Thoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 2
This is the second in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). Here’s Part 1. The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In this series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but there’s no substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).
The globalization and provincialization of universities
My first post in this series dealt with Páll Skúlason’s thoughts (and my own) about what a university is for. Today, some thoughts inspired by Skúlason’s thoughts about what a university is.
Skúlason suggests that a university is best understood as
a conversation, a place where people who are trying to understand the world and their own existence within the context of a common pursuit for knowledge and learning come together to converse and exchange ideas (p. 13).
While “a conversation” might sound a bit new-agey, in fact this is an important observation that goes back to the revolution in European science in the 1600s. Medieval science had been largely an individual pursuit, something that Francis Bacon criticized in his utopian novel New Atlantis (1620) and something that the Royal Society of London was founded (in 1645) to reverse*. Science became something pursued by scientists working and talking together, even collaborating. This was further normalized as science became professionalized (much later, especially in the 19th century) as something done not by hobbyists but by people employed as scientists in institutes and universities.
What’s interesting about this is that originally, having scientists work together meant that they had to be together – and the university was one way that could happen. It was by necessity a local university, and it would have been natural for scientists at the University of Beaverdam (let’s say) to concern themselves primarily with things that matter to Beaverdam. In other words, the University could have been very provincial. To some degree, it was; but less than one might think, perhaps because the 17th century was a time of burgeoning global exploration and trade, with new wonders returning to Europe from the farthest reaches of the world, and people’s attention was directed outward by that.
With modern communication technologies, of course, it’s now routine for us to converse and collaborate with scientists all over the world. This ought to make it very easy for the university to become globalized – both in the sense of teams of scholars being distributed around the globe, and (not coincidentally) in the sense of these teams having interests that transcend purely local concerns. Skúlason points out that technology has allowed the creation of virtual institutions that needn’t have any particular place at all, and this may be the globalization I’m thinking about, taken to its logical conclusion.
This hopeful perspective makes it all the more distressing (and here I’m abandoning Skúlason’s argument and indulging in my own crankiness) to see many universities becoming more provincial. My own, for example, is developing (for reasons that are unclear) a Research Strategic Plan, and I’ve been struggling to prevent that Plan from talking only about how we’ll improve things for residents of New Brunswick (the Canadian province in which I’m based; so we’re becoming “provincial” with both an upper-case and a lower-case “p”). I don’t know that this trend is universal, but I don’t think it’s unusual, either. Why? I think it’s part of a broader social and political pattern of retrenchment. Once upon a time, I think we (humanity) made something of an implicit bargain that we would all contribute to a global network of science, not restrict the focus of any particular institution too much, and all share in the benefits of advancing knowledge. Globalizing technology should make this easier and more effective than ever; but instead I see us retreating from this bargain, as we more and more expect the University of Beaversdam to devote itself to the betterment of Beaversdam, and never mind humanity as a whole**.
If I’m right about this trend, and if it’s not a good thing, how can we resist it? Skúlason suggests one important argument: that a university can best serve provincial interests by becoming more global:
That is why an international and cross-cultural cooperation between universities is so important, giving academics the opportunity to share their ideas and beliefs and learn from different academic traditions….[With] the ambition to serve not only their local communities but humanity at large…they can help the nations of the world deal with the many theoretical, technical, and ethical problems confronting them (p. 38).
This argument sounds exactly right to me; but unfortunately, Skúlason doesn’t offer an easy prescription for having it carry the day – and neither can I. This seems to me a high-priority concern for science advisors to governments, university Presidents, and the like. It’s also something all of us should repeat, as often as we can, to anyone who will listen.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) February 18, 2016
Related post: Three things a university might be for (Part 1 of this series)
A Critique of Universities is available as an inexpensive e-book (print copies seem to be more of a challenge). Here are some links:
USA, via Amazon.com
Canada, via Amazon.ca
Rest of the world, via Google Books (or search through your local bookseller)
*^This capsule sketch is of European science. An important and much-overlooked contrast to this is Islamic science, which had a collaborative golden age in the “House of Wisdom” beginning under the direction of Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and especially of his son al-Ma’mun. After this period, for many reasons Islamic science became rather disconnected from the progress of Western science, and many people are now unaware of its scope and of this fascinating era.
**^This is not a political blog, so I won’t run on about this, but I think this is an instance of our single biggest societal problem: at least in North America, we all seem to have decided that we don’t like paying taxes. We don’t even like paying taxes to support things we all individually use and want (roads, firefighters); we certainly don’t like paying taxes to support things other people might need (social programs, foreign aid) or things more abstract like the advancement of human knowledge. This is completely insane, of course. It’s convenient to blame the insanity on politicians, but they only take this ball and run with it; the real responsibility lies with all of us for handing them the ball. Wait, I promised I wouldn’t run on about this…