2005 Conference "The Idea of a Christian University"
Reflections on THE IDEA OF A CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY
When I was invited to contribute on ‘Science' to a planned book on "The Idea of a Christian University", I demurred because I was (and am) sceptical about the value of such an enterprise - for some of the reasons which I give below. However, I was also asked to say something about what should be included in the science syllabus in such an institution. I can only speak as a biologist but it seemed worth riding one of my hobby horses, that some of the anti-evolution propaganda emanating from Christian sources (including ones with an academic pedigree) are counterproductive and help the Devil in her mission to confuse us. My prejudices are not wholly uninformed: I have taught (briefly) in a Baptist University in the States; I have been the ‘key-note speaker' as a Conference of the Christian Colleges Coalition; I was for eleven years a Governor of a Christian school in the UK (albeit a long-established one - not one of the ‘new generation' Christian schools); and I have been maligned for my beliefs by some who profess and call themselves Christians. I do not claim that the chapter I eventually produced (pp. 218-233 in The Idea) is either positive or particularly helpful, but it expresses some of the things that I feel are worth saying.
The Case for a Christian University.
In his introductory chapter to the Idea, Ian Markham of Hartford Seminary identifies four features of a Christian University:
• It is ideologically honest in the sense that it challenges the myth that institutions can be value-free
• True education must include training in the ‘virtues' (or ‘faith-based values')
• The philosophy of every subject should be included in its teaching
• The search for truth should involve dialogue or ‘conversation' with those holding different viewpoints.
Without overtly disagreeing with any of these, I would want to qualify them from my perspective as a scientist:
Whilst it certainly true that the interpretation of scientific facts is dependent on preconceptions and prejudices, only to the most extreme post-modernist are the facts themselves value-dependent: at normal pressure, water always freezes at 0°C; there is such a thing as a virtually universal DNA code; nerve impulses can be measured electrically; dinosaurs are extinct (if one excepts the birds, which are effectively dinosaurs); and so on. These data are the same to Jew, Greek and infidel - as well as the Christian. Such ‘facts' may be mis-measured (until techniques advanced, the human chromosome complement was thought to be 48, but there is now universal agreement that it is 46; most house mice have 40 chromosomes but there are races with fewer), but they have an incontrovertible existence (or ontological value, if you like the language). This reality differentiates science from all other study, because it imposes a discipline which cannot be changed. As a Christian, I rejoice in this: I am studying God's work. Although the outcome of science is affected by its practitioners, the ‘raw material' of science is not, and in this sense can be truly regarded as value-free.
Whilst agreeing that a full education must involve the whole person and that a University should be dedicated towards a rounded maturity for all its members, I am unhappy about including the philosophy of science as an integral part of the teaching of science. Part of my unease is a doubt that there is such a thing as a true ‘philosophy of science' as distinct from interpretations of various philosophers (Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc). There is certainly a legitimate practice of science, but this is largely a robust honesty to discover the way that the world is. Howard Van Till has summarized the values of the scientific community as ‘matters of competence', ‘integrity' and ‘sound judgment'. These are certainly ‘virtues' but not specifically Christian ones. Philosophers of science have been helpful in clarifying arguments, but I am unconvinced that they have actually advanced the progress of science or that there is such a thing as ‘the scientific method'. John Polkinghorne identifies the practice of science as ‘critical realism'. This can be dignified as a philosophical position; I prefer to see science in terms of Peter Medawar's picture as a dialogue between daring imagination and tough testing. The best way to learn about this is through science history, not formal philosophy.
Markham is really making an appeal for multidisciplinarity in education. It is difficult to disagree with this. The problem is knowing how best this can be fostered. A number of Universities require science students to take some sort of course in the humanities (ethics is now mandatory in the UK medical curriculum). In every example I know, such courses are regarded as annoying ‘bolt-ons' which enthuse a minority but fail truly to educate the majority. The answer to me is that education in its full sense is a function of the community, not the curriculum. It could be argued that this is exactly where a Christian University comes into its own; it could equally be argued that a Christian University has a monochrome culture which may lead to the uncritical acceptance of a particular point of view (even if that point of view is a desired one from the Christian angle).
A Case Against a Christian University
The Bible does not envisage a homogeneous culture anywhere before the last few chapters of the Book of Revelation. Even in its description of a Chosen People in a Promised Land, we [they] are brought face to face with repeated sin and temptation. An essential part of education must be to prepare Christians to face the reality of a secular culture. ‘Protecting' the young from the power of the temptations and possibilities of the real world will almost certainly leave them unprepared for inevitable challenges and make it more difficult for them to carry out an effective mission for the gospel. The US Christian Colleges are full of extremely good scholars, but their very isolation makes it more difficult for them to function as salt and leaven in the non-Christian world - a calling laid upon all Christians. It has often been noted that the American Scientific Affiliation has only three or four members of the US Academy of Sciences in its membership, while Christians in Science has many more Fellows of the Royal Society able to witness in the highest councils of both science and government.
The Bible gives a clear indication that God wrote Two Books - a Book of Words (the Bible) and a Book of Works (Creation) (e.g. Ps 19). Both Books have the same author, but they are written in very different languages. We have an obligation to read both of them if we are to get a balanced notion of God's revelation to us. The tragedy is that most Christians concentrate almost entirely on the Book of Words (which is easier to read, because it is written in a language familiar to us) and neglect the Book of Works. Peter Harrison (The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. CUP, 1998) is helpful in showing how the Reformers (re)introduced literalism into biblical scholarship from the patristic and mediaeval traditions of symbolism and thus made possible modern science. Sadly this discipline of literalism has descended into the hyper-literalism of some modern interpreters, who fail to recognize the different forms of literature (poetry, history, parable, etc) in scripture. This is truly a deficiency of education, but one unlikely to be resolved by the spread of Christian educational institutions.
Linked to problems of biblical interpretation is the modern fashion for denouncing ‘naturalism' in science, on the grounds that this excludes any divine activity or oversight of the natural world. This is a much more serious attack than the persisting claim that the universe is still young (tens of thousands of years old as opposed to the conventional dating of thousands of millions of years), although both beliefs are ‘creationist'. While it is commonly described as ‘naturalism', a better way of describing this criticism is ‘reductionism', which allows us to make a clear distinction between pragmatic or experimental reductionism which is a necessary part of scientific practice (and everyday life: I do not naturally invoke God when I am doing the ironing or sending an e-mail); and doctrinaire or obligate reductionism, which assumes that a particular causative explanation of an event is all that there is. Donald MacKay castigated the latter as ‘nothing-buttery'. I wish those who decry ‘naturalism' in science would read MacKay (say, his Gifford Lectures, Behind the Eye. Blackwell, 1991). The distinction between different sorts of reductionism is not new. It was spelt out decades ago by Francisco Ayala in his ‘Introduction' in Studies in the Philosophy of Biology (Macmillan, 1974) and repeated by Arthur Peacocke in various writings, but it is effectively the same point as made in the Fourth Century BC by Aristotle in his Physics. I suspect that much of the disdain of humanists for science is due to their failure to recognize the major difference between the two sorts of reductionism. Once this distinction is taken on board, it is possible to have a sensible discussion about the role of God in control/causation. It is an enquiry which has been explored repeatedly by theistic scientists over the years. Various models have been proposed; for my money, the best one is ‘complementarity'.
It is difficult to overstress the confusion done to Christian scholarship (and time wasted) by misplaced attacks on ‘scientific naturalism' - by which is meant ‘nothing-buttery'. In his 2004 Annual Report the Director of UCCF (who is a fine and sane Christian) wrote under the heading "Gospel Hatred": "Have you noticed how our secular society increasingly seems to reward men and women for their antagonism towards the Christian worldview, where previously atheism had been looked upon with suspicion in our universities which largely owe their origin to Christianity? The Royal Society (of which Dawkins is a member) used to be dominated by bible-believing scientists but was effectively hijacked by secularists in the eighteenth century. The impact of this has been fast, furious and hostile to the gospel and corrosive to society." Leaving aside the question as to the nature of the beliefs of the early fellows of the Royal Society (which need a historian to comment upon) and the lack of Christians in the present membership (which is incorrect), are the Royal Society and its activities (which are increasingly concerned with ethical issues - as, for example, their statement over the problems of Africa at the time of the G8 Summit) really corrosive to Society? Some of its members may be (and it is worth drawing attention in this context to Alister McGrath's Dawkins' God. Blackwell, 2005, which I assume is required reading for all members of CAN), but I doubt this is a new situation. The attacks of Phillip Johnson and the ilk on naturalism merely serve to fragment Christian witness (which seems to be the positive aim of their ‘wedge strategy' - see Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross's Creationism's Trojan Horse. OUP, 2004) and are based on neither scripture nor science.
The question is whether the mistakes and misrepresentations of Johnson and Co would be better dealt within a Christian University or in a wider forum. All I can say is that my (limited) experience of Christian institutions is that they are less tolerant of dissent that secular organizations (despite the need for dialogue identified by Markham).
In his classical papers on "The Christian doctrine of Creation and the rise of modern natural science" (Mind, 43: 446-468, 1934; 45: 1-27, 1936), Michael Foster makes the interesting observation that Kant was the first "to perceive quite clearly that the whole of the ontological doctrines of modern Rationalism were covertly dependent on the authority of revelation." To me this means that we need to take the metaphor of the Two Books ever more urgently or we will be building on an ever more shaky house of cards. Christians need to recognize and work on this. My guess is that the endeavour would be hindered if we were all in Christian universities. William Temple famously said that the Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members. Do we serve the ‘non-members' best by creating more Christian ‘in-groups' and therefore erecting potential barriers to hearing the Gospel. Or should we, like Christ, mix with sinners and drunkards?
More narrowly, is the cause of scholarship better served by sequestrating?ering a group of Christians in community or by individual Christians (hopefully in partnership and with the encouragement of other Christians) venturing out in mission as salt and light? I know my answer.
15 August 2005
The conference was organised in order to provide a special opportunity to read and reflect on a new book of that title which is about a theme close to the heart of C-A-N's constituency. ( The book* contains 17 essays discussing aspects of the issue of "The Idea of a Christian University").
The opportunity to develop a critical understanding of some of the issues raised in the book provided a frutiful opportunity for thinking through how our calling to be academics connects with our calling to be Christians.
Prior to the conference a number of papers were submitted ranging from a discussion of some of the issues raised in the book to suggestions on how we might carry the issues forward following the conference.
If you were not at the conference, whilst you will have missed the opportunity of joining in the thoughtful and provocative discussion - you can still read the stimulating papers submitted for discussion:
The Idea of a Christian University: A brief review of the early section of the book - from Dr Sue Vaux Halliday
The Idea of a Christian University: Reflections particularly on Chapters 11 and 15 - from Prof John Wolffe
Reflections on the idea of a Christian University - Prof Same Berry
The Idea of a Christian University: Reflections - Prof Andrew Basden
Every Christian Graduate a Bible Student - Prof David Booth
An idea on the way ahead - Dr Gwynne Davies
* Astley J., Francis L., Sullivan J. & Walker A. (eds) (2004) The Idea of a Christian University, Paternoster Press (Authentic Media), Carlisle. ISBN: 1842272608.
Following the conference a short Annual General Meeting was held
Minutes of previous AGM - as published on the website - were approved
Alan Hewerdine reported that a small financial surplus existed in the accounts. C-A-N was financial sustainable at current levels - but not for any growth (should it be required)
The leadership team reported that changes were being proposed to the constitution which were designed to help C-A-N be more effective in the future. These were currently being considered by our sponsors - Agape and UCCF. The membership would be informed of any developments following feedback from our sponsors.
Prof Mike Pidd retired as chair - and we all wish to record our thanks appreciation for all leadeship over the past few years.
Dr Sue Vaux Halliday was elected as Chair
Dr Maurice Manktelow was elected as Secretary
Prof Andrew Basden, Prof David Booth and Dr Gwynne Davies continued in their respective roles on the leadership team.
Prof J Wolffe voluntered to join the leadership team to help co-ordinate the 2006 conference
Dr Keiran Fernandes volunteered to join the leadership team in a supporting role
Alan Hewerdine was continuing as the UCCF representative
Andy Atkins was continuing as the Agape representative (agreed in his absence)
'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 persons 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 universitys 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? Isnt 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 Chinas 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 universitys 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 universitys unquestioning promotion of a single religious, philosophical or political ideology. Instead it is about the universitys 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 teachers 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 lifetimes 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 dont 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.