The Idea of the University, Take One--On the Genius of This Place

Response by Jonathan Z. Smith

November 8, 2000


There is, buried deep in Roman Catholic moral theology, a warning against the flaw of over-scrupulousness, a morbid preoccupation with doing right and avoiding evil that results in a kind of paralysis. There are times when we speak of educational matters, especially in discourse on universities, that we skirt the edge of a parallel inhibiting temptation, that of over-seriousness; times when we almost seem to forget that the work of a university is a kind of play, that, in the words of the Shropshire heroine of Mary Webb's novel, Precious Bane, education is a "gladsome" thing.

Don Levine's address, by its very complexity, gives no purchase to over-seriousness. This University, in his account, thrives because it embodies a set of paradoxes, a bundle of antinomies that cannot be resolved but only played-with, played-across, and played-between. In this account, the University provides space for activities that are delightfully and stubbornly interstitial. As in a game, the University is, at one and the same time, both a combat and a contact zone.

Levine speaks of the strength of this University being lodged in its "capacious openness to scandalous contradictions," in its capacity to "embrace oppositions," exemplified, but by no means confined to, the tension between those institutionalized teleologies signaled by the names of Humboldt and Newman. Seen in this light, the University's unity is a product of its difference.

Such an understanding gives scant comfort to popular images of the researcher as an heroic solitary discoverer, or of a teacher talking with some student while seated together on a log. If diversity is the prerequisite of the work of the university, then that requires a relentlessly social setting, a community, a forum, in which difference is not an individual private attribute, but rather a matter for active public contestation, negotiation, and renegotiation. The coherence of the university lies in its refusal to allow differences to remain incoherent and inarticulate.

Viewed in this light, a university is a privileged social locus where a variety of competing interpretations and proposals as to 'what is the case' may be explored, experimented with, and evaluated apart from urgent needs and ineradicable consequences. It is a place that requires of all its citizens that they be always aware of their boundedness, their necessary partiality, and that, therefore, they become skilled in the arts of being attentive to, of seeking to understand the perspective of others, and of entertaining the possibility of integrating into their view that of the other. Whether in the laboratory, the seminar room, or the residence hall, such efforts provide occasions for reconsidering, complicating, and correcting one's 'take' on the world in the light of another's rather than merely coexisting with it. The goal of such an enterprise is not some passive form of tolerance, but rather active modes of reflection which seek to clarify interpretative choices which must be made, as well as the consequences these will entail.

With the wordy world of the university, the medium through which these goals are largely accomplished is language; in particular, argument. Argument is a process which, at one and the same time, brings private percept into public discourse and insists that difference be negotiated with civility inasmuch as it is guided, always, by an ethos of corrigibility.

Argument, if it is not to be mere juxtaposition, requires continual efforts at translation. Interdisciplinarity or collaborative inquiry-so celebrated at this University-is not best pictured as some Maoist garden where "a thousand flowers bloom," but rather as a site for the sustained labor of asking what one 'thing' might be if talked about in terms conventionally understood to be appropriate to another. The university provides and protects space for this continual transactional play across difference. But recall, in the process of translation, a 'this' is never quite a 'that.' There is always discrepancy. Translation, as an affair of the in-between, is, thereby, always relative. It can never be fully adequate. (To repeat the old tag: to translate is to traduce.) What is required, then, at this point of tension, is the trained capacity for acts of criticism, comparison and judgment, for appreciating and evaluating the relative adequacy and the insufficiency of any proposal of translation. Acts undertaken while being aware, at the very same time, that it is precisely the difference inherent in translation that enables its cognitive power.

It is in such an understanding of the activities and implications of translation that the research and teaching efforts, the specialized disciplines and the liberal arts, may well find common, in this place.