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Restoring the Idea of a University

Politicizing the classroom corrupts the academic virtues encouraging us to forget what the idea of the university is, what is its animating spirit, what fundamental experience it offers. By ‘·politicizing” I mean an engagement of proponents of particular ideological fashions to dominate. In short, it is as Max Weber put it famously, the substitution of speeches for lectures.[1]  Historically the university understood itself as the place where standards other than mere fashion and volatile opinion prevail. Is it not essential to universities to maintain their commitment to the search for truth? To recover the idea of the university, its animating spirit, is what I want to consider. Politicizing is aggressive against received patterns or customary practices, as if they are nothing more than arbitrary power relations to be unmasked, dissolved and reconstructed, in favor of reforms asserted to be desirable or necessary.

The fact of politicizing forces us to ask ourselves, Can we maintain or restore the traditional idea of the university after it has been questioned? Is defending a traditional commitment compatible with being self-aware and self-critical? We cannot avoid these questions even if we believe that we are losing something that should be preserved or restored. Restoring involves transcending the moment, complementing tradition, in search of what grounds tradition and which, under some circumstances, tradition obscures. The academic tradition calls for the transcending experience at the point where tradition no longer seems to speak for itself. This seems to have been known ever since Plato’s Socrates, in the dialogue Euthyphro, challenged the conventional pieties for the sake of taking piety seriously.

We must confront the challenge that we must be either “inside” or “outside” a tradition. A tradition, it is alleged, cannot, once questioned, adequately defend itself or persist if it must become more than merely habitual conduct. To know oneself as a “traditionalist” is already, so it is asserted, to have distanced oneself from that which one is defending by constructing a formal account which necessarily abstracts from the whole one is defending. The implication of this challenge is that traditions have little to say for themselves other than that they may have so far escaped intense questioning. They are simply waiting their turn to be demythologized. The endless undertaking to demythologize looms before us, beckoning us to conclude that to disbelieve is the highest intellectual achievement, that suspicion trumps affirmation.

The commitment to disbelief implicitly supports another allegation: that a tradition expresses a fixed, rigid outlook rather than a flexible manner of responding to inevitable change; it cannot evolve, expand or incorporate elements that at first seem alien. The will to disbelieve and the cult of discontinuity go together.

Such attitudes pervade much current thinking, but they are open to question for it remains to be seen that no response to such questioning is available. In principle, as Karl Jaspers put it in one of the great twentieth century defenses of the university:

“The university not only tolerates but demands that persons who oppose its aims be admitted to it. So long as these people are content to state and discuss their particular beliefs and authorities within the university… But if they seek to dominate the university with these beliefs, if in the selection of candidates they are partial to fellow-believers, if they replace intellectual freedom by prophetic propaganda, then they come into the sharpest conflict with the rest of the university which aims to uphold the idea of the university.”[2]

In short, the university is neither a sectarian movement nor merely a conduit through which social forces flow while acquiring intellectual trappings. It is a place of a particular kind with distinctive standards of its own, and its members are initiated into it principally by association with, and absorption of, its practices through apprenticeship. It is the place where all voices may be heard but in which the engagement is specifically not the political aim of contestants to prevail over and silence their opposition.

Politicizers respond impatiently and angrily to genuine philosophic reflection, judging the quality of discussion by whether it terminates with approved conclusions. Politicizers express shock and amazement when capitulation is not in sight. In doing so, they deny the point of academic freedom, which is, first, to foster inquiry as an end in itself, and, second, to recognize such inquiry as an essential ingredient in the quest to explore the furthest reaches of human self-realization. As associates in a joint undertaking to understand what there is to understand as profoundly as we can, our sense of being self-constituting inquirers – expressed in the commitment to academic freedom – is constrained by the conversationality that distinguishes exchanges in the university from other places.[3]

Politicizing shows attributes which inevitably appear in but are not tied to specific ideological programs: These attributes include lust for change, boredom with conversation, a preference for activism over reflection, a belief that each moment is the harbinger of a decisive crisis, quests for the authentic life through policy formation, rejection of tradition for fear of the influence of the past, belief that there is an ideal pattern of historical existence of which actual historical conditions are a mere distortion and caricature either accidental, because not yet directed by the correct program, or contrived by a (disguised) conspiratorial elite.

Since all human institutions are visible embodiments of the struggle to defend against our temporal, mortal existence, politicizing is a way of responding to the ineluctable temporality of human existence by demanding submission to independently premeditated programs. Such political engagements energize themselves on the illusion of fending off insecurity by the formation of plans, and console the excessively anxious by giving them lots of tasks to do, thus finding their identity as role players in a collective enterprise, a sort of consolation for the failure to reach finality.

Universities are no less responses to our temporal, mortal lives. Their founders, in establishing ancient academies, medieval schools and modem universities as special places of learning, responded to the experience of the non-temporal encountered in the midst of time, setting aside places where this experience could enable thinking. This was and is at the heart of liberal learning. In pushing universities to accommodate merely contemporary preoccupations, the idea of a place of learning is diminished into an ill­ assorted collection of responses which obscure or resist the experience of transcendence.

As this is an age which pays little respect to merely habitual, unselfconscious conduct, one might think that we would find in greater openness and self-criticism also greater opportunity to think through the transcending encounter with the being that is beyond our particularity, but politicizing rejects preserving or restoring. It cannot imagine activity that is not politically motivated and instead translates ideas of transcendence into modes of temporal and material aspiration and distribution. Insofar as the university takes its bearings as the place of preserving or restoring, it can offer its apology for liberal learning. But we find that the necessary words are hard to come by, particularly when to defend or to speak of restoring is to be accused of defensiveness and outmoded irrelevance – those devoted to change as an intrinsic good do not see that the act of restoring is not defensive; it is steadfastness in the midst of change.

If in a world preoccupied with change, keepers of tradition may seem defensive, this is in part because they experience change as loss as well as gain, and are eloquent in expressing this. That they are less able to cope with change is not so. They know as well as anyone that

We cannot revive old factions

We cannot restore old policies

Or follow an antique drum.[4]

Because traditionalists also know that change means loss as well as gain, they are protected from the illusions of revolutionary moralism, the latter demanding that doing something is always better than not doing something.

Restoring, by contrast, means retrieving to sight or re-seeing what is permanently true of the human condition. Bringing back to sight what is permanently true of the human condition is not a purely uplifting experience. It is, often, a sobering experience in which one learns to embrace fundamental questions rather than to claim easy victory over them.

Restoring does not imply a plan for going back to what is past, nor is it easily translated into policy; it means acknowledging what persists into the present, but which carries at the same time a profound sense both of its having persisted, and of its having had to struggle to persist. It does not require sticking slavishly to a fixed vocabulary, but rather involves continual renewal of the forms of expression. As a practical matter, arguments over the content of curricula are necessary, but not sufficient. The invitations to liberal learning will always find those who accept and those who turn away from the invitation. No curriculum in and of itself can insure which way students will turn. Teachers know that there is a moment in learning and teaching when a decision to pursue the longer, more arduous path has to be faced. There is no formula to guarantee which way will be chosen.

Restoring is at first both a philosophic and a poetic, not a political, activity. Philosophy and poetry at their best illuminate limits to the pretensions of politics, but they do not do so by contesting politics for power. This understanding emerges in the middle of our journey

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling…[5]

Restoring is a rediscovering that inevitably involves reformulating, but it is neither an antiquarian reassembling nor a rationalist re-engineering. One is not going back or settling into dyspeptic nostalgia, but trying to see what it is we seek in the interstices of what presently disguises it.

The engagement to restore can be resisted, but it cannot be eradicated because the past is necessarily present to us; its influence is inescapable. Yet “going back” is at most a metaphorical engagement. When we study the great works of our civilization, it is not to go back to an earlier time; it is, rather, to make vivid to ourselves the presentness of thought about, and response to, the human condition, eliciting our own thought and response. Those works evoke dialogue, both inviting and constraining our subjectivity, rescuing us from easy opinions, imposing upon us the hard distinction between opinion and knowledge, between advocacy and explanation, between self-assertion and admission that we must seek what we do not yet understand.[6]

Tradition, in this sense, is the elongation of dialogue through time; it does not permit us to forget the presence of past thought upon the human predicament. Tradition’s promise is not to rescue us from change, but to assist in exercising our capacity to keep our bearings as we maneuver through inevitable alteration. To invoke tradition is not to abandon the drama of life, but to find drama in dialectical engagement within the inescapable polarities of past and present that are our conscious existence. Much of the lust for novelty in our time stems from the fear that acknowledging permanent truths is to leave us with nothing important to say. It is our misfortune to believe that to speak of what has always been true is to say nothing important.[7]

The question, then, is not whether we ought to observe connections to our past. We cannot escape such connections, even though we can understand them superficially and also misunderstand them, turning the lingering reminder of their presence into mere objects of historical curiosity.[8] How, then, shall we understand and express our connectedness? Knowledge of culture(s) is not to have a culture. We may think this either a curse or a blessing. In conversation, however, we might hope to turn the curse of Babel into a blessing for

“In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate… Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions … There is no symposiarch or arbiter… Conversation … is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure … it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another.[9]

Conversation, so understood, acknowledges novelty’s intrusion without exalting it; in the university conversation is the academic form of the virtue of moderation. I recognize that this may seem to some a rather modest response to the academic crisis, and I admit that it is not a comprehensive remedy for the cultural disease which befalls us. However, we need also to remember that counter-politicizing does not end politicizing. If achieving this conversationality is not everything, it is surely sorely needed, a necessary prolegomenon to further hopes.[10]

Restoring combines tradition and conversation in interpreting and responding to the vicissitudes of change. Even in receptivity to the past, we have to make it our own, somehow appropriating it. Honesty compels the admission that all human achievements are hostage to change – to ineluctable temporality and thus mo1iality. What we think must be currently overcome in saving what we do not want to lose affects the ways of salvage we devise. Restoring is the obverse of incipient loss:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.[11]

In seeing what is permanently present to us, we must use, and cannot extricate ourselves from, the resources of our time and place. We experience transcendence as historically situated beings. There is an element of poetic invention in restoring, where restoring is neither merely old nor merely new. Restoring is thus not a project – another, competing novelty. It is the interminable engagement to see ourselves rightly in the midst of a never fully disclosed, mysterious whole.

To restore what we are in danger of losing is not to define or demand an assured benchmark, a state of affairs requiring no interpretation or appropriation. To search for a set of conditions to which we can attach ourselves, hoping thereby to rescue ourselves from the ravages of time and circumstance, is to exhibit faithlessness.

To understand this faithlessness consider the alternative ideas of the relation of skepticism and faith. St. Augustine’s skepticism toward the world, for example, signified a faith, engendered in encounter with the divine, that looked beyond the world, and which established opposition to dependence on worldly success and historical achievements.

Faith in worldly monuments was actually faithlessness. For a long time now, we have gone the other way: We have learned to be skeptical both about achievements that are not visible and material, and about commitments to the so-called “useless studies” that formulate no policies and enhance no techniques of social engineering.

The skepticism of Socrates or St. Augustine towards worldliness is the awareness that honest examination of ourselves and of the world’s affairs (the “examined life”) calls us to confess intellectual arrogance, pretense, sin. As the Platonic Socrates seems to show to his Comrade, in the dialogue Hipparchus, we cannot properly accuse others of the vulgarity of loving gain if we have not considered that it is impossible to be a human being without loving gain. The question rather is, What gains do we seek?

To the Socratics and the Augustinians, the world is full of contingency and uncertainty; it is a world of complex mystery that will not fully disclose itself, a world in which human beings have insufficient power, and need grace; a world in which, maddeningly, the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer. They acknowledge the “offensive and incomprehensible bondage” of time and space at the center of their experience.

The choice, then can only be of alternative response to our temporality and mortality. In restoring, one pays attention to the presence of the non-temporal or eternal, finding in the tension between our contingent circumstances and the transcendent what it is to be human. The perpetuity of this tension – our capacity to become aware of it even in this era – directs us to the task of restoring as re-seeing – of seeing again — what it is to be human. Resistance to identifying the centrality of this tension is manifest in education and elsewhere, and yet the university remains the site of restoring, the visible place of learning.

The fundamental attribute attending all teaching and learning is philosophical and poetic. Institutions of liberal learning incorporate diverse teachers and students with diverse motivations, including vocational and professional preferences expressed in anti­ philosophic and unpoetic idioms. Reflective thinking is nevertheless required throughout. Karl Jaspers has expressed the idea of the university most eloquently. It is worth recalling him to our attention, and to pay our respects to his courageous persistence in affirming the idea of the university in the face of the totalitarian adversity of the twentieth century. It is human, says Jaspers, “to live in awareness of the encompassing whole, by so tilling one’s own professional field that it may become like a reflection of the whole.”[12]

Teachers define themselves and their professional vocations in diverse ways, but each teacher lives and moves in an atmosphere animated by the idea of the university, not hiding the extremities of which human thought is capable, but exemplifying due measure through conversationality. As Jaspers put it, the university is the place that provides “a modest existence with no other calling but to think; and the peace which this requires.”

“The idea of the university lives essentially in the individual students and professors, and only secondarily in the forms of the institution. Once that life fades out, the institution cannot save it. Yet the essential life can be awakened only from man to man… The student looks for the idea, is ready for it, and is really baffled when it does not come to him from the professors.”[13]

Speaking from the standpoint of the vocation to philosophy, Jaspers recounts how, by contrast to those who enjoy the support of vast scholarly apparatus and professional techniques, the philosopher has

“nothing behind him but a philosophical history that is singularly grandiose in spirit but sociologically non-existent… For all our clarity and conviction, are we philosophers not engaged in something which our impotence renders illusory and absurd? Self-confidence in this situation is restored, first, by a sober recollection of the principles of philosophy, and secondly, by bringing back to mind the university as the institution of independent philosophical truth.”[14]

In this passage from his Philosophical Memoir, Jaspers gathers together in reflection his situatedness, the task of recollection and the way of restoring. Notice Jasper’s reflective invocation of the task of restoring in the procession of life:

“The sense of being en route, of achieving each success in our temporal existence only in the imperfect form of a new “onward,” brought me – by the good fortune of a professorial career assuring unlimited freedom of work – to many years of studying the great departed. Systematically I absorbed what has come down to us, whatever I believed I understood, I had been told as a child about Antiquity and the Bible, but it was only now that I consciously took them seriously as the foundations of our Western historic life, not as authorities but as challenges, to be heard and translated into the present.”[15]


“should also result in the modest recognition that no man is everything, not even the greatest, and that when I definitely realize myself and know where I stand, I am the more definitely in need of others… At an early age, however, I came up against the limits which will not let us believe that there is harmony in reality… to be sure, I also search for the point where all conflicts cease. But since I am here and not there, these ideas of mine must become apparent in the consequences for my life and actions in the world… the world as a whole cannot be understood as rational, but I, within it, can resolve to side with reason… The rational will to reason, which must still be upheld all the time by something else, by Existenz; the awareness of the origins, which are unfathomable; the basic will to be permeated in action by the manifest present through which eternity speaks… This kind of reason embodies itself in the existence of a historic reality, and in the thinking of its orders.”

“It would be idle to want to know our era for the purpose of learning what to take up… We cannot figure out what the times require, what is timely, and then plan to satisfy this requirement. Everyone, by his original life, is a factor in his time… the point of philosophizing remains beyond each era and all time.[16]

Standing before what transcends, one “needs to surrender to become himself, proof against success or failure. It is of temporal significance by his activity in the world… What will be rather depends on every individual, in ways that are incapable for him as a whole.”

The task of the university is then to resist, indeed to refuse, the centrality of political activity in the pursuit of its own categorially distinctive engagement. This does not mean that politics will be demoted in the eyes of most in the world. Nor is it the task of the university to “rule” over politics. Such pretensions will only be laughable in the world of getting and spending. The university presents as its necessary service what can only be performed by detachment from politics. The point for academics is not to win a contest for priority, but to expound the categorical difference between political and academic engagements.

I mention once more poetry and philosophy. These provide revitalization by continual use of the intellectual, moral and artistic resources of a society. Politics seeks to dominate and to displace conversation with debate, to replace exploring the intimations of life with victories and defeats. Politics is hard pressed to see that its driving force is the constant pursuit of ought-to-be’s that are not yet come to pass. Its hope of perfection contradicts its reliance on the perpetual enjoyment of unfinished business. This incoherency is its charm and attraction. Yet politics is liable to be indifferent to its own self-delusions or to define its success by transitory achievements, appearing in sharp relief for what they are only against the emotional and intellectual integrity of the poet and the philosopher.

Yet those who hope to amalgamate poetry and philosophy to politics, will reenact the ancient tragedy of the opposition between politics and philosophy. The modem disposition is to deny this tragedy (John Stuart Mill envisioned a society in which mai1yrdom for truth would become obsolete), but modernity has not found the means to supersede the tragic sense of life. Heidegger’s mistake in 1933 shows clearly enough that we are enmeshed in a predicament and not in a collective task to attain to final resolutions. As Jaspers put it,

“The university is the one place where by concession of state and society a given epoch may cultivate the clearest possible self-awareness. People are allowed to congregate here for the sole purpose of seeking truth. For it is a human right that man must be allowed somewhere to pursue truth  unconditionally and for its own sake.”[17]

Jaspers here associates self-awareness with the tradition of the university, with its idea, thereby bearing witness to what we are called upon to say in response to the challenges surrounding us. If we deny this, ultimately we do no service to the practical needs of social life either since man,

“Without this determination to drive him on… could never climb to those levels of insight of which he is capable. Thus, the university is an institution with practical objectives, but it attains them by an effort of spirit which at first transcends them only to return to them afterwards with greater clarity, strength, and calm.”[18] 

Here is Oakeshott’s expression of his thought:

“Liberal learning is a difficult engagement. It depends upon an understanding of itself which is always imperfect. And it depends upon a self-confidence which is easily shaken and not least by continual self-examination. It is a somewhat unexpected invitation to disentangle oneself from the here and now of current happenings and engagements, to detach oneself from the urgencies of the local and the contemporary, to explore and enjoy a release from having to consider things in terms of their contingent features, beliefs in terms of their applications to contingent situations and persons in terms of their contingent usefulness; an invitation to be concerned not with the employment of what is familiar but with understanding what is not yet understood. And a university as a place of liberal learning can prosper only if those who come are disposed to recognize and acknowledge its particular invitation to learn.”[19]

The search for truth is not and cannot be merely practical, but it need not oppose practical life and must not define itself merely as that which contradicts the practical – to say what it is not is not to say with finality what it is. Freedom to teach and to explore, the essence of academic freedom and liberal learning, imposes the responsibility to distinguish between partisanship and academic study. The search for truth is difficult and its pursuit is long, an arduous quest of too great importance to be reduced to the repetition of passionate convictions. The distinction between practical action and dispassionate reflection is symbolized in the fact that, for twenty-five centuries in the West, we have set aside places of learning, providing for this distinction to be visibly available to us, reminding us when we cross the threshold from one mode of activity to another.

This provision is not intended to signify indifference to practical issues but rather to take them especially seriously in a way that is easily lost from sight. How often we speak of dialogue and how often do we fail to observe the discipline which dialogue requires, and the fact that dialogue was always intended to assist us to transcend mere self-expression. Socrates proclaimed in the Apology that the unexamined life is not worth living. He knew perfectly well that many did and would reject this. I understand him to be reminding himself of his commitment in the face of trial and death. This reminds us that what we call liberal learning will always have to be argued for and sometimes suffered for. To remember this and to bring it to attention is the task of the university, and to incarnate the idea of the university we must heed our calling. This is our part and thus our duty. In raising this sort of question in the midst of all that would drown it out, we acknowledge the task of restoring what we have almost lost in that now we see it dimly, but we have not been permitted to lose sight of it altogether.



[1] In the Spring 2016 issue of Academic Questions, Terence Ball describes the “higher illiteracy” which “combines an ability to read with an ideologically induced inability or unwillingness to understand what one reads…’higher’ in the sense that it is passed from teacher to student. It is a form of ‘magistrogenic’ or teacher-induced ignorance.” (p.69) In “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality”‘ (1917), Weber remarks, “the professor should not demand the right as a professor to carry the marshall’s baton of the statesman or reformer in his knapsack.”

[2] Karl Jaspers, The Idea of a University, Boston: Beacon Press, 1959, pp.130-1

[3] Weber says the student should expect, “(1) to fulfill a given task in a workmanlike fashion; (2) definitely to recognize facts, even those which may be personally uncomfortable, and to distinguish them from his own evaluations; (3) to subordinate himself to his task and repress the impulse to exhibit his personal tastes or other sentiments unnecessarily.” (op.cit.)

[4] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets in Collected Poems, 1909-1962

[5] Four Quartets

[6] Machiavelli, whatever may be said about him and his legacy, understood this. In his famous letter to Francesco Vettori, describing how he spends his day during his exile from the  Florentine government, he tells us: “When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.”

[7] “Originality does not lie so much in the promulgation of some absolutely new idea – for that were nigh impossible – but in a certain independence and individuality of thought which makes old ideas our own. ‘That virtue of originality that men so strain after,’ says Ruskin ‘is not newness, as they vainly think (there is nothing new), it is only genuineness.” Michael Oakeshott in an unpublished essay.

[8] Nietzsche in his remarkable essay, “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” says of us moderns that “we have nothing at all; only by filling and overfilling ourselves with alien ages, customs, arts, philosophies, religions and knowledge do we become something worthy of notice, namely walking encyclopedias.” In this respect Machiavelli is ancient, not modern.

[9] Michael Oakeshott, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” in Rationalism in Politics, ed. by Timothy Fuller, Liberty Fund Press, 1991.

[10] In his 1939 essay, “The Claims  of  Politics,” Oakeshott says there are “some for whom  political activity would be a perversion of their  genius,  a disloyalty  to themselves,  not  because  they  have little or no part in the promotion of the communal interests  of  their society,  but because  their  part is one which it is essential that a society shall have performed and which it is difficult if not impossible to combine with political activity. And among them, I believe, are those whose genius and interest lies in literature, in art and in philosophy.” In Religion, Politics and the  Moral  Life, ed. by Timothy Fuller, Yale UP, 1993.

[11] Four Quartets

[12] Jaspers, op.cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Karl Jaspers, “Philosophical Memoir” in Philosophy and the World, Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1963, pp.252-3. Italics added.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jaspers, Idea of a University, p. 1

[18] Ibid, p. 2

[19] Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning” in The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Liberal Education, ed by Timothy Fuller, London & New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.


This was presented as a lecture at the University of Calgary March 22, 2017.

Timothy FullerTimothy Fuller

Timothy Fuller

Timothy Fuller is a Professor of Political Science at Colorado College. He has written several forwards in the works of Michael Oakeshott.

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