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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Where is the University?

Monday, January 21, 2008

This week's (stylishly revamped) Times Higher has an extended article by Matthew Reisz on what a university is for. Is it for pursuing knowledge for the sake of it? For engaging with business and the demands of the economy? For promoting social mobility? My own impression, and the implication of Reisz's survey of opinions, is that universities are blank slates upon which, although (or because) relatively free from state control, the government can impress its broader ideological and social abstractions. In the current climate, this is the use of private finance for the improvement of public services. In part, then, universities are simultaneously where the state of the culture is writ large, as well as where that culture can be modified by new research and technologies. This is why the question "What is a university?" is also a question about "What is society?" and so far from being a peripheral issue to be discussed behind closed doors at university senates, it should be of concern to all, whether readers of the Times Higher or not.

One aspect of Reisz's article struck me in particular, which is that one of Cardinal Newman's original principles in The Idea of a University was that a university should bring academics and students into proximity, not necessarily in terms of their ideas but physically, as a community living over an extended period under one (or several) roofs. However, with the expansion of higher education, halls of residence have become distributed (where they still exist at all), and the commendable open-access policies that inform institutions like the Open University suggest that geographical centredness is not itself central to the idea of a modern university.

Two anecdotes occur here to suggest that, in this particular aspect of his argument, Newman may have been short sighted (as Reisz shows, it is surprising how many other aspects remain pertinent today). According to these two, universities are really functions of action rather than place.

The first is from Gilbert Ryle's Concept of Mind. He imagines a prospective student touring a university. He or she sees the library, the labs, the sports arena, but then asks the tour guide, "But where is the university?" According to Ryle, the mistake made by the student is a failure to realize that "university" and "library" are terms that belong to different logical categories. (The analogy signifies Descartes' mistaken assumption that there is a ghost inside us that works a merely mechanical body, without understanding that mind labels a behaviour, which - like the university building - is a different category to things, including the brain that may give rise to mind). In the advertisements section of the same issue of the Times Higher, a university campus in Croatia is listed as being for sale or rent. The buildings may exist, but this particular university is no more; likewise, just because we have the infrastructure of universities in the UK does not mean that - whether in Russell red brick or Million+ concrete - they exist unchanging and for all time. Much of New Labour's secondary education policy seems to have been directed at changing the architecture and nomenclature of schools, building glassy new academies - and they may be right that in this case changing the physical form of education for the better will also improve its chances of success with those who are involved in it. But, though that new physics lab or supercomputer may provide for a glossy photo opportunity, this rule does not hold true of a university in general.

The second anecdote comes from the U.S. When Dwight Eisenhower became president of Columbia University in the 1950s, he was introduced to senior faculty. He remarked how pleased he was to meet with the employees of the university. He was interrupted by the physicist I.I. Rabi: "Mr. President. We are not the employees of the university. We are the university!" (Thanks to Heinz R. Pagel's The Dreams of Reason for this).

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Posted by Alistair at 3:38 pm


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