The tragedy of the modern university

Jordan Peterson has proposed the creation of an alternative to the modern university that offers free or low-cost education rooted in the true traditions of the liberal humanities, stripped of their post-modern “indoctrination cults.”

I support this venture. I agree with Peterson’s criticisms of the ideological possession of  the shouty professors, who are read by noone and who despise all appreciative reading. His book, 12 rules for life: an antidote for chaos, is truly wonderful, and is a powerful diagnosis of the cultural malaise affecting the university and much of contemporary intellectual life.

Peterson is also not the only proponent of such a revival of traditions of liberal education, and the creation of an alternative to the modern hieratic screamers of heresy. Roger Scruton has written of the incurable corruption of the modern university, and his own experience of an alternative in the celebration of free association, culture and speech in the Czech dissident movement. A.C. Grayling has set up an alternative College for the Humanities in London, and advocated a freeing of the rules to permit more such institutions to emerge. Yet Grayling’s experiment relies on high fees, whereas Peterson is advocating a kind of return to the citizen of letters (if I can adapt the idea of the citizen scientist).

This idea perhaps will find fertile soil. We do live in the best educated societies that have ever lived, and with conditions in which anyone (including this blogger) can live a life of the mind and produce works of high culture without the need for a guardian class of professors and publishers. Such conditions can promote a true appreciative inquiry, rather than support institutional social climbers who are more committed to their prestige than to learning.

But I do not think Peterson or Scruton or Grayling have captured the full tragedy of the modern university, which plays itself out across more disciplines than the humanities.  The university has broken its own way of life through its expansion over the last fifty years. It has become a vast feral city in which its citizens can no longer rely on the university fulfilling its fundamental  “social and moral purpose, which is that of handing on both a store of knowledge and the culture that makes sense of it” (Scruton, The end of the university).

I feel I have been a witness to this slowly unfolding tragedy, through my experiences of government. I have worked directly with people like Mark Burford, Peter Noonan and Terry Moran who have been at the heart of “education reforms” since the 1980s, especially the mass expansion and concurrent corporatisation of the university through the Dawkins reforms. I remember Terry Moran mocking Dame Leonie Kramer’s “archaic world view” that led her to oppose so many of these ‘reforms.” She was also pilloried by the early generations of the ideologically possessed who sought to turn literature into intellectual molotov cocktails, and not the appreciation of the infinite conversation. Perhaps in retrospect, Dame Leonie was right. Liberal humanities have declined. Universities are infected with administration, and yet university teaching has also declined as the competition for overseas student revenue, tenure and prestige in the little fishbowls of academia crowds out any real attention to the educational needs of students.

We all – including my children who study at these degraded institutions, and report first hand to me across a range of disciplines the cheapening of the experience – now need to live with the broken institutions these reforms have wrecked. Back before these reforms Michael Oakeshott wrote about the fundamental mistake of all these reforms. They turned an institution of association and preservation of culture into an enterprise serving utilitarian ends.

“A University is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result; it is a manner of human activity… [Universities might not articulate their mission, but know something] much more important—namely, how to go about the business of being a university. This knowledge is not a gift of nature; it is a knowledge of a tradition, it has to be acquired, it is always mixed up with error and ignorance, and it may even be lost.” Michael Oakeshott The Voice of Liberal Learning, pp.106-7.

The tragedy – the great unrecognised tragedy of modern government – is that the zeal of reformers has indeed led to the loss of these living traditions in the institutions that had successfully, for centuries, with less resources and fewer people, maintained them.

The hope is that these living traditions survive, and may yet find a home in a newly invented institution outside of the ruins of the feral city. Best wishes Jordan Peterson.

Image source: Wikipedia, interior of the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, the oldest continually operating university in the world

3 Thoughts

  1. One contributing factor to the decline, at least in my experience was the apathy & laziness of students. It seemed to me (again from personal experience) that lecturers actually reduced the vivacity of their research in a lecture to fit the general malaise, which was to have not bothered to read anything on the list, often using online resources that give outlines of a text so the student at least knows the rough themes or plot of a work. In a seminar, students were totally unprepared to talk about anything, they had no opinion at all. This was sometimes 98% of the seminar. Literally me & one other guy, usually much older would trade ideas with our tutor, who I recall in some instances actually berating the torpor of his students. In private however, the intellectual verve & disappointment of these tutors was not hidden & they would speak openly to me for hours. It was very disappointing to me. I decided that rather than trust the content of lectures, I must use my university time as just that, an opportunity to use a big library & focus on reading lists & whatever I could get out tutors in private, which was a great deal.


    1. That is true, and I guess a sign that too many students were at university for the wrong reasons, not really to be part of that tradition of learning. Reading as much as you can, and exploring the library was a large part of my university experience, like you probably more important than the lectures or tutorials. But it was also always something I felt you were expected to do. These days undergraduate courses are given “reading bricks” – all they really have to read without ever going to the library.


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