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