- The University as Fool (Donncha Kavanagh)
The picture emerging from these chapters (see Posts 1, 2, 3, and 4) is one that portrays the University as a historical cluster of contradictory traits that shatter any illusion of agreement as to what a university was or is or does or could be. As such, Kavanagh claims (p. 101);
If identity is an emerging property in a network of relationships, then the idea of the University is perhaps best understood through analysing its relationship with other institutions over time (101)
A “foolish institution” means that it is always defined by its unique relationship with another institution
In liking the University to a Fool, Kavanagh has in mind the court jester figure common in medieval literatures, including the works of Shakespeare (King Lear), whose multiple identities (both friend to and critic of the Sovereign), ambiguities (both sexual and intellectual) and unclear allegiances (both dependent on and scornful of the Master) made him/her a figure to be wary of, to be both ridiculed and respected.
Similarly, the medieval university was beholden to the Church but that loyalty soon proved to be conditional as the Church lost its power during the Enlightenment and the Reformation and as scientific or natural philosophy societies, such as the Royal Society, began to emerge. As such, the 19th century university began to question its allegiances. It became influenced by Kant’s intellectual authority and his claim that certain faculties -such as law, theology, and medicine – were imposed by others, whilst other faculties – such as philosophy and reason – could remain independent and free.
Accordingly, Kant argued the it was the duty of the State to protect such freedom.
Soon, however, as 19th century Europe also saw the rise of nation-states and industry, the State-as-guarantor-of-reason soon gave way to the Nation-as-guarantor-of-culture. This university became influenced by Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University which established the view that the pursuit of a university education should be ‘an end in itself’. This notion further evolved into the idea that the purpose of university should be for the betterment of humanity, not just for the betterment of the nation-state.
The Humboldtian German ideal remained anchored to this view, namely that of the university as a place of human betterment, research, and scholarship. This is the ideal that inspired the American universities of the late 1800s (see my posts relating to this starting with the first here).
However, ‘human betterment, research, and scholarship’ needed to be funded and undergraduate study provided that income; it also provided the human resources for civic society, ie the professions and industry, forming characters to work in law, medicine, and engineering.
And then came the war(s). During this time, universities were also called upon to serve the war industry, thus becoming ‘fools’ to the Military Sovereign whilst simultaneously being influenced by the ideas of John Dewey who called for Justice and Emancipation to be the Sovereigns of Social Justice, guiding and shaping the university’s identity.
Fast forward to 2016, and it is easy to see how the current entrepreneurial university, favoured and nurtured by the UK (see the 2015 Green Paper), has evolved from these many competing, fuzzy, tense, confused and contradictory identities, settling now on the idea that a University has to train for a job like some kind of elite recruiting agency serving many communities, functions, and interest groups, behaving more like a multiversity than a university (p. 105).
The university as Fool now starts to make sense. The Fool tells “stories that are embedded in a framework of norms and values that connect the moment into longer conversations over time and space” (p. 106-7). The Fool has audiences, in the plural (107):
First and primarily, the Fool speaks to his King, his Sovereign [i.e. his Paymaster]. Second, he also addresses other characters in the play [ie his Co-Actors]. Third, he has conversations essentially with himself, about his own position, and the Fool’s role in the world [ie Reflection]. Fourth, he routinely makes witty remarks about topical issues engaging the viewing audience of the time but which have nothing whatsoever to do with the play [ie Public Engagement?].
When viewed through the lens of the Fool, the idea of the ‘University’ comes to look like more of an oxymoron (ie trying to be and do a myriad of contradictory things).
But as Kavanagh reminds us (p.110):
oksúmōron actually means ‘pointedly foolish’.
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