lofty and ephemeral thoughts inspired by Hannah Arendt or Susan Leigh Star, I have to agree that such spaces exist. Yet, I’m also mindful that yesterday’s space was different from one inhabited by the joyous revolutionaries discussing Ernest Mandel in my undergraduate years. Yesterday’s space was a surreptitious space, slotted into the middle of August when the undergraduates are away and most academics are fulfilling their more pressing desire for annual leave. I make the effort to keep the administration of the group going, fortified by the commitment of the handful of colleagues who keep turning up to meetings. I can’t help, though, but feel that the space that the meeting attendees have created to fulfil our desires is less of a mystical, star-studded grotto, and more like a tent flapping on the edge of a precipice, tacked down by sheer grit. It isn’t only elite universities like Cambridge where academics can carve out a space to be scholarly, but perhaps it is only in elite universities where the spaces are still comfortable? But hey – if you’d like to join the social theory reading group mailing list get in touch.

Plymouth, England, United Kingdom

Ruth Boyask's research interests are centred upon socially just educational/social policy within an environment of privatisation and individualism. She has worked as a lecturer at Plymouth University, England since 2007. Prior to working in England, Ruth had appointments at Cardiff University, Wales and University of Canterbury, New Zealand and her interest in education originated as a secondary school art teacher in North Canterbury, New Zealand. Ruth can be contacted at http://www.ruthboyask.com or through her twitter account @RuthBoyask


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