Friday, 21 February 2014

Speaking from the Grave: Universities Past, Present and Question-mark Future

Stephen Knight
This essay was written for the Melbourne-based leftist magazine Arena: this has been running since the 1970s and has consistently offered a radical take on social, economic and governmental issues with a recurrent interest in cultural matters. I used to write for it when at the University of Melbourne around 1990 and having  returned post-retirement to Melbourne have met up with the editors and am producing an intermittent series of essays, including in 2012-13 a sequence on The Politics of Myth, which is also a course in the Melbourne Free University programme.

This piece comes out of my retrospective consideration of  the university as it is now, immersed in the economy, and so unsurprisingly experiencing commercialisation of outcomes, labour specialisation, fetishisation of work, alienation of the producer. The underlying method is to suggest that a decent knowledge of history, read in social terms, can explain our situation and also indicate that while the university as we know it  appears finished as a medium of intellectual inquiry, that process will emerge elsewhere, probably surprisingly.

In Australia the universities are now in market competition for internal as well as external students. In Britain all students will pay full-cost costs. The tertiary sector has been immersed in the economy. My recent British colleagues are having to dream up advertising slogans. Cardiff, from which I have just retired, is considering `Friendly but Challenging’. Have we hit bottom ? .

Back here in Melbourne, self-funded research ($1.70 a week for the Wednesday Australian) reveals almost all the university job adverts are in business, engineering or health, managing not thinking (though one Koori lectureship raised the tone last week). Most brain-employing academics hold the situation is dire, and darkening.

Yes indeed. But not for the first time. High-quality knowledge has always been fugitive, both needed by and distrusted by the authorities. They must control those on whom they rely. As a result, as I see it, in nine hundred years of universities there have only been four high periods, all quite short. Studying the first three was part of my work as a cultural historian; for the fourth, I saw it come and go.

The first surprise may be that `university’ actually means `union’, as in `trade union’. In the twelfth century, as Europe settled to comparative peace (the Normans had seized enough, even for them) and remarkably good weather, harvests, trade, surpluses and cathedrals all grew upwards. For religious purposes and to generate administrators for expanding systems, the cathedral schools expanded in major centres, to be called  studium generale where outsiders flooded in, like Bologna, a centre for Roman-style civil law, and Paris, another major crossroads where the church's hold was stronger and theology was top dog. Language was no problem –Latin was the original lingua franca (hence the Latin quarter) -- but management was. The Bologna students formed their own universitates to demand better provision; in Paris organisation was led by the working masters: to be an MA meant you were out of your apprenticeship and could teach, and they organised.

The university/union personnel responded to authority pressure with industrial seriousness. From 1217-20 the students simply left Bologna until they had acceptable terms; in 1229 the Paris masters dispersed the university to unheard-of places like Cambridge, until their demands were met. How we dreamed in the late 1960s of dispersing Sydney University, but were tied down by families, mortgages, and other modern enfeeblements.

Medieval socio-economic innovations meshed with new content – that’s what makes a high phase in universities. The long-forgotten Aristotelian method, founded on rational analysis, was available again, especially through Islamic commentators like Averroes and Avicenna (hence Arabic numerals) and cut deep into Christian traditionality. This material permitted the major development of medieval dialectic pioneered a century before by Abelard (not merely Heloise’s lover heading for castration) as Paris started university operations. This tradition of truth-seeking debate (now only surviving among high-paid barristers) drew on Abelard’s Sic et Non, `Yes and No’ (c.1121). You argued logically to validate your position, and also that of the church. Neither Abelard nor his great successor St Thomas Aquinas ever doubted faith as the prime force: Thomas’s hugely influential Summa Theologica (1265-74)  is a set of questions trying to rationalise apparent biblical contradiction, and clear our believing heads. These were heady times: students filled the lecture rooms and would shout from the windows to the their friends just what the masters were saying: some scholars have called it the twelfth-century renaissance.

Though the embattled Paris Chancellor tried to ban the teaching of Aristotle, faced with the Zeitgeist embodied in the massed and unionised masters, by the mid thirteenth century he was a central curriculum figure. Logic-driven learning in the Greek tradition expanded, with Europe-wide figures like the widely-travelled  Duns Scotus (Scot still meant Irishman) and at Oxford science and optics were outstanding under the famous Roger Bacon (remembered as a dark wizard) and the well-named Robert Grosseteste (French for big-head).

Crucially, the intellectual dynamism of the period embodied both teaching that was vocational training – for brain-work in church and state – and research writing at the highest level. There was no separation of  what Weber would later call charismatic leadership from collegial activity. It is when those two modes of higher education are separated that universities weaken as social and intellectual drivers

Genius is succeeded by repetiteurs: the exciting scholarship turned into Scholasticism and before long Duns was remembered as a Dunce. Yet change brings change. If Greek-Arab input fired the twelfth century, it was in the second high phase Latin, though not church Latin, that was the dynamo. The rich secular literature of Rome was a natural source of old values for the new world  of humanism – the phrase for it was translatio studii, translatio imperii  `transfer of culture, transfer of power’. Italian universities were largely locked down into local functional control looking for old-style lawyers and administrators, and Catholic tradition had a grip on France, so creative writers forced the charismatic pace, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio in Italy, Machaut, de Pisan in France – and Anglo-European Geoffrey Chaucer. The new humanist force had university bases where the forces of Protestantism, supported by secular power, resisted Catholic dominance. Martin Luther was professor of theology at Wittenberg, not some wild-eyed radical; protestantism avows a personal contract with God highly compatible with both humanism and emergent bourgeois individualism.

In England King Henry’s wife-swapping entailed a change of religion, but more dynamically growing prosperity (some stolen from the monasteries, some in booming trade) located young men at Oxbridge simply eager for polish to match and validate daddy’s money. Erasmus, from Holland, reached Cambridge just as the exquisitely medieval King’s College Chapel was being finished: his influence led the last charge by which the `Greeks’, armed with the new humanist classics, defeated the old-style Scholastics whom, having read their Homer, they wittily called `The Trojans’.

Civic activity was involved –  as in those social handbooks Elyot’s The Governour (1531) and Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570) --  but English humanism went further. Those Cambridge `university wits’ like Greene, Nash, Peele and especially Marlowe who took their college learning onto the London stage established through Shakespeare’s inspirational borrowing a mode of art that, combining grand events with personal feeling, would shape western culture through many media to the present – War and Peace and Citizen Kane for two examples. Out of that new secular context came the insistence on scientific learning typified by Bacon (another one), and also the intellectual formation of  Milton, staggeringly learned in books and languages, who became both the most important poet of  protestantism and also a major ideologue for Cromwell’s revolutionary government.

That second high period also had limits, notably in England. Protestantism became either Puritan or slackly Anglican, the royal Restoration of 1660 and the bourgeois revolution of 1688 between them did for intellectual vigour: for nearly two centuries: science grew in specialist Societies while Oxford and Cambridge mostly went to dinner: Thomas Warton, the late eighteenth-century resurrector of Spenser and medievalism, also edited a food-oriented poetry anthology, The Oxford Sausage (1775). The Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which jerked affective religious worship into a nearly dormant Anglican church, was a one-off. The dons dozed on.

New energy came from Germany, which already had a remarkably high proportion of universities, notably from the sixteenth century. Most were central to a city or small state, and in the early nineteenth century under the guidance of the long-lived Alexander von Humboldt, they generated scientific and social research to guide their regions forward. Research professors led, and their  trainees were doctoral students. The medieval university only had doctorates in really serious stuff, Theology, but now the PhD covered many areas of study,  including practical fields like agriculture, education, linguistics, at places like Göttingen, the newly linked Halle-Wittenberg and Marx’s own Berlin. In the post-1815 long peace and a newly thrusting economy (dynamic universities need both those conditions) energetic students flourished: they played a noticeable role in the 1848 Euro-risings, and were constrained afterwards, but the Germans did not give up the essentially charismatic system that was delivering real Wissenschaft, which implies `knowledge- business’.

This was too narrow a stream to be a truly high university phase, but the Americans had noticed. There the Oxbridge collegiate system had been followed in small teaching-oriented institutions, providing first training for the upper professional stratum of the citizenry. But after the Civil War (peace again a factor) and in the giant growth of American trade and industry (the economy chipping in), conscious moves attached the German research-focused model to the older collegiate pattern. Johns Hopkins was founded in Baltimore in 1876 as a professor-heavy institution; older Harvard and Yale added that level, and big cities across the county followed with public funding – Chicago and Wisconsin were notable instances. Those local links and local service inspired the massive donations American universities still enjoy. Across the country high-level charismatic research operating beside collegial institutions, often on the same campus, and a big PhD programme trained both future researchers and college staff. In 1876 the US awarded 44 doctorate,  by 1918 as many as 500. Oxbridge continued to think they were vulgar, right into the 1950s.

There were other positive features. Where the Germans had narrow research-subject focussed structures, the Americans had a town-meeting style of broad-range departments in a coherent faculty, and, most impressive of all, in response the academics saw themselves as high-level generalists.  Charles Eliot Norton was professor of art history at Harvard, translated Dante, and was friend and supporter, including financially, to Ruskin, Carlyle and Longfellow. My own hero Francis James Child, star mathematician and linguist as a student, studied in Göttingen, assembled his great collection of the British ballads with correspondence in many languages, and (starting at 26) worked right across the literary field from Chaucer on as professor of Rhetoric and then English at Harvard.

Britain never matched American breadth or professionalism (and probably as a result never got the donations). Secular education at least was guaranteed at University College London in 1826, but its catchment was still the haute bourgeoisie. There were a few moves towards external studies – 1867 saw James Stuart, a Cambridge scientist, start public lectures in the north; the Cooperative movement soon weighed in, sponsoring massive lecture audiences, but it was not till after 1900 that Oxbridge admitted some elite workers and established, parallel to the new WEA, the external tutorial classes system – to be in 1946 Raymond Williams’ first employer. These outreach activities thrived across Britain—especially in Wales, Scotland and the English north: you could see it as an early OU, or  a web of its day – but very little certification followed study and this was not in effect a collegiate system. Though actual enrolment numbers increased in Britain from 1850 to 1950 not a lot had changed: Perry Anderson argued in  his essay `Components of the National Culture’ that the professional middle classes were in fact acculturated via cultural capital to the aristocratic/religious power structure of the past.

Dating the end of the north American boom (Canada was involved as well) is elusive: I feel the third high phase had become routinised by the early twentieth century, when subject specialism and the fetishisation of research into patents began to dominate as they have to the present in that part of the world. But we have seen a fourth high phase.  It was not, as if by magic, until after another war and in a new period of boom that universities across the Anglophone world, very noticeably in Australia,  began to change structurally and intellectually. The present had arrived. Or what s now the past.

After the second world war north American universities had the facilities and structures to increase student numbers without serious restructuring. In Australia the one uni per state model was soon bulging under pressure of returned service personnel and increasing demand from the young for educational mobility, notably women. By the mid sixties most capitals had more than one campus, with Sydney and Melbourne up to three. Britain was slower  both to expand and change: its first wave of innovation was in the art colleges, but  new universities like Warwick, Sussex and York were operating well by 1970.

Expansion didn’t mean anything in itself for this last (so far, and perhaps for ever) high phase of university activities. Key elements were the type of students and staff that expansion attracted, their new facilities, and aspirations. I saw this from the inside. I went to Oxford as a working-class grammar-school boy in 1959.  It was like Time Team. My college tutor was an expert in fifteenth-century English pronunciation. He discouraged us from lecture attendance as distracting (what from?). In second year he was made a professor and instantly stopped teaching (charismatic doesn’t seem the right word).His replacement gave us a sheet of paper, with names and titles on it. We had never seen a reading list. By sheer luck, I had for two terms a brilliant and later famous American PhD student, Del Kolve, as tutor: no doubt why most of my work is medieval still. We all need help.

I saw the new world when I became a lecturer in Sydney, in 1963. They were hiring anyone. There was real teaching --  lectures and tutorials -- and truly collegial colleagues, libertarians like fondly-remembered Bill Maidment (never published an article, influenced us all) and already multi-talented Michael Wilding;  and seriously generous scholars like Bernie Martin, folklorist, rhetorician, Celtic scholar, and George Russell, mighty medievalist: he shared his teaching with me, including a course in medieval universities, useful to the present.

It was a rowdy, dynamic department, with fifty lecturers at its peak (with a cricket team and a snooker team: the latter did better). Most of the young staff  were uncomfortable disseminating platitudes about what we had just learned to call cultural capital. With the Sydney radical philosophers on hand, the place hummed with left theorisation, Althusser and Macherey everywhere: we thought Derrida and Foucault were pretty middle-of-the-road. We found avatars on other campuses in what we called the New Humanities and increasingly across Britain – Methuen handbooks by the likes of Terry Eagleton, Kate Belsey, Terry Hawkes and (soon working in Australia, as now again) Tony Bennett made cutting-edge teaching much easier. The historians and the political scientists were as energetic and active – they led the democratisation of the campus and for some it didn’t go far enough. A free university was one active ideal: Terry Irving and his friends set one up in Redfern. It was widely thought the People’s University of Balmain would have a winning acronym.

History remembers the 1960s and 70s on the streets. Vietnam and the authoritarian structures of Berkeley and the Sorbonne were certainly detonators for resistance, but  deeper educational change was in the teaching and learning. There were some material bases (there have to be). I recall when the first photocopier arrived. It smelled terrible, but now  you could expect students to read serious articles and chapters; when academic paperbacks started flooding into the increasingly well-funded libraries lectures no longer needed to dictate facts, as when there was only one book on each topic for a class of six hundred, but could launch critical discourses. Among the students the confidence and new world cheek of a full-employment economy, they were ready to have a go at anything out of interest, without fear of losing a place in the job queue. There was a sense in those Whitlamesque days that it was just worth going to uni to find things out you didn’t yet know. In recent years I have often told my nervous British colleagues about the mid 1960s year when New South Wales added a year to study – and there were no undergraduates. What should the university do ? Close first year ? Very grandly, it did nothing, stayed open, and took anyone who fancied it. As I recall it, the entire Sydney Anarchist club, led by Bulgarian taxi-driver Jack Grancharoff, attended in an unprecedented expression of single purpose, as did many members of the semi-employed thinking classes -- some of the Sydney Push showed up, even in the morning.

Not only critical energy, social variety and political energy hit the newly expanded campuses. There was a sense of ownership among students and staff. Women, leftists, non-whites, and gays, pretty much in that order as I recall it, claimed a say in what they were going to study. That was international, and the Americans led in many areas, with the Australians close behind. Many British campuses lagged, but in some, notably Sussex, Cardiff, Warwick, York, influential new work was done. The story of those innovative years is not yet written (why not ?),  and my account is inevitably restricted,  but innovation was right across the campus. Australian historians made major strides in re-shaping national consciousness after Britain lurched towards Europe; British scholars developed Cultural Studies to account for the interests held, and the pressures felt, by those outside the elites. Sociology, largely driven by American models, but gaining a critical edge in Britain and Australia, delivered stinging critiques of the status quo, as in more muted tones did  Educational studies.

Dialectics always works. From the start of this fourth high phase there was opposition, notably in Australia. B. A. Santamaria’s National Review, report E. R. Trevaud and John McLaren in Equal but Cheaper, on the 1970s colleges, attacked `the creation of  a class of idle youth fed with slogans they are incapable of evaluating and lacking skills that might be turned to useful purposes’.  The right had young cadres too; I  recall the blustering at Sydney of their chosen vessel the pugilistic Tony Abbott. In America the right spoke through people like Alan Bloom,  who denounced the new educational thrust as The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom and his kind fingered any affirmative action as a breach of personal freedom for those who already had plenty of affirmation.

The bottom line in repression was, of course, economic. After the oil price hike of 1974 increasingly right-wing Western governments (quite a few of them Labour or Labor) steadily sought to control public expenditure and impose financial values. The crunch in Australia was the mid 1980s Dawkins initiative to dictate policy through the purse, and impose  the shades of the mercantile prison-house on free thought. Research funding was not to be collegially distributed through departments, but in government-approved grants; overseas students became the golden calf. Research productivity was numerically assessed, and so goodbye to collegiate teaching as an ideal. The survivors moan about management, but in fact it is all meta-management, only concerned with processes, having no interest in, indeed hostility towards, the content that drives top-class teaching and learning.

It needn’t be so. America has kept the collegial system going underneath a charismatic superstructure: the German campuses I have visited seem to have held onto many of their best traditions. Australia has very noticeably thrown out the infant learners with the collegial bath-water (and the Barthes-water as well). In Britain this anti-pedagogical downturn has been largely restricted to the high-end research departments like Chemistry and Engineering, because you couldn’t get big research funding in the humanities anyway. But Cameron has fixed that version of culture-lag with all-round cuts and a radical instrumentalisation of learning.

The fourth-phase university boom lasted  about a generation. They all seem to. The Americans still have real quality on some campuses, though they say they feel very pinched. Elsewhere I think it’s clear that knowledge has packed its tents and moved on -- into electronic modes, into informal encounters, into the intellectual hills. But while I am sad to see what people I knew created so well fading away, and I recognise that the young lecturers who saw it for a while are more angry than sad (a proper response), the sort of narrative I have recounted here tells us that knowledge, of the  non-fetishised, socially and intellectually vigorous sort, doesn’t die, and will re-emerge.

There is a myth about undying knowledge. My recent book Merlin: Knowledge and Power (2009) explores how he is always a figure of pure knowledge, and he is eventually harassed by the powers he generates and supports. Inattentive scholars say he disguises himself. But there is no single Merlin identity. He is knowledge, that’s it. He never appears in the form of a figure of power, a king or a lord or even a lady. His usual trick is a boy or a peasant or an old crone, sometimes an animal. But none of them is ever really Merlin; he, being knowledge, is only a polymorphous force that takes many forms, all of them as much a challenge to power as knowledge is absolutely necessary for the survival of power. And Merlin always speaks from the grave.

So having reflected on the various formations of university knowledge, sometimes at its best and most critically functional,  we can only predict, hopefully, and confidently, for its new formations, its re-formations …electronic, neomorphous, unexpected --but elusive, challenging, and crucial as ever.

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