The Universe and the University

The Universe and the University (an educational epitaph)

            How to say this delicately? The North American university system as it stands should be shut down. Akin to Gibbon’s late Roman Empire, it has rotted from within, thus making itself easy prey for its enemies without. Institutions, as well as empires, come and go, as do even the Gods, so in the broader historical view, perhaps we should not shed but one tear for the university’s own passing. But the viewpoint emanating from the outside is not the fuller truth of the matter, and cannot be so. I find it remarkable enough that someone like Governor De Santis’ experience of two top-ten campuses should have generated the precise same language of criticism as I myself, a quarter-century veteran of university teaching, two decades of that as professor, and five years as chair of a department in a liberal arts college of an R1 university, should also state; in a word, that ‘professors are smugly arrogant, reign uncontested, have no interest in the rest of the world and those who live in it, and hypocritically claim such an interest bereft of conscience’. I would add, ‘and contribute almost nothing to that world’s self-understanding’. Now it is surely the case that De Santis, who studied law in the Ivy League, would have encountered faculty somewhat stiffer than the usual fare, but even so, his general points stand. Yet he is an outsider, and while such a perspective has some merit in terms of how an institution faces its public, it can only identify effects, not causes. Let me now do the latter.

            Discourse is ever-changing. Its object is truth, its subject, human consciousness. Between the two, it is a case of seldom the twain shall meet. Unlike East and West, which over time can, with political will, at least come to a mutual understanding, truth is aloof to human perception as it is itself accustomed to seeing the universe. We are both the students and the study, the observers and the observed, the hermeneuts and the text, the analyst and the analysand. To our present knowledge, this is unique in the cosmos. That we are, as Sagan reminded us, the ‘local eyes and ears’ of such, tells also of our provincialism. But as if human life were not hard enough, the fashionable vendors of discourse have unremittingly narrowed its gaze, sabotaged its witness, shuttered its observation. One might have argued that the university has seen several watershed moments wherein its suite of subjects has been irrevocably transformed, and for the betterment of our quest for truth. The 18th century stands out as not only the coming of age of modernity discursively, wherein both empiricism and rationalism finally and bodily replaced the residuum of mysticism lingering, indeed malingering, in the Ivory Tower, but as well, as the historical moment when the university’s denizens began to turn their work for public purpose and toward the greater good.

            For some quarter millennium this has been the touchstone of the best of the academy: research in the public interest, but that defined objectively, and not ideologically. But over the past quarter century, the perception that academic discourses have faltered in this wider mission due to their source material being biased has shifted the political ground upon which both funding and networks may be built. And this perception has not come from the world as a whole – for it is the same science which bequeaths to us medical miracle and evolution, engineering marvel and the unconscious life, and in principle gifts such insights to all – but rather from those who simply have not been present in the university, have not done the work to be so, have not the literacy to do so. Yes, the university, as with all formal forms of education, began narrowly, with only wealthy white male Gentiles afoot. The gradual expansion of these systems, beginning around 1830 or so, has of late admitted what we take to be the best from all quarters. In so doing, however, the necessary standards of literacy, of historical consciousness, of factual knowledge and of discursive perspective, have been either truncated or entirely shelved.

            And these standards have been debased across the board. It is not, as perhaps some reactionaries claim, that the sudden and inexplicable presence of non-white, non-binary persons has sullied the right-thinking waters of solid scholarship, but in fact that this very scholarship has first self-sabotaged. The vast majority of illiterate academics remain white and binary; they’re just dimwitted and lazy to boot. And this sorry state can happen to anyone, including myself, and in the most unexpected of contexts. Though one of the world’s leading living hermeneutic scholars, it took me no less than 38 years to figure out what the lyrics of Yes’s ‘Does it Really Happen?’ (1980) and this not even an oft-murky Jon Anderson offering, and a full 40 to realize that Toto’s ‘Africa’, (1983), with its perplexing music video, was simply about colonialism; the jaunty pop song version of Joseph Conrad. Trivial, you might suggest, and generally I would agree. But the principal, in which the very best of us can be led astray, can misrecognize ourselves, can self-sabotage in our personal or our discursive quest for truth or at the least, truths, remains sound. And it is the university, from the inside out, which has thence become so ‘open-minded’ that its proverbially cliché brain has fallen out.

            And indeed for all to see. The resignation of two of the world’s foremost administrators is a case in point. Claudine Gay and I graduated in the same year, and yet she eventually became the president of the number one ranked school, whereas I became mere chair within the c. #333rd ranked school. My blushes, Watson. Is she the author of nigh-on 60 books? Did she pen a new theory of anxiety, a new understanding of place and landscape, a phenomenology of aesthetics, a vast and soul-destroying defence of the so-called ‘anti-humanism’, several volumes in ethics, a three volume study of the phenomenology of time as history, and nearing six essay collections, not to mention a 5500 page demythology of Western Metaphysics, and a page-turner to boot, with all such works bereft of plagiarism? Did she work for 15 years in the field with a variety of marginal fellow human beings and their communities who harbored irrational and disdained beliefs as if their lives depended upon it? Did she help educate and transform the lives of the very most marginal students in what is her own country? Thought not.

            But it is unfair to point to any single person. Gay is an allegorical figure, not a villain. She is the anti-Sophia of the contemporary university. Her downfall says nothing about her résumé or even her humanity, but rather everything about an institution which is quite content to let its figureheads take that same fall upon its behalf. One can only hope that all those fans of De Santis and like political figureheads are shrewder than all of that, and will not be themselves content with mere symbolic damage. In the interim, the university subsists on life-support, graciously given by a wider world which knows little of its charity’s truer nature. Remember, I am, in my own allegorical form, the worst foe of society, public enemy number one, for that is what a critical philosopher must be. I am a child of the Enlightenment, a bastard child of the anti-Enlightenment, a staunch defender of the liberal arts, a proponent of the most radical of questions, a scourge of all that is sacred, and I, I am saying this: shut down the universities, replace them with professional and applied science technical schools; nursing not Cultural Studies, engineering not English Literature, policy analysis not Kulturkritik. Just one campus per region for the scant few who desire to seriously study philosophy and related discourses, for 90 percent of the current student bodies have no will to learn much of anything, but rather to engage opportunistic and irresponsible ‘teachers’ to lead their youthful and irrational chants. Shut down the universities, open up the universe.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction, he was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.