Two Lectures on the
Idea of the University

The following lectures were originally delivered at the Auburn Philosophical Society’s roundtable on “The Idea of the University,” 12 April 2002.

Lecture I copyright © 2002 by Kelly Dean Jolley
Lecture II copyright © 2002 by Roderick T. Long

Lecture I:
The Sphinx

Kelly Dean Jolley
Professor of Philosophy
Auburn University

I begin by quoting D. H. Lawrence:

At the gate of the school lies the sphinx who puts this question to every emerging scholar ...: “How are you going to make your living?” And every [scholar] must answer or die: so the poor things believe.

We call this the system. It isn’t, really. The trouble lies in us who are so afraid of this particular sphinx. “My dear sphinx, my wants are very small, my needs still smaller. I wonder you trouble yourself about so trivial a matter. I am going to get a job in a bottle-factory, where I shall have to spend a certain number of hours a day. But that is the least of my concerns. My dear sphinx, you are a kitten at riddles. If you’d asked me, now, what am I going to do with my life, apart from the bottle-factory, you might have frightened me. As it is, really, every smoky tall chimney is an answer to you.”

Curious that when the toothless old sphinx croaks “How are you going to get your living?” our knees give way beneath us. ... Do we really think we might not be able to earn our bread and butter? The odds against earning your living are one in five thousand. There are not so many odds against dying of typhoid or of being killed in a street-accident. Yet you don’t really care a snap about street-accidents or typhoid. Then why are you so afraid of dying of starvation? You’ll never die of starvation, anyhow. ...

There is no cure for this craven terror of poverty save in human courage and insouciance. A sphinx has you by your cravenness. ... Oedipus and all those before him might just as easily have answered the sphinx by saying ... “My dear sphinx, go to school, go to school .... [H]ere you are, heaven knows how old, propounding silly riddles....” Exit the sphinx with its tail between its legs.

And so with the sphinx of our material existence. She’ll never go off with her tail between her legs till we simply jeer at her.

We have our sphinx at Auburn: she lives in and feeds on our University culture, and she speaks, all-too-often, with the voice of Bobby Lowder. “How are you going to earn your living?” the Bobby-voice croaks – and our knees give way beneath us. The sphinx has us by our cravenness. We are cowards all. What we should say when she croaks is what Lawrence would have us say. “Earn my living, you crazy old bitch? Why, I’m going Jimmy-Shepherding. No, not sheep at all. Jimmishepherding ....”

One point of this answer is to ridicule the question and the questioner. Both are rather silly, really. Each of you is, with very few exceptions, going to earn a living. Each of you will probably do reasonably well. The penury that the sphinx terrifies you with is an extremely distant possibility.

As Lawrence suggests (this is the other point of the Jimmishepherding answer), the question that should frighten you is the question of what you will do when you are not earning your living. “How will you live, not from 9 to 5, but during the rest of the day’s hours? What will you do with yourself on the weekends? Will your leisure be dignified? And what kind of person will you be, what kind of worker will you be, as you work from 9 to 5?” These questions should put you in a swither. And the Bobby-voice has nothing responsive to say to them, nothing. The sphinx is stony silent.

The sphinx wants to talk about earning a living, about earning your daily bread and butter. But the sphinx does not want to talk about whether you eat as a glutton, or about what you do after mealtime. The sphinx does not want to talk about kingdoms that are to come or not; the sphinx does not want to talk about forgiving trespasses or not forgiving trespasses. No. The sphinx wants to talk about earning a living – but not about living well. The sphinx wants to talk about the difference between the rich and the poor man – but not about the difference between the good and the bad man.

William James asked himself the question “Of what use is a college training?” After some meditation, the pithiest answer he could give was “It should help you to know a good man when you see him.” Pithy, true, that answer; and wise, too. James expands on his answer:

Studying in [the proper] way, we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time; we acquire standards of the excellent and durable. All our arts and sciences and institutions are but so many quests of perfection on the part of men; and when we see how diverse the types of excellence may be, how various the tests, how flexible the adaptations, we gain a richer sense of what the terms “better” and “worse” may signify in general. Our critical sensibilities grow more accurate and less fanatical. ... What the colleges ... should at least try to give us, is a general sense of what, under various guises, superiority has always signified and may still signify. The feeling for a good human job anywhere, the admiration of the really admirable, the disesteem of what is cheap and trashy and impermanent, – this is what we call the critical sense, the sense for ideal value. ... The sense for human superiority ought, then, to be considered our line, as boring subways is the engineer’s line and the surgeon’s is appendicitis. Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, a disgust for cheapjacks. We ought to smell, as it were, the difference of quality in men and their proposals when we enter the world of affairs around us.

James said more here than I can comment on. (I recommend his essay to you for your study; it is titled “The Social Value of the College-Bred.”) I will confine myself to comments on three things: First, notice that the sense for human superiority does not clash with recognizing diversity. Instead, it aids that recognition. For too long, our University culture has treated these two as if they clash. An important feature of James’ thinking here is that recognizing diversity falls out of, and is, so to speak, controlled by, the sense for human superiority. That is, diversity is recognized because the sense for human superiority reveals that superiority in a variety of times, peoples and cultures. Good human jobs occur in various settings: our sense for human superiority reveals to us that high human types can occur here and there, now and then. Diversity matters because human superiority matters.

Second, the teaching of a sense for human superiority can make a place for both the humanities and the sciences. Each can play a role in subtilizing the sense. James’ discussion of this point is one of the more complicated ones in his essay; I’ll abstract from the complications. Abstracted, James’ point is that both the humanities and the sciences can be taught in a way that educates the feeling for a good human job anywhere. James thinks that the short description of this way of teaching is teaching the biographical history of the subject. When the sciences, and even when the humanities, are not taught in this way, “literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.” Obviously, James is not condemning the teaching of grammar, of catalogues, of listed dates or of a sheet of formulas. What he is condemning is teaching that cannot or does not reach beyond these things, and in failing to reach beyond them, is teaching that leaves the student without a developed or developing sense of human superiority.

Third, the teaching of a sense for human superiority is the last things the sphinx wants to happen here or anywhere. Students taught such a sense would be able to smell the sphinx coming; they would know her for the cheapjack that she is, and be disgusted by her.

A student who has been taught the feeling for a good human job anywhere is a student who will know to reject the sphinx’s question for the silliness it is. Even more, that student will be able to answer wisely, at least in practice, the questions that students should find frightening: questions about how to live and about what sort of person or worker to be. An education that leaves these questions unanswerable, or that leaves a student to answer them only unwisely is, to borrow James’ phrase, “the very calamity and shipwreck of a higher education.”

You may, of course, still fear the sphinx. You may think what I’ve said is hopelessly otherworldly. You may. But if you do that’s just another side of your fear of the sphinx. She has browbeaten you into being lowbrow. Don’t let her do that. Fight her. Jeer at her. And listen once more to Lawrence:

To follow a high aim you must be fearless of the consequences. To promulgate a high aim and to be fearful of the consequences ... is much worse than leaving high aims alone altogether. ... Later, when we’ve plucked a bit of our courage up, we’ll embark on a new course of education. ... Those of us that are going to starve, why, we’ll take our chance. Who has wits, and guts, doesn’t starve: neither does he care about starving. Courage, mes amis.

Lecture II:
The Temple

Roderick T. Long
Professor of Philosophy
Auburn University

Once upon a time there was a sacred temple, which attracted worshippers from across the land. Many of these worshippers attended because of their sincere devotion to the god in whose honour the temple had been erected; but there were others who did not believe in the temple’s god, and were not even sure which god it was supposed to be. These false worshippers came because the temple was a good place to pick up dates, or because they enjoyed the temple’s games and feasts, or because membership in the temple was looked on favourably by potential employers, or just because attending the temple was what everybody did. The false worshippers were not dishonest, for no one had ever told them the name of the temple’s god, or the meaning of its sacred ceremonies. They quite naturally assumed that all the other worshippers were there for the same reasons they were, that every other participant in the sacred ceremonies was simply going through the motions of an empty and meaningless ritual, just as they were.

Nor were the priests of the sacred temple entirely guiltless for this state of affairs. For while most of them were faithfully dedicated to the service of their god, they seldom spoke of this spiritual vocation in calling worshippers to the temple. Instead, they spoke of the temple’s games and feasts, and of the temple’s popularity with employers, for these were the words that brought in the worshippers. And so it came to pass that when there were calls to turn the sacred altar into a picnic table, and to use the sacred scriptures as kindling for the temple barbecue, no one could offer a reason why it should not be done. And so the temple perished; yet its walls and columns stood as they had always stood, so that few of the revelers within those walls noted the temple’s passing.

Tonight we are gathered within the walls of our own sacred temple – the university: a temple dedicated not to the salvation of souls but to the salvation of minds. I didn’t come here tonight to whip the money-changers out of the temple, exactly; but I did come to witness to them – not as an evangelist but as a dysangelist, a bearer of unwelcome tidings. If this temple is to stand, it is incumbent upon us, its defenders, to state the meaning of our practices and to name the ideal that we serve; whom therefore they ignorantly worship, him declare we unto them.

It can often be tempting to identify an institution’s function with its most tangible product. By that standard, the purpose of a university is the production of credentials: grades, transcripts, and diplomas. Certainly the attaining of such credentials is a prime motive for many who enroll. But a credential is a credential of something; its value properly depends on the value of what it signifies, just as the value of a check depends on the value of the funds on deposit backing it up. The credentials issued by a university certify that the bearer of those credentials has received, and attained a certain degree of achievement within, a university education. To be sure, an individual may seek such credentials solely for the social status or greater employability they confer, without valuing what they stand for, just as the false worshippers in my story attend the temple for extraneous reasons; but the purpose of a university education itself cannot without circularity be defined solely in terms of the credentials to which it gives rise – just as, if the value of a check consists in its being backed by funds on deposit, the value of the funds on deposit cannot in turn consist solely in the fact that one can write checks against them.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined the chief purpose of higher education as the exercise of theoretical virtue – that is, the achievement of excellence in the employment of one’s own understanding, for its own sake. The phrase “theoretical virtue” is sometimes translated “contemplative virtue,” but the connotations of the latter rendering are misleading. As John Herman Randall writes, Aristotle’s

may well be the most passionate mind in history: it shines through every page, almost every line. His crabbed documents exhibit, not ‘cold thought,’ but the passionate search for passionless truth. For him, there is no ‘mean,’ no moderation, in intellectual excellence. The ‘theoretical life’ is not for him the life of quiet ‘contemplation,’ serene and unemotional, but the life ... of intelligence, burning, immoderate, without bounds or limits.

If the credentials issued by a university are like checks written against a bank account, then theoretical virtue is what corresponds to the funds on deposit. Or, to switch back to my opening analogy, within the temple of the university, the divinity we serve, the spirit that gives meaning to our practices, is theoretical virtue.

As university instructors, then, our primary mission is not to help students receive good grades. It is not even to help our students deserve good grades, though that would certainly be closer to the truth. It is rather to foster the exercise of theoretical virtue. To be sure, successful exercise of theoretical virtue will ordinarily have as one of its consequences the deserving, and the receiving, of good grades; but viewed from the standpoint of the ideals of the university, such a consequence is no more than a byproduct and an adornment.

Nor is the promotion of athletic excellence a central function of the university. To say this is in no way to denigrate athletic excellence; it is simply to point out that, within the context of the university, to divert attention from scholastic to athletic achievement is as out of place as it would be out of place on a football field to interrupt the game with a quiz on the philosophical and historical significance of the code of Justinian. The proper role of athletics within the university is a dual one: to provide students with one possible complement to the academic side of their lives, and to provide the university with a source of funds. In either case, the value of athletics is properly subordinate to the value of academics.

A university is an institution with a specific nature and, accordingly, specific goals that it is fitted to serve. One cannot demand of a university that it subordinate theoretical virtue to some other goal, any more than one can demand of a violin that it function as a screwdriver (or vice versa). It does not matter whether such demands come from those who attend the university or from those who govern it; it is impossible in the nature of things to make a university, so long as it is one, function at the same time as a non-university. To undertake such a quixotic attempt is to dash oneself against “boundary stones fixed in an eternal soil.” It is of course perfectly possible to destroy a university and replace it with some other sort of institution with a different function; but those who seek this goal owe us the candour of describing it as such.

Wherein does the value of theoretical virtue consist? It might be pointed out that theoretical virtue will make us better at a variety of practical tasks – that it will enable us to perform them more competently and more thoughtfully. This is true enough, and represents an important part of the case for valuing theoretical virtue. But theoretical virtue cannot be successfully attained if one seeks it only for the sake of its practical upshot. By analogy, a successful romantic relationship is said to lengthen one’s lifespan; I have no idea if that’s true, but suppose it is – all the same, you are unlikely to achieve a successful romantic relationship if you approach your potential partner with the attitude, “Okay, I’m going to try to fall in love with you because I want to lower my stress levels and live longer.” A commitment to theoretical virtue for its own sake is a prerequisite for achieving its beneficial consequences. Those who seek a university education without such a commitment will get nothing out of it, except a waste of the university’s time and, more importantly, their own.

Moreover, valuing intellectual self-development solely because it is useful evinces a certain lack of responsiveness to the value of one’s own dignity as a human being. It’s a bit like saying, “I don’t want to be a slave, because I know I’ll be a more efficient worker if I’m free.” The life of the mind is the fulfillment of our nature as reasoning and reasonable creatures distinct from the lower animals. Aristotle’s teacher Plato taught us that it is through education that we wake from a world of appearances – a world of unquestioned assumptions and unexamined inconsistencies – to the intelligible reality which awaits our investigation, and within which alone our minds can be fully alive. And Plato’s teacher Socrates reminds that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” Theoretical virtue will not bear a harness; not that it disdains practical application – it happily directs means to ends, but it will not suffer itself to be made a means to an end.

This emphasis on the paramount importance of intellectual activity for its own sake may strike some as elitist. But this reaction is itself elitist in a less attractive way, if it assumes that the pursuit of intellectual activity is beyond the grasp of the many. The ability to speak one’s native language, even imperfectly, is an intellectual feat of staggering complexity; any mind that can pull that off that has demonstrated its capacity to live the theoretical life. The claim that a good human life must be a theoretical one is not a call for everyone to become a professional intellectual (which would of course result in the not inconsiderable inconvenience of universal starvation), nor does it establish some specific benchmark of intellectual achievement up to which any worthwhile life must measure. The point is simply that any life, in any line of work, can and should include some consideration of ideas for their own sake, and will be enriched to the extent that it does so – and it is the mission of the university to foster such activity. In Shakespeare’s words:

What is a man
if his chief good and market of his time
be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
looking before and after, gave us not
that capability and godlike reason
to fust in us unus’d.

Philosophers nowadays are sometimes embarrassed by, and try to soft-pedal, Aristotle’s paean to the theoretical life at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics. I find it interesting that hardly any major thinker during philosophy’s first two millennia would have been thus embarrassed; the superiority of the theoretical life was common coin among the Aristoteleans, Platonists, and Stoics of classical Greece and Rome, the Confucians of China, the Naiyayikas of India, and the Latin and Arabic scholars of the Middle Ages. If intellectuals during the last five centuries have come to suffer a crisis of self-confidence in this regard, they could fairly be convicted of impiety. (I wouldn’t prescribe hemlock, though; intellectual vice is its own penalty.)

The Auburn Creed says, “I believe in education, which gives me the knowledge to work wisely and trains my mind and my hands to work skillfully.” The Auburn Creed is wrong. However welcome such consequences may be, they are not the primary grounds for valuing higher education. (This is the same sort of mistake in emphasis as when the Auburn Creed proclaims in the next line, “I believe in honesty and truthfulness, without which I cannot win the respect and confidence of my fellow men”; no honest person regards honesty primarily as a strategy for winning people’s confidence.)

It is often suggested that in a democratic society, the chief purpose of a university education is to prepare citizens to exercise their civic duties responsibly. I find this a doubtful proposition. If a majority is going to use the political process to impose its will on a minority, which seems to be the core idea that most people have in mind when they talk about democracy, it is, I suppose, better that the majority should do so in a thoughtful and educated manner; but the legitimacy of this whole way of going about things in the first place seems to be precisely one of the issues to be explored and debated in the academy. To make the value of the academic process depend on a predetermined answer to a question that the process itself must pose as an open one strikes me as self-defeating.

I shall now reveal a secret that my students have long suspected: the real purpose of a university education is to make students suffer. Not to impose suffering on them, exactly, so much as to lead them to impose the right sort of suffering on themselves. As Richard Mitchell writes:

Ambiguity, irony, and wit, to say nothing of deliberate pondering and metaphoric analogy, are not common either in the texts exchanged by managers or in those by which children are taught to “read.” For it is not truly reading that they are taught; it is the receiving of communication. We do this in the strange belief that they ought not to have to suffer perplexity, but it is only as the mind notices its perplexity, and suffers – for the noticing is not by itself enough – that it begins to move from recitation to consideration, to taking some grasp of itself.

The mind’s grasp of itself is valuable, not so much for what it makes possible – though what it makes possible is nothing less than the fruits of civilization itself – as for what it is: the status of freedom rather than bondage. But a free mind must also be a disciplined mind; the notion that intellectual discipline is an obstacle to intellectual freedom and creativity is on a par with the suggestion that my physical motions are freer and more creative than a gymnast’s, because they are less disciplined.

It is sometimes debated whether the university’s function should be to transmit the inherited wisdom of tradition, or to question that heritage and open ourselves to dissenting points of view. This way of stating the question is a confusion. The call to challenge inherited wisdom and open ourselves to dissenting points of view is itself one of the chief bits of wisdom we have inherited from our tradition; our heritage is an indispensable education in dissent. Hence if we wish to challenge our heritage, we must begin by learning from it, and if we wish to learn from it, we must end by challenging it. Confronting tradition is not a monologue, either from the past addressed to us or from us addressed to the past, but a conversation.

Our life with one another in the university also takes the form of a conversation. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, however, the goal of academic conversation is not mutual tolerance and respect. Tolerance and respect are presuppositions of the conversational process, not its goal. The goal is nothing less than power. But the power in question is that of intellectual self-command – a power that is enhanced, not diminished, through engagement with the like power of others. To describe the university as a sacred temple is not to say that it should be a place of solemn demeanour, hushed tones, and reverential deference. Within the bounds of civility, university life should be characterized by free-wheeling and vigorous exchange, raucous and impassioned dissent, and even, when appropriate, withering scorn. Such boisterous behaviour is the natural expression, not of taking ideas lightly, but of taking them especially seriously.

I have spoken of the university, not as an arena of social life or a purveyor of technical and vocational training, but as a sacred temple devoted to a spiritual ideal. At this point I might be fairly asked: if my characterization of the university is correct, how can the burden of funding it be placed upon the taxpayers without violating the separation of church and state? I respond by noting the prima facie plausibility of the following two premises. First: a governmental function, to be legitimate, must not take sides between its citizens’ competing conceptions of the good, or impose one such conception on those who hold another; as Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” Second: no governmental function, and certainly none involving education, can possibly achieve such neutrality, either in justification or in impact.

As an anarchist, I have no trouble accepting both premises, and drawing the conclusion that every governmental activity, and thus every government, is illegitimate. In brief, I am convinced that the principle of church-state separation, if applied consistently (as it ought to be), is inconsistent not only with the existence of tax-funded state universities but with the existence of tax-funded states. This is, however, a minority position, to put it mildly. Those who wish to avoid my anarchistic conclusion must decide for themselves how to reconcile tax-funded institutions with religious freedom; in effect, it’s their problem, not mine. But in any case, it is precisely through the exercise of theoretical virtue within the academic conversational process that the resolution to such questions is to be sought. The value of political theory does not lie solely in its application to political practice; indeed, it would be truer to say that the value of a political practice derives from its being an application of the correct theory. Theoretical activity should be relevant to everyday life, agreed; but this desideratum is to be sought, not by making theory more practical, whatever that might mean, but in making everyday practice more theoretical. In short: theory rules!

Since I have been delivering a sermon, I shall close with a benediction: May your minds suffer much perplexity, and be saved thereby. Amen.

[Auburn University Philosophy Department]