Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Academia as a Bulwark Against Conservatism (Part II)

(Part I)

Now if society in order to function needs to be a fundamentally "conservative" one, where everyone accepts certain rules already in place, it is also important that this established status quo be regularly challenged by a "liberal" force. This allows for progress and for society to adept to ever changing circumstances. Following J. S. Mill, I believe a healthy society functions as dialectic between conservative and liberal forces, where the liberal advocates for change and the conservative defends the status quo, resulting in society slowly changing as it adopts the stronger liberal points, while maintaining it fundamental integrity. This is a reforming society as opposed to a revolutionary one.

The chief value of a university is that it serves as this liberal force in society. Professors, whether they are actually smarter than others, are people of the mind and as such are naturally well suited to thinking outside of societal conventions and asking whether certain things are truly necessary or even consistent with the higher values that the outside society holds for itself. University students are no longer children, but are still without the cares and responsibilities of adults. This puts them in an ideal situation to experiment with different lifestyles and values. Left to themselves neither the professor nor their students have any direct influence over the larger society, but this is also part of their value.

The university thus serves as a giant lab experiment, run by the professors. Students come out of high school and for four years are allowed the privilege of entering a sort of "black box" in which they can do and be whatever they want (barring causing direct physical harm to others), with no fear of future consequences. One suspects that most people will simply use this freedom for a rumspringa of sex, drugs and alcohol. And there is value even to this as it might give cause to think about issues of sexuality, gender and the pursuit of happiness. Hopefully, at least some students, though, will embrace this process as an intellectual journey and make their way to the classrooms of their professors, in both body and mind, where they might pursue some of these larger questions in a more vigerous and systematic fashion. After four years they reenter general society no longer children, but as adults, with what they learned, both inside and outside the classroom, and will be free to apply this knowledge as either liberals or conservatives as they take part in the larger societal discourse.  

Some of you may find this ironic, but the man who opened my eyes to this use of the university was Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, who used to serve as the Orthodox rabbi at Harvard. According to Rabbi Klapper, his service to the wider Orthodox Jewish community was that he was running an experiment in finding different halachically feasible ways to allow Orthodoxy o adapt to changes in societal norms, particularly in the role of women. Harvard is not an established Orthodox Jewish community with set norms. The students come from other communities and in a few years will leave for other communities. In the meantime, under Rabbi Klapper's guidance, they are free to experiment with different ways of doing things to see how it plays out with no real consequences to fear. As they leave to become leading members of other communities, they will take what they have learned and be able to make suggestions as to how best to apply these ideas.

It should be stressed, though, that in order for this experiment to work it requires a radical disjunciton between the university and the rest of society. The value of the professor is precisely in that he is cut off from the rest of society, living in a world of theory without the power or inclination to change society. This "innocence" gives the university its moral authority and protects it from outside influence. The moment universities become engines for particular movements it becomes part of society. This means that there is no reason for anyone to respect what goes on inside the university as the source for refined theoretical thought, outside of the inevitable prejudices of the societal discourse, to to give it the protection that is the logical consequence of this purity. If the university can be used to serve one faction of society then why should the opposition not, in perfectly good conscience, attempt to subvert the university and turn it to its cause?

In many respects my ideal university has much in common with the world of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which deals with a future alternative universe in which the philosophers are placed in medieval style monasteries. Because these philosophers can have no direct influence on the larger society they are free to pursue their work without threats of violence or interference.

(To be continued ...)


Clarissa said...

"Some of you may find this ironic, but the man who opened my eyes to this use of the university was Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, who used to serve as the Orthodox rabbi at Harvard."

-I'm not surprised. :-) What you describe is an Ivy League university. At the school where I teach right now, however, (and the majority of colleges in the US as well) all of my students have jobs and many of them have families to support. Very few people in this country can afford this freedom to experiment and have uninterrupted fun in college. I worked 4 part-time jobs and took care of my sister when I was an undergrad.

The ideal university you describe is beautiful but you need an extremely rich society to afford something like that on a mass scale and not just for the few spoiled rich brats who attend Harvard.

Anonymous said...

You argue that universities are likely to be "liberal," i.e., in favor of change. This may be true in our society, but what about other societies where the universities were the sources of reactionary anti-semitism (e.g., German and eastern European universities in the 1920s and 1930s). I would argue that universities are likely to reflect the views of the educated non-entrepreneurial classes that wants to be employed as white collar workers. Thus, they will often favor a larger government because that would provide them with more opportunities.

Izgad said...

To be clear, I am not describing the university system as it currently exists in any specific place. Rather I am outlining what I believe the university system should be. Specifically that the university system should function as an openly liberal force in society. It is also plausible that under the circumstances I outline, even conservatives of good will would allow such a state of affairs.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to say what a university "should" be. A university exists because it has "customers," i.e., students, and it is likely that it will serve the interests of the students and the interests of its faculty. Since the students want to get certain types of jobs in the society, it will be in favor of government intervention to serve the interests of the literati. I remember a recent post where you acknowledged that despite your libertarian beliefs, it would be in your interests for the government to support historians by requiring the study of history. I don't see anything necessary liberal about the support of the literati. For example, in a traditional society, universities could require the study of traditional texts and could be a source of conservatism. (For instance, I believe that the modernization of China was held back by the tradition of Imperial Examinations (abolished in 1905), which required traditional knowledge, rather than modern sciences.) I would argue that society would be better served if students were forced to study worldly matters, rather than remaining in an ivory tower.

Izgad said...

I am not making a value judgment about the worth of certain features of the present university system. My ideal system would be a small fraction of the university system as we know it. This is not to eliminate these other features. They would still exist but be outside the university system and not subject to the conservative ceasefire. As my university system would deal purely in theory it would have no direct connection to gaining any jobs, inside or outside of government. Theoretical science would be in the university, practical science would be outside though I see no reason why either should be harmed.