Friday 3 September 2010

What is the use of universities?

The use, or value, of universities can only be measured with reference to the aims of society as a whole - to talk about the disinterested or autonomous pursuit of knowledge for its own sake &c is an evasion (or worse).

(Nobody really believes or actually behaves that way - I mean, nobody at all acts in such a way that it can be seen that they regard autonomously-pursued, disinterested, blue-sky, curiosity-driven knowledge for its own sake as a sufficient justification of the existence of universities in their current or any other form. People merely *say* things like this in order to be 'left alone' to pursue their vocation (which is the best reason for saying this kind of stuff); or to do what amuses them, gains them status, pays their salary, grants them power or whatever. Or perhaps to argue against what strikes them as patently false ideas such as that higher education exists primarily in order to enhance the economy.)

Anyway, in a secular society based primarily on the individualistic or utilitarian pursuit of gratification (maximization of pleasure, minimization of suffering) - a society where gratification is to be attained by inflation of individual pride (euphemistically-termed 'self-respect' or self-development) combined with serial distraction to deal with insoluble paradoxes, meaninglessness and purposelessness... In such a society it is inevitable that universities will be seen in terms of their contribution to such a project; at least when the question is pursued to the bottom line.

In a 'scientific' society - where the implicit aim is to maximize power over 'nature' - universities would be perceived in terms of this function.

A socialist society might be devoted to something like the eradication of differences and universities would be evaluated in terms of their contribution to this goal; or maybe a politically-correct society might be focused on promoting favoured groups to displace disfavoured groups and would enlist universities in this scheme and judge them according to their contribution to this goal...

But in what I would term a 'Byzantine' theocratic society, where the bottom line of societal justification was seen in terms of things being conducive to the pursuit of Christian salvation (rather than this-worldy gratification) - creating and defending a public environment where people might choose and sustain a Christian life - then the role of universities, and their success or failure in this role, would have a very different complexion indeed.


Justin said...

On the practical level, the Universities have been coopted by the factions of the Left to leverage and propagate their worldview. They are thusly best seen as the primary intellectual force in the culture wars, and they are winning the battle spectacularly. The Right has nothing to speak of with which to counter this force.

Combined with the Left's stranglehold on the entertainment and news media, the worldview of the Right is facing complete extinction.

Bruce Charlton said...

I agree.

I do not believe that the majority secular leftist Western intelligentsia will ever be converted - either to Christianity or to right wing views.

Instead, the secular left will eventually be replaced wholesale. This replacement may not require much coercion, since under a thin crust of conceit the secular left are cowardly and filled with self-loathing. Hence they are easily manipulated by threats and minor sanctions.

Exactly who replaces the secular left will presumably vary between countries - but I do not think they will anywhere be replaced by secular intellectual rightists (e.g. libertarians).

JMSmith said...

Dr. Charlton,
It's good to see you posting again.

With respect to the question of the use of universities, you may be interested in an innovation by my employer, a major American research university. It was recently disclosed that the administration has compiled a data base that lists the salary of each professor, the total returned indirect of his grants, and the total tuition and state subvention generated by his classes. The revenue generated by each individual professor is then subtracted from his cost, the result being his value to the institution.

So it appears that the use of this university is as a trap to catch revenue. The revenue can then be used to enlarge the trap (i.e. hire more researchers, enlarge the football stadium, etc.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@JMSmith - I wonder whether the administration at your university will go on to make a list of non-professorial administrators: adding together each administrator's salary with the opportunity costs each has inflicted by the work they created and imposed on professors (time expended on an meetings and other administrative tasks multiplied by all the salaries of those involved in the tasks).

It could be called it a parasite index. It would be interesting to know who sucks the most vitality from the university.

Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JMSmith said...


No doubt they have compiled a parasite index, but call it something like Index of Institutional Augmentation, and consider a high IIA score strong grounds for raises and promotions.