Formation, Part 5

There can be little doubt that the conditions under which scholars work shape the ideas they have.  To my mind, this makes it extremely important to think seriously about those conditions. As Steve Fuller suggested already in his first book, Social Epistemology, it ought to be possible to predict what kind of knowledge a particular organization of cognitive labor might produce, or, indeed, to work out what the best way of organizing our intellectual pursuits might be if certain kind of knowledge is our aim. More existentially, we can ask what kind of mind will result from subjecting a human body to a particular form of discipline.

That’s, of course, the question I have been asking over the past four posts about the formation of an “academic” way of thinking in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education, then onward to graduate school. In this post, I want think a little about the most advanced stage of academic development, namely, the mind of the full-time scholar, the tenured professor. This means I’ll be fast-forwarding from graduate school to tenure, without paying much attention to the increasingly important “formative” (deforming? disfiguring?) process that occurs in the “post-doctoral” but “pre-tenure” period. This is the life of adjunct faculty and assistant professors and deserves a post of its own. But I think it is useful, first, to sketch the sort of mind that those years are supposed to both produce and allow us to select for a life (more or less) of service to the university.

I believe that a university should provide conditions under which people who have demonstrated their intellectual abilities are free to make up, and speak, their own minds. One way to put this is that it should be a place where it is possible to have an idea without holding to an ideology. A place where it is possible to think outside the orthodoxy. (Remember that story about Galileo from my last post; it is possible that the Church actually offered Galileo such intellectual freedom–albeit only to make up his mind, not to speak it.) Another way to put it is that it should be possible to think without the support of a “foundation”, i.e., a funding agency with an agenda. Rather, the university should provide the, let’s say, universal foundation of “reason”, to support the inquiries of scholars.

I think there is way too much pressure, even within the university, for academics to “sign on” to one or another ideological tradition, to make themselves useful to one or another social project. Riffing on Al Gore’s famous title, I once asked Fuller whether truths could be judged more or less “convenient” to particular political interests, and whether all truth is destined always to be judged, in part, on this kind of convenience, rather than being held to some more universal, rational standard. He answered that “universities have a vital role to play in mainstreaming awkward voices … by integrating them into a curricular narrative, so they are not seen as merely slaughtering the sacred cows but as replacing them with a more durable species.” For “awkward” here, we can read “ideologically inconvenient”. Most importantly, we can imagine a university that does not let a truth that is inconvenient for some current constellation of interest groups also be inconvenient for an individual scholar to believe it and, as it were, “profess” it. Indeed, we can make it entirely convenient for professors to believe and say whatever they want.

It seems to me that the value of such an institution, where ideas would be able to flourish independently of their utility for enterprises of state or business, is obvious. The same institution would expose each new generation to a similarly flourishing kind of mind in the classroom. And it also seems to be a pretty straightforward matter to arrange the necessary conditions. Compared to the enormous costs of running today’s universities, I think such institutions would be relatively inexpensive to establish. Obviously, governments and corporations could always try to entice the greatest intellects out of their garden of free inquiry and into more “gainful” pursuits. Let those whose first love is truth remain behind. There’s nothing shameful about either set of values; they’re just different. The important thing is to ensure that universities are staffed by people who value freedom and stability over profit and innovation.

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