Tuesday 20 November 2012

On Knots and Universities

Imagining a world without universities is difficult. Even for those who've never been, they're there, the places that their mates might have gone, but where they personally chose not to go. Certainly, everyone has an opinion about universities, as they do about education in general, from "waste of space!" to "fundamental to civilisation!".

The first thing to say is that a world without universities is not a world without learning. Learning is intrinsic to life. Anthropological studies have highlighted the societal structures by which children are cultivated into the norms of their society, by which rites of passage lead to transformations of social function, and through which belief systems, ethical codes, justice, play and art take their place within the complex shared experiences of belonging to a society.

Universities have simply become part of the belief system of our own society. They have their myths, their history, their rites of passage and have assumed their role within the social order. Universities and churches have more than their historical origins in common. Despite the crudely functionalist rhetoric of ministers and  vice-chancellors, the University is still metaphysical in nature: imagining a world without universities is like imagining a world without religion.

It is to imagine what might happen if the great knot that our society has tied between the minds of individuals, old buildings, books and practices and which keeps many individuals in a certain place and engaging in particular kinds of activity (often without knowing why) has been untied. What is gone is the reason to engage in those practices, to be in that space. What then?

To answer that, we may need to understand something about the nature of the knots in the first place. The double-binds of education are everywhere: the curriculum that must be followed irrespective of an individual's interests; the exams that must be sat irrespective of their ability to measure learning; the texts that must be followed irrespective of their relevance; and so on. Tying a knot in anything turns it from 'anything' into a 'knot'. The knot is there because it's a knot.

Human life is full of knots. Family therapists spend their time trying to untangle the knots between siblings, parents and children, men and women. Economists spend their time trying to fathom out the ways in which individuals wrestle with their own personal and social knots (spending money - another knot - whilst they do it). It may not to too far-fetched to say that the only thing that creates the conditions for concernful agency in anything is being caught in a knot. Luhmann calls this the central paradox that sits at the heart of his various communications systems - a 'contingency formula'.

What becomes of research if we untie the knot of universities? Or rather, what becomes of the knot of research? Well, it probably gets tied somewhere else. What becomes of art history or music? Some other knot will probably be tied. What becomes of wisdom??

Wisdom may be something different. That's the thing that tells you you're in a knot. Would we lose wisdom if we lost Universities?

Universities don't teach wisdom; they award degrees. Wisdom certainly happens through learning and personal growth. It may happen in Universities (and Universities have covered themselves in glory for those instances where it has). But often it doesn't, or it happens elsewhere.

To ask of the nature of wisdom is to inquire into the nature of the human intellect. Newman writes:
The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause.

You don't need a University to do that. What is needed are the conditions for love. That may be to be caught in a knot; to know that you are caught in a knot; and to accept it with grace.

That our knotty universities are currently tying themselves into such a bundle they neither know they are in a knot, nor can accept it, is a curious indictment on the effectiveness of universities for producing wisdom.

If I accept that 'knowing that we are in a knot' and 'accepting it with grace' are important, then the challenge reveals itself: describe the deeply complex knotty web of universities, technology and economy.

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