The University in History: 1088 And All That

Response by Anthony C. Yu

January 17, 2001

Don Levine's succinct rehearsal of the institutional paradigms undergirding our University--those of von Humboldt and John Cardinal Newman--has been further contextualized, luminously and capaciously, by Hanna Gray's delineation of the significant moments of the University and its evolving idea in history. To stimulate further reflection and discussion, I confine my remarks to teasing out some implications of the phrase, in history, by focusing on history as intellectual tradition and history as institutional continuance, specifically as it pertains to our community.

In his eloquent commencement address delivered last December at Rockefeller Chapel, Homi Bhabha alluded to a speech of 1969 by President Edward Levi, who spoke of the aim of a liberal education as being "the wholeness of knowledge," a wholeness grounded, paradoxically, in a tradition of doubt and self-criticism. As Professor Bhabha sees the matter, that disposition to perpetual questioning and revision constitutes the very essence of intellectual life, and his view, I'd argue, can find ample confirmation in the whole sweep of Western civilization. From the way, for example, Aristotle revises and reformulates, overtly or covertly, virtually all of his mentor's premises, methods, and conclusions, through the seemingly endless commentarial repetitions of textual interpretation in philosophy, law, and letters, the minute or momentous alteration of styles, perspectives, and materials in the fine and practical arts, to the wholesale discovery of scientific data and truths, this Western history of its culture tells us that intellectual tradition, especially for the academy dedicated, in the words of Edward Shils, to "the methodical discovery and the teaching of truths about serious and important things," can never be a matter of mere preservation or nostalgia, of unquestioning affirmation of the past.

Before the present audience, my remark may seem self-apparent, if not downright platitudinous, but a vigilantly questing revisionism as the raison d'etre of the life of the mind bears repeating emphasis even at the University of Chicago, especially in the light of the passion fomented by campus developments of the past few years. If our University indeed subscribes to the Humboldtian ideal of self-governance, the changes--proposed, approved, or still contemplated--in the content and scope of the undergraduate or graduate curriculum, in the fiscal policies of student support and faculty hiring, in the invention of new programs or elimination of old ones, and in the long-term sustenance of the institution through capital building and investment, will always have to be brought into what Ed Levi had called "the magic of a disciplined process." Such a process, as the late president went on to observe, "forces the asking of questions. It is not content with closed systems." This asking of questions, one must further add, is consistent with its fundamental spirit of inquiry only if one presumes that the process can entail real consequences. In other words, the debate on any issue--academic or administrative--in relations to our University's perceived purpose and character may result in the conclusion that change is either preferable or unnecessary. What our living community of faculty, administrators, trustees, students, and alums must realize and learn to cherish is the overriding import of this disciplined process itself and its cultivated protocol. The spirit that animates our University and endows it with its distinctive character, as Jonathan Smith's remarks have highlighted, is the persistent exercise of critical rationality no less than the deliberate tolerance of divergent beliefs and values without sacrificing conviction that can forestall the closed system of an unexamined past or a convenient present.

My second point about institutional continuance concerns survival and cost. Jamie Redfield's provocative question of the last session, how is thought to be funded, is apt for a classicist, for it may well be rephrased as, how was Plato's Academy funded. If to this day financial information about that famous institution is scanty, the answer proposed by Ian Mueller, another colleague, that the Academy was likely a community of "self-supporting intellectuals," is also no model for us today, for few of us can lay claim to such enviable status. Moreover, the nature of our intellectual work has changed. It's not just the fabled price-tag of the scientist's laboratory, but also that of the latest synthesizer for the musicologist composer or that of the special hardware and software for the linguist's computer that renders humanistic pursuits in the university dauntingly expensive. The cost of self-subsistence for the university in history thus provides one continuous testimony to the validity of Aristotle's ancient premise that the freedom of inquiry borne of disciplined leisure carries a steep price.

Sources for the support of "the business of the university," in the sense of both Newman's prescription for liberal education and the university as a modern mega-enterprise for education and research, are hardly infinite in their variety or option. For me personally, it is interesting to remember that exactly at about the time when Plato's Academy was thought to have been founded, around 360 BCE, another famous academy was established halfway across the world in Shandong, China. There was no mystery as to the economics of the Jixia Academy that was to become one paramount model for all subsequent Chinese institutions of higher learning, for it owed its creation and continuance for several decades to the powerful Duke of Huan in the State of Qi. Not only did it manage to train thousands of students, both Confucians and Daoists, for government service, but its success also perpetuated the emphasis for all China's posterity that henceforth, the state would be responsible, even without its citizens' solicitation, for the highest levels of education.

When one surveys the university in Asian and European history, one must notice how widespread are the belief and practice of government support for education, and how the private research university by contrast is an almost exclusively American phenomenon. Given such reality, one cannot disdain utilitarianism to the point of institutional self-immolation, of removing ourselves from history, by not worrying about marketing and packaging. The question correlative to Redfield's query thus has to be: how is thought to be marketed? Although it would be presumptuous of me to try to answer this question of many implications, it is neither foreign to this forum's spirit nor to economic common sense to consider underlying principles. If the tradition of rhetoric has been so crucial to the life of law, politics, literature, religion, and economy in Western culture, is it so wrongheaded for the University to take with utmost seriousness its entire manifold effort to persuade the public and various agencies of potential support, whether in government, commerce, or private philanthropy?

The art of persuasion may emphasize packaging through slick slogans or glossy graphics, but it can also enlist the reasoned discourse of substance and conviction. Do we understand and believe enough in the purpose and mission of our University to make efficient suasion from the commitment to fundamental research and discovery, core curriculum and liberal education, and teaching university teachers of the future? Are we convinced that such commitment and practice have a distinctive place in American education of the twenty-first century? Do we take the attitude that if you have seen one university, you have seen it all, or do we want to continue to make something of the University we have inherited and envisaged--whether it be Harper's, Hutchins's, Levi's, or that of their successors?