What Is A University?

'What is a University?'

Speech given in Wuhan, China
By Dr Rowan Williams
Archbisshop Of Canterbuary
on Friday 13th October 2006

Over the centuries, there have been many different ways of understanding what is expected of an institution in which young adults are educated. I use this clumsy form of words because the word ‘university’, although it has been applied to most or all of these institutions, is a European term with a special history; and particularly in this context I want to be aware of the non-European experience as well, even though much of what I say will be based on the European history that is familiar to me. It is significant, of course, to recognise in this context that an imperial academy for ‘the sons of the nation’ was established in China over a century before the Christian era, and an imperial medical college in the fifth Christian century. Some of what I have to say about the European experience will no doubt find echoes in Chinese history. But whatever the precise name given, the focus of this discussion will be institutions that educate beyond a certain basic level, that deal with people in their late teens and twenties for the most part and that have close relationships, but not complete identity, with the processes of training for certain kinds of public life.

In the Greek and Roman world, the focus on public life was crucially important – and it is something whose significance we can easily forget, unfortunately. The young man whose future was likely to be in law and administration, or whose family position at least meant that he would have some sort of authoritative role in society, would spend a number of years, probably in more than one centre, absorbing skills that would seem to us a curious mixture of the literary, the legal and the logical. How much of each of these elements was to be studied was not controlled by an overall curriculum – though if you decided to stay for some years with one main teacher, you would follow what he prescribed. You would learn how to read certain classic texts of your civilisation – to ask questions about the text so that you could understand it better and apply its content to understanding other settings and situations. You would learn about the rules of argument; but you would also learn how to speak in such a way that people would take you seriously – how to build up metaphors and appeals to the feelings, how to suggest indirectly what you did not want to say directly. If you had a certain temperament, you might want also to pursue all this beyond the basic and practical level, and reflect on how you could know the truth of the universe and the right way to live. Education in the western classical world was therefore, unsurprisingly, always subject to disagreement over what mattered more – finding out the truth or winning arguments and persuading people. It is the conflict – so it was often described – between rhetoric and philosophy, with philosophy in that context being understood not as an intellectual discipline alone but as a method of learning how to grow in virtue.

The ersiproduct of a classical education would normally emerge as a trained performer – someone who could count on being taken seriously in public life because he knew the rules of good conversation and persuasive argument. He might also emerge as someone with some knowledge of the techniques by which a human mind could penetrate behind appearances and discover the patterns of the universe, physical and moral. What we understand by research was not part of the expectation, and there was little or no sense of the value of being ‘original’; on the whole, originality was bound to look like foolish rebellion against well-established wisdom. At worst, the man who had been through this process would be a smooth manipulator of the opinions and emotions of others, and would be quite capable of using these skills for selfish ambition. At best, he would be someone who could play a significant part in controlling irrational, excessive and divisive behaviour or talk, and so in preserving justice and stability in the social order.

Naturally, as the order of the old Roman Empire collapsed, in the fifth and sixth centuries after Christ, the ideals of this kind of education largely disappeared – at least in the terms that would have been recognised by earlier generations. Some of it indeed survived in the eastern Mediterranean world, where the Greek-speaking Empire continued for some centuries to need educated public servants. But in Western Europe, the only people left with any of the skills to run society in an age of huge political instability were the priests of the Christian Church. Aspects and portions of the old system were used in the schools that grew up around the great monasteries and cathedrals of the West to train priests and other clergy. Now they were the ones who had to know how to read texts, to construct arguments and to speak convincingly – both so that they could teach in the churches and so that they could manage the business of the new kingdoms that were developing.

As early as the late fourth century, the greatest Christian thinker of the period, Augustine of Hippo in Africa, had argued that Christians needed to learn how to read their Bible with the same sort of skill and attention and literary sophistication that others brought to the classics. So the interpretation of the Bible became, in a sense, the crown and climax of the process of ‘higher education’. You would learn what a pagan Roman might have learned about logic and music and mathematics, about good and bad arguments and about the nature of proportion and harmony in different contexts; but then you would move on not only to philosophy but to theology, in which you were shown how to trace the connections and harmonies in the text of the Bible so as to defend the consistency and rationality of doctrines taught by the Church. Not everyone would go on to that level, but the whole system was constructed on the assumption that theology would give you the key to how it all hung together. The word ‘university’ dates from the Middle Ages; and it originally meant a universal course of studies recognised throughout the Christian world, so that anyone emerging from the courses of a ‘university’ institution was regarded as competent to teach in any other similar institution

Just as the fall of the Roman Empire destroyed the old pattern, so the upheavals in the Christian Church in the sixteenth century and the great political changes that came with the newly centralised states of Europe gradually changed the universities of the Christian Middle Ages beyond recognition. Although they still retained the character of training grounds for the clergy and for at least some of the legal professions, there was first of all a widening of the scope of the university to include once more the young men of ‘good family’ who were likely to play a significant role in public life; and then, especially on the continent of Europe, many new universities were established, often by local rulers, initially to train public officials, bureaucrats, in a common culture, though there was an increasing interest in pure research. While continental Europe developed along these lines, however, English universities experienced remarkably little structural change; they preserved a narrow focus on mathematics and the Greek and Roman classics until the latter part of the nineteenth century. But their role in shaping the ethos of a governing class was no less important. And of course as the political and social atmosphere of western societies altered with the greater public role of women, it was inevitable that for the first time women should be included (initially with great reluctance) in the processes of higher education).

Both in Britain and on the Continent of Europe, the significance of research in science and humanities was more and more recognised, and the structures of the university changed to respond to this. It was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that government began to restrict the liberties of the universities in some degree by insisting on measurable production in terms of research (thus putting at a disadvantage some traditional disciplines where quantity of publication was always smaller and the rate of advance in research slower) and by making funding more and more conditional on this measurable production. The extension of the title of university to what had been more strictly technical institutions led to an increasing blurring of boundaries between university study as a goal in itself, with its own measures of quality, and the processes of training in certain skills. The most difficult challenge in the Western university world today is how the university avoids being completely dominated by this external pressure to produce and to offer functional training. It is instructive to note that this is not entirely a modern problem: the twelfth aphorism in Book VIII of the Analects of Confucius seems to speak of not dissimilar pressures. ‘The Master said, “It is not easy to find a man who can study for three years without thinking about earning a salary”. ’

But this immediately raises the basic question of whether the essential purpose of the university today can still be the pursuit of what the Master regarded as the studies appropriate for public wisdom. This brief and superficial survey of what European universities have been will have suggested some of the underlying aims of all the very different sorts of institutions mentioned, and before proceeding it may be of interest to try and summarise them. First – and perhaps surprisingly – there is a profoundly political element in the university. It is taken for granted that those who exercise power in a society need to be formed in a particular culture. They need to learn how to reflect on the social interactions around them; they need to learn how to evaluate the reasons that people give for actions and policies. Part of that training in how to evaluate reasons and arguments – and also ideals and aims – has always involved reference to the basic texts of a culture, sacred or not, which are regarded as setting out patterns of human life in society that continue to serve as an orientation. I need hardly stress in this context the significance in most of Chinese history of the same ideal – that knowledge of ‘classic’ texts is a necessary aspect of what is needed for leadership in public life. But the fact that all this exposure to a tradition takes place in the context of relationships between teacher and student that – in principle at least – are sustained over some significant period of time means that some element of dialogue and interaction is recognised as part of the process – even if at many periods this has been formal and almost impersonal.

Then there is research. So far, the definition of the university seems to be completely dominated by the ideal of training in what in Europe we call ‘humanistic’ study, and to leave little room for what we tend to think of now as the most characteristic feature of university life at its best – original research, the discovery of new perspectives and new facts. Historically, what happened was this: as European society became more curious about its physical environment and its history in the period following the Renaissance and Reformation, it was increasingly part of the educated person’s expectation that exchanges and conversations about these matters should be possible. At first, the universities were not at the forefront of such development, either in science or in historical and literary studies; but it was impossible that they should remain forever indifferent. If they were to serve a political class and if that political class was increasingly interested in such questioning, there was a natural movement to incorporate opportunity for original exploration and experiment into the routine of the university. But it is worth remembering that initially this is not about the universities being seen - or seeing themselves - as laboratories for the material needs of the state. It has to do with the way in which, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it became a mark of the educated man to be able to question traditional authority in every sphere, and so to be familiar with methods of assessing evidence, historical and scientific.

The modern university is the result of these two factors coming together; but there are other important elements to note. We have observed the significance of the need to create a common frame of reference for those who will take responsibility for a society. We have noted the developing ‘early modern’ interest in asking subversive questions of tradition and seeking to extend the frontiers of what can be known and understood. But the relatively new fact of the twentieth century is that, as democracy spreads, it is harder to speak of a settled ‘governing class’; every student becomes potentially someone with significant political views and capacities in the democratic system, someone with responsibilities to vote and to participate in whatever way is appropriate in the governing of his or her society. And so the expectation of more or less universal access to higher education spreads, and issues around access become vitally important to universities in marketing or promoting themselves in a competitive environment.

Each of these elements on its own brings risks. A university that is concerned only with training a settled governing class in its accepted classics will not equip people for a world in which varied cultures exists together in lively and often challenging proximity. It is, indeed, a point which will not be hard for a Chinese public to understand. A tradition of government in which education in the classics is all-important produced in China a political elite whose capacity to respond to social and international change was seriously limited, and reformers in China from the late nineteenth century onwards recognised the problem.

Equally, a university focused only on research runs two different kinds of risk. It may become an institution almost completely forgetful of its inescapable function in forming a general critical awareness, forming what might be called ‘intellectual virtues’ which play a part in public life. A recent British writer (R.H.Fryer, wrting in Values in Higher Education, ed. Simon Robinson and Clement Katulushi, University of Leeds, 2005) has referred to the connection between universities and citizenship as ‘the forgotten dimension’ of higher education, and argues, along with some other influential commentators, that universities should devote serious resource and energy to encouraging public debate on the shared values of their society. This does not mean that a university as such should be a nursery of simple activism and criticism; it does mean, though, that a good university is always looking for ways of opening up general intellectual debate about common hopes and values to the community around it. It does not exist only to refine the work of the specialist.

But there is an opposite risk involved in certain attitudes to research. If research in universities is always driven primarily by where the funding comes from, the danger is that university departments become tools for either government or private business to pursue their strategic or commercial interests. This has more than once become a matter of controversy in Europe when contracts are given to universities for research related to defence matters, for example. The commitment to maintain research that is dictated by independent intellectual concern rather than public or commercial policy is, for most academics, an essential feature of a healthy university life, even if there are inevitably involvements from outside that may affect the balance of effort and resource. It is only when universities are free to pose their own questions that they fulfil their function of enabling people to ask about the foundations of what others take for granted.

There is, finally, a risk in the situation where universities simply become the vehicle for mass movements, for popular protest and no more. Student populations are historically volatile and prone to political activism – a trend visible especially in nineteenth century Russia and in the France and America of the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies. To say that students in a university within a democratic society are discovering themselves as what I earlier called ‘political agents’ should not be taken to mean that their primary role ought to be political agitation or the espousing of popular causes. What is distinctive about the university, as we have already seen, is that it seeks to nurture the ability to understand political processes and to weigh political arguments rather than giving uncritical loyalty to any programme.

The student who is in this sense discovering what it is to be a ‘political agent’ is discovering what it is to exercise thoughtful responsibility in the life of a society. And this is where a narrow definition of what the social and the political might mean has to be balanced by some historical perspective; it is in fact where (in a very broad sense) the ‘classics’ of a society are relevant, so that a good university allows space for students to test their ideals and concepts against a historical tradition expressed not only in opportunities for discussion but also in the university’s public ceremony and its standards and protocols for intellectual exchange. By its very existence, the good university expresses certain philosophical commitments - to civil discourse, to liberty of expression, to careful and honest self-questioning, and to the possibility of creating trust through the processes of fair argument and exploration of evidence. This cannot be reduced to the narrow atmosphere of pressure-groups.

Ideally, then, the elements of awareness of history and tradition, openness to intellectual innovation and concern for the widest possible engagement with public life should come together in the university to help nurture adult and responsible citizens. But for us in Europe, there are, of course, two major factors which complicate still further the position of the university. One of these has already been hinted at: it is a political and economic climate in which the expectation of short-term and practical results has affected attitudes to ‘free’ intellectual endeavour in some very adverse ways. A proper concern for accountability has produced a real anxiety about the volume of work produced by universities, and an increasingly sharp competitive spirit between institutions. Every university has to promote itself in two directions – towards the public, to keep up recruitment, and towards funding bodies, which in Britain and much of continental Europe will be under government direction, to persuade them of its profitability. This is not a climate that will disappear overnight; it is part of the way in which ‘market’ models have come to dominate so many areas of social and institutional life in our context.

The second of these challenges is the sheer diversity of the cultural scene in the modern West; not only has British culture, for example, lost a degree of contact with and confidence in a history or identity shared by British citizens, it is now inclusive of active and often lively immigrant cultures, whose relation with the majority may be in various ways strained. Against such a background, what would it mean to see the university as offering an induction into some kind of culture appropriate to people who will grow into public responsibility? Isn’t this bound to be hopelessly compromised by the existing dominance of one culture or class or ethnic group (as has been the case in Britain)? In the vast perspective of China’s diverse cultures, similar questions are bound to be in evidence; what role has the university in promoting social and political stability in a context where much rests upon the ability of government to sustain national cohesion and a universal pattern of law, welfare and equity?

Any university now attempting to promote the advantage of one racial or class interest would forfeit its credibility and authority. But the alternative is not an acceptance of pure ‘postmodern’ diversity, a chaos of non-communicating discourses for mutually isolated communities. Once again the actual discipline of historic university life imposes a certain ethical attitude. Universities are organised in a way that accepts diversity of discourses; what constitutes a good question in economics is different from what constitutes a good question in physics; what counts as a solution to a problem in mathematics is different from what counts as a solution in literary criticism - or even theology. In other words, the nature of the university is such that anyone involved in it must expect to learn that his or her questions are not the only ones that could be asked and that his or her solutions are unlikely to offer global salvation.

A university then ought to produce a measure of intellectual humility in its practitioners as regards the supreme importance of their own discipline (it must be said that this is not always abundantly evident in practice, since scholars are as frail and human as the rest of us...). But a truly functioning university will also, through the encounters of diverse disciplines, model ways in which cultural traditions, religious loyalties and ethnic identities can co-exist, not in mutual indifference, but in a climate of mutual and honest questioning, in which the various commitments are not automatically opposed but can enrich one another. A simple postmodernist assumption that diversity is just a fact of life that needs no exploring and exchange would be a recipe for a depressingly tribal and static intellectual life.

The university, then, sustains a culture of its own, a culture of conversation and mutual criticism and appreciation, in the context of which people may grow into a deeper understanding of what characterises human beings as such in their social interaction. That understanding has to do with seeing human beings as essentially engaged in learning – in enlarging their mental and imaginative worlds and approaching one another with curiosity, patience and welcome, being free to imagine how others ask different questions of the world around them. Within that common culture of a ‘learning humanity’, a university may as matter of historical fact have a visibly dominant cultural presence – perhaps religious, as often in Europe, perhaps deeply bound up with national identity and independence. But if it is to function as a university, this historical legacy will need to be, not neutralised or denied, but understood precisely as a legacy to be used as the soil on which debate can grow. Its tradition, religious, national, or whatever, is not an orthodoxy to be insisted upon (as was the case in English universities until the early nineteenth century) but as a secure space in which other voices are welcome and respected, and where the interaction of different voices and perspectives within the institution is not seen as any sort of contest for dominance. In many circumstances, an intellectual institution that is clear about its history and tradition can be a more rather than a less hospitable place because of this lack of any need to fight for a dominant voice.

So the university plays an essential role in the public life of its society. The fundamental character of this role is not to do with the university’s success in meeting the material targets of the society, in the scale and size of its industrial or defence contracts, nor is it to do with the university’s unquestioning promotion of a single religious, philosophical or political ideology. Instead it is about the university’s capacity to help create mature citizens, persons who are free from certain sorts of prejudice and fear. A recent book on the Philosophy of the Teacher by Nigel Tubbs summarises superbly the proper aim of any teacher – but the words are perhaps specially appropriate to the university teacher: ‘The teacher who believes in freedom seeks to be neither master over the students nor surrogate master on behalf of God or nature. Rather, the critical teacher aims to be servant to the emancipation of students from all forms of tutelage, self-incurred or externally imposed, and to their free and un-coerced development’ (p.79). But this does not mean that the teacher teaches nothing in particular or teaches only to ask negative and disruptive questions. In managing the tensions and contradictions in the teacher’s role, the balance of inevitable power and the call to service, teacher and student both discover something about the nature of learning itself and about the truth that is never to become the possession of any individual or faction or class because it always escapes a single and final definition. It is always discovered in the difficult process of the teaching relationship, which is never just the transfer of a body of knowledge from one container to another (c.f. ibid. pp.102-107).

The ‘product’ of the university, then, is not simply the person who has acquired skills – technical skills, even research skills; it is the person who has acquired the habit and virtue of learning, and who sees the social world as a place not primarily of struggle and conflict over control but as a context where conversation may be pursued with patience. And this is a deeply political matter, in the fullest sense of the much abused word ‘political’. It alters what we think we can expect of each other; it challenges any assumption that conflict is the natural position for human beings; when there are clashes of interest, it tells us how to question what we have taken for granted about our own

best interests and encourages us to seek for something new that is not just the property of one individual or faction. The university nourishes ‘civility’ – in the narrow sense of patience and courtesy in dispute, and in the much larger sense of concern for proper and open public life in the civitas, the city, the community of citizens.

Universities certainly educate people according to a doctrine about humanity, even when they proclaim themselves liberal, pluralist or secular, because they all have, somewhere in their purpose, the aim of showing students the nature of learning and so encouraging them to see the truth as both demanding or uncompromising and elusive, impossible to possess. Such a philosophy may threaten some kinds of political society, where control is all-important and open dispute is regarded as always being subversive. But the stronger a society, the clearer its legitimacy, its commitment to law and its concern for universal welfare and dignity, the more it will be able to cope with what, in broad terms, the West has come to speak of as the ‘liberal’ vision, the idea of conversation, learning and mutual stimulus. If the university is a critical presence in a society, that does not make it a negative and disruptive one. On the contrary, it models ways of negotiating differences and uncertainties, and tells us that open conflict is not the natural state of human life together.

In this respect, the religious origins of the European university are not irrelevant. The presence of the churches and other recognised religious bodies within society today can often be seen as that of a ‘critical friend’ – to use a favourite term – witnessing to different standards and expectations about human beings and so opening up a further dimension to human experience. They are not, of course, the same; and it would be wrong to say that all universities should somehow have a religious basis. But both challenge any idea that conflict is natural. Both speak of a reality around us that is at once ordered and mysterious, that enables both confidence and humility. Both therefore help to create what I have been calling the mature citizen. Both should be welcome elements in a society that is seeking to be democratically accountable, non-corrupt, legitimate because it allows its citizens a free voice and is concerned to nourish their intelligence.

The university is a place where ‘liberal studies’ can be pursued. This rather old-fashioned term originally meant a literary and philosophical education; but it can be applied to scientific research as well, and, most importantly, to the whole climate of the university. It is nothing to do with promoting what some people see as liberalism, as a religious or political or moral principle involving what are supposed to be ‘modern’ values about moral behaviour and so on. But it is about the overarching value of understanding that to be human is to learn and that to learn is a lifetime’s work, nourished by all sorts of diverse intellectual and imaginative practices. There are probably periods in the history of any society when this ideal feels like a luxury, when the priorities are to consolidate a nation or deal with acute poverty and economic stagnation or defend people against violent attack. Yet what is surprising in modern history especially is the fact that ‘liberal studies’ survive; intellectual and artistic life keeps going during times of war, desperately poor countries struggle to establish credible institutions of higher education (I recall visiting the university in Bujumbura in Burundi, invited by them to reflect on the role of the university in post-conflict situations), and neighbouring societies riven by terrible conflict maintain some kind of civic protocols about the exchange of intellectual material and even discussion (Israeli and Palestinian universities). The sheer fact of a community declaring that the last word in human relations is not unmanageable conflict turns out not to be a luxury. And in times of stress and shortage, a surprising number of societies seem to recognise this. Whatever the urgencies of the moment, there is some acknowledgement that no solution to these urgencies will last without the broader context offered by the ‘liberal’ university.

To return to Confucius: he defines what is necessary for someone to be called ‘benevolent’ as ‘respectfulness, tolerance, trustworthiness in word, quickness and generosity’ (Anal. XVII.6). What we have been discussing in relation to the vocation of a university seems in retrospect to be the question of how ‘benevolent’ citizens can be formed – people whose good will towards the common life, whose capacity to question their own selfish instincts is properly developed. Perhaps some educational theorists in Europe or the USA (I don’t know about China) would be surprised to hear a university being defined as a context for learning benevolence; the famous quarrelsomeness of scholars does not seem to promise well. Yet I have been arguing throughout that the very fact of an institution such as the university – giving space for research, exposure to past as well as present and variety of intellectual disciplines – sends a certain message to the society around it. It suggests what the context is within which genuine politics can go forward – not a politics of control or of naked competition, but a ‘civil’ argument about the goods we can only discover in co-operation and mutual sympathy.

That vision of politics so pervades the great intellectual traditions of this country and its civilisations that the liberal university may well expect to be a crucial, an indispensable element supporting the continuing commitment of the Chinese people to a society that promises economic security and democratic responsibility to all its citizens. These reflections are offered by a foreigner and a Christian, not to imply that we Westerners have fully understood, let alone practised, all that is spoken of here, but simply to indicate what the history and context is within which we try to think about the task of educating young adults. The Chinese people have a long history of searching for a political wisdom that seeks to be anchored in the deepest nature of things, not in a mere balance of individual gratifications, or in a short-term truce between warring interests. And this encourages me to think that the ideals of which I have spoken may be recognisable and capable of deeper development in collaboration between our diverse intellectual worlds.