Friday, 3 September 2010

What is the use of universities?

The use, or value, of universities can only be measured with reference to the aims of society as a whole - to talk about the disinterested or autonomous pursuit of knowledge for its own sake &c is an evasion (or worse).

(Nobody really believes or actually behaves that way - I mean, nobody at all acts in such a way that it can be seen that they regard autonomously-pursued, disinterested, blue-sky, curiosity-driven knowledge for its own sake as a sufficient justification of the existence of universities in their current or any other form. People merely *say* things like this in order to be 'left alone' to pursue their vocation (which is the best reason for saying this kind of stuff); or to do what amuses them, gains them status, pays their salary, grants them power or whatever. Or perhaps to argue against what strikes them as patently false ideas such as that higher education exists primarily in order to enhance the economy.)

Anyway, in a secular society based primarily on the individualistic or utilitarian pursuit of gratification (maximization of pleasure, minimization of suffering) - a society where gratification is to be attained by inflation of individual pride (euphemistically-termed 'self-respect' or self-development) combined with serial distraction to deal with insoluble paradoxes, meaninglessness and purposelessness... In such a society it is inevitable that universities will be seen in terms of their contribution to such a project; at least when the question is pursued to the bottom line.

In a 'scientific' society - where the implicit aim is to maximize power over 'nature' - universities would be perceived in terms of this function.

A socialist society might be devoted to something like the eradication of differences and universities would be evaluated in terms of their contribution to this goal; or maybe a politically-correct society might be focused on promoting favoured groups to displace disfavoured groups and would enlist universities in this scheme and judge them according to their contribution to this goal...

But in what I would term a 'Byzantine' theocratic society, where the bottom line of societal justification was seen in terms of things being conducive to the pursuit of Christian salvation (rather than this-worldy gratification) - creating and defending a public environment where people might choose and sustain a Christian life - then the role of universities, and their success or failure in this role, would have a very different complexion indeed.