The University in History: 1088 And All That

Response by Paul Hunter

January 17, 2001

I think that I am the designated poet on this panel. It's not that I'm a real poet, not even a bad real poet, but my scholarly and pedagogical work is mainly on poetry these days, and so it is perhaps my obligation to come to the defense of poetry's honor. Numeracy has never been the strongest suit of the poetic tribe--"all that" has more often been a contribution than 1066 or 1088--and this is not the first time that a poet's historical sense has been weighed in the balances and found wanting: I think, for example, of Keats's famous (and wonderful) sonnet about intellectual and emotional discovery--"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"--in which he confused Cortez with Balboa and allowed the former the pleasure of "discovering" the Pacific Ocean. Balboa, schmalboa, Keats might well have said; but the poem is good in spite of its misinformation, not because of it, and I'm not inclined to defend the right divine of poets to be wrong. Nor am I inclined to defend misconceived originary myths or the vision and visionary company sometimes claimed by poets or claimed for them, for poets (like politicians and others) often have trouble with the vision thing, however much they like to practice it.

What I do want to defend and honor, however, is a lingering poetic habit that I think is transferable to Humanists and perhaps others more generally: an interest in thinking carefully, creatively, evaluatively, and unorthodoxly about human beings and the institutions that they create and inhabit, detailing their challenges and troubles, triumphs and hazards. These sallies into knowledge of the human do not necessarily provide Universal laws or great Truths or huge intellectual breakthroughs so much as trenchant observations, small insights, and shifting perspectives that help to focus or adjust developments and directions that are often beyond immediate and individual control. Sometimes these ideas do result in Great Poems or Great Books but more often merely in good ones where there is more to discuss and challenge than to admire and adore--a lot like ideas and daily life in a University.

The Idea of University is--and not just initially--an IOU, a promise more than an immediate payoff; it is a long-term investment, a sense of what idealistic intellectual ambition can mean when it is forged in the fires of practice and conflict. Hanna Gray has emphasized, wisely in my view, how ideas are played out--fleshed out, vitalized, modified, remade--in the process of history, in the process of coming alive from their roots in abstraction. And she has suggested (again rightly) that there is more than one Idea of a University and that the conflict and interaction among these ideas is what has made, throughout the centuries, universities into interesting, challenging and significant places in which to live and work. Her account of the history of the Ideas suggests ways that noble ideals and grand schemes are embodied in actual living and constructing, how they are influenced and modified by time and place and circumstance and geographical, national, and material possibility. It is not just that many competing ideas of a university have historically been in play in Italy, France, Germany, Britain, America, and elsewhere--and often remain in competition--but also that individual ideas actualize themselves differently in different times and different traditions. The importance of this point involves not just being able to get beyond abstraction and enabling us to talk about particular ways of going about the businesses of universities as we understand them, but also being able to assess where the University of Chicago fits into the historical processes of definition and redefinition. Remembering that the Ideas of a University as articulated by Harper, Hutchins, Levi, and Gray were in many ways incompatible offers a good start not only at sorting out our history but also in thinking through our possibilities for the future.

I want to make three brief points about past and present, trying to suggest from my perspective some things about history that may have implications for the future. The first point involves the recent past, the information explosion that characterized the latter part of the 20th century. I do not pretend to grasp what the easy availability of vast quantities of information will mean for storage and archives and digital and other forms of transmission; but I am pretty sure it will ultimately change the nature of teaching profoundly. Unless I am wildly wrong, the passing along of information in classrooms (and textbooks and traditional reference sources) will diminish considerably in the new millennium, but this does not necessarily mean--it should not mean--a diminishment in the functions of classrooms and the uses of faculty. But it does mean we will teach differently, harvesting facts and processing them more systematically and thoughtfully into something larger. Knowledge, as distinguished from information, will become even more important in universities like this one, and that crucial teaching function of moving from information to knowledge is sure to be enhanced and extended. Knowing what to do with information has long been, in a sense, what the highest education was all about, but our potential new freedom from fact-stacking offers us the possibility of concentrating more on the processes and outcomes of knowledge. We may have to learn new skills and arts as we work alongside and with computers and other information technologies, but the challenge to create a Knowledge Society rather than simply an Information one will not be met without extraordinary hard work and re-imagining of ourselves and our tasks, especially in the humanities.

My second point is also mainly about new challenges for the humanities. One of the traditional educational functions of the humanities, a function performed in teaching, research, and public transmission of what we do, is preservation: we preserve artefacts from the past, we preserve texts and images; but most of all we preserve a sense of the past, a memory of other times and ways of life. The argument of memory's value is an old and honored one, and I have no desire to dispute its fundamental premises: that preservation of a sense of the past is valuable for comparative and imaginative purposes in terms of our identity and discovery of otherness, and (though some will dispute this part) that knowledge of the past is valuable in, of, and for itself. I support both these rationales and regard them as crucial to a full sense of the humanities and of humanness. History is to me a humanistic subject and endeavor regardless of where we warehouse or practice it. But Humanities are not ultimately about the past, no matter how much they recall it, but the present. The sometime tendency to think of a University of Eden from which we have descended and digressed is a seductive but delusionary myth.

Sometimes we go too far with preservation and looking backward--or rather with the notion that our knowledge and our goals are in the past. The present is, or ought to be, at least an equal challenge to humanists: the changing world needs to be interpreted, criticized, understood. What are the values--artistic, ethical, spiritual, intellectual, cultural, economic--in changing institutions, ways of instruction, modes of knowing, kinds of art? What are the implications of new modes of entertainment, of communicating, of artistic and religious expression and interaction? What does the changing position of universities in our society mean, and how can its hazards be turned to learning's advantage? Film and television have appropriately entered the verbal and visual curriculum as both descendants and colleagues of novels and plays and essays and poems, and the study of changing human collectives and relationships needs the tools of the humanities as well as the social sciences. Change is a subject, as well as a threat and a challenge and an inevitability, and humanists are (or should be) educated to raise questions and horizons about its implications. I hope that we will think of our mission and capability as involving perspective on present concerns as well as preservation of past ones.

Finally, a quick point about this university in particular. It grows out of the particularities of Chicago's history, I think, and those particularities involve geography and culture as well as history per se. A lot of what we value in the University has to do with the wisdom of the way the original set of ideas was fleshed out in the first place. The way, and the place. I think it is significant that we did not become the University of Chicago at Sutton Place or Palo Alto; we are, importantly I think, a product of being in the Middle West, removed from the ocean commerce of both things and ideas; we are far from the coast, drydocked in the flatlands, in flyover country; we are an urban institution in the midst of neighborhood diversity and difference and challenge. Our peer institutions--or at least our older peer institutions that drove our early sense of identity and agenda--are not an hour away by train or freeway; we are not fettered by needs to keep up and mimic and be identical in spirit, direction, and thought. There has been, I think, a great liberation in not being, early in the last century, on the East Coast; or now on the West Coast. And a lot of our personality and character has developed accordingly.

We are the against-the-grain university, a place where (more than most) tradition and the accepted way of thinking about things does not start the discussion or become always the basis for reaction. I'm not sure we are unassuming, but we don't always assume what most people, and most scholars, do. We dare to defy not only Political Correctness, but "correctness" of other kinds: religious, ethical, aesthetic, economic. We value unlearning as well as learning, questioning old definitions of truth as well as pursuing new ones. We are, for better and worse, contrarians; we are marooned on the island--or rather the mid-continent--of our founding.

And I think (and hope) that we will retain this sense of independence, unpredictability, and contrariness, even though it often makes us annoying to others and sometimes to ourselves. What I don't know--and what I think no one can predict--is what that against-the-grainness will mean in a new century and millennium when the assumptions will keep changing. But I hope the habit sticks. That to my mind is the finest sense of history; to be yourself--your crusty, unpredictable, difficult, and ornery self--as you confront a new and changing present every day.

That is the sense of tradition and renewal that makes Chicago both an idea and a real place.