Wednesday 25 July 2012

The idea of a University and the Turning away from Eden

Would we need universities if everybody loved and cared for each other properly? I'm tempted to say the answer is 'no': universities are a function of social pathology. [***If I was to be biblical about it, then they are the inevitable consequence of the fall. It is a powerful metaphor.*** - but isn't this nonsense??] But which world would we really have? The perfect world of love and care, but no Universities (and equally, no Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, or Tolstoy) or our imperfect world with its art, culture, and knowledge - but also its misery?

In a sense, we don't have a choice: we have the world we are in. We know that Eden is a potentiality, but when we reach for it, it escapes us. Once the apple was taken, things could never be the same. Part of the terror of our situation is that we 'know' the potentiality of a world of love. We also know that we need to 'be love', but that requires overcoming the fears we gained in our acquisition of knowledge. And since we are all different, good and bad, generous and greedy, the question of us all 'being love' is unattainable. And so we have monasteries, and churches, and Universities.

The idea of a University as an institution of love was central to Newman's thesis. It was where we could acknowledge the situation we are in, and come to terms with the knowledge that that situation has led us to. In essence, it was the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of coming to terms with it. This, I think for Newman, was a way of 'being love'. Unlike the monastery, where contemplation seeks to bracket-out knowledge, the University embraces it. But they both have the same ultimate aim. But the university is more of the everyday world than the  otherworldliness of the monastery.

Technology, I believe, is creating a different kind of public realm for the exploration of knowledge. Rather than pursuing the 'idea of a University', I wonder (inspired by F.R. Leavis, who made this point in the 1950s) whether we should now consider the "Idea of an Educated Public". It is no longer a function bounded by the walls of an ancient institution. It is a function within the whole of society mediated not just through libraries and degree courses, but through the internet. An educated public is a public that comes to terms with the knowledge it has. It is perhaps a necessary corrective to the now-pathological University. Where the University has forgotten its role in coming to terms with knowledge (instead favouring a frantic continual generation of knowledge), the educated public can bring commonsense and everyday insight so that pathological knowledge-creation processes do not get out of hand. It is the public who know (often better than academics) that the important things in life are related to looking after each other.

From this perspective, online education looks different. The price for an educated public is the strategic use of technology. But the benefits include a more open science (perhaps related to the emerging discourse around Science 2.0 (see and greater political participation in public realm. It requires a re-politicisation of the public.

Newman considered the requisite institutional infrastructure for his University. We should consider the technological and social infrastructure for the 'idea of an educated public'. Just as the institution of the University (certainly in Newman's conception) served to oil the wheel of discourse and to establish communities of scholars, so the infrastructure for the 'idea of an educated public' must target communicative and social barriers. We must critique the form and function of our current technology, and design the technological infrastructure which will bring communities together, not drive them apart (as is so often the case!).

To do this, we must understand information and technology better. There is no satisfactory theory of either. The work of Deacon, Floridi and others may be pointing us in this way (that work conducted within Universities of course!), but the hope might be that this work leads us to a new conception of what education is about, what society we want, and what a dream of an 'educated public' might mean.


Dai Griffiths said...

"Turing away": a neat technological pun, or a serendipitous typo...

Mark Johnson said...

Well spotted! (It wasn't intentional - now should I change it??)