We need new stories of the 21st-century university.

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…the book carries us, in a manner, into company; and unites the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life, study and society.

David Hume, Dialogues concerning natural religion

Something spiritual is lacking in the current discourse about colleges and universities. This can be seen by entering a Google search starting with: “academia is”. The Google autocomplete function is a looking glass into the global hive mind, a helpful pattern-matching AI that allows us to see how thousands of other users completed that two-word phrase. In early 2019, Google’s algorithm suggests academia is…“broken,” “toxic,” “dying,” “pointless,” or “a cult.” And, “academia is killing me.” Our dreaming spires, it seems, have turned into the stuff of nightmares. Where have things gone wrong?

The relentless character of the trench warfare of campus politics, the budget battles, the internal insurgencies to blow up various canon stockades, the tendency of faculty to circle the wagons and shoot inward, the horrible sense of betrayal now felt by many who once dreamed of lives in the academy, but who are now left out in the cold because there are so few jobs, these mutually reinforcing trends are what feeds the sense that something is terribly wrong. All of this can be depressing. In such an environment, we can forget what we are fighting for, and why it truly matters.

With their mission to preserve, transmit, and enlarge human knowledge, universities will always find themselves working at the nexus of social transformation, as both engines and victims of that change. Given what’s at stake, it’s puzzling therefore that so many of our current discussions about the future of the university are sterile, slipping too quickly into practical concerns, diagnosing broken funding models, and with a too-sharp focus on current workforce needs rather than long-term student well-being. If we talk only of value propositions and return on investment, of lifetime earnings and payback, we risk missing the spiritual heart of the matter. By being so hard headed we risk forgetting how to dream.

Universities in the harsh light of day can be difficult to love. Yet the poetic idea of them continues to inspire. What we need is a new and better idea of the university, past, present, and future. One more in tune with current reality. Yet, at at the same time, an idea that remains faithful to the deeper values of the academy, the values that are worthy of love. Like the philosopher David Hume, I believe that the shared pursuit of learning can unite two of the purest pleasures of life, study and the company of others, and that this is the beating heart of the matter. What we urgently need is a new poem for the 21st century university.

The writer Robert Bringhurst has argued that poetry is what we do when we think deeply, breaking through the crust of the familiar to touch a more fluid layer of thoughts hidden below. If those thoughts emerge as words, they become what is traditionally understood as a poem. But, if those thoughts emerge as a new invention, the poetry can be thought of as a ‘maker-poem’. If they are about the geometry of the world or the properties of numbers, it might be a ‘physics-poem’ or a ‘math-poem’.

I like this notion of Bringhurst’s of poetry-as-thinking because it encourages us to avoid the distraction of surface differences, and instead to see the artist and scientist, the thinker and the maker, the teacher and student, or the social innovator, as engaged in the same vital species-wide project: The quest to know ourselves better, so we can find our way in a dangerous world.

Universities have been a part of that human social project for nearly a millennium. They have survived wars and famines, revolutions and plagues. Universities are among the longest-lived of human institutions, and they are far more robust than governments or business enterprises. This alone should give us pause when politicians and business leaders are the most self-confident in their abilities to guide university reforms. Though it’s highly likely that universities will change in formation and design in coming decades, and we must invent new kinds of universities, they will collectively survive the current social upheavals because their mission to preserve, transmit, and enlarge knowledge is what makes our civilization possible. Universities, therefore, cannot be allowed to die.

But it is the aspirational dream for the university that we cannot let die, not any particular waking expression of that dream. And we must acknowledge that this dream draws its strength from a very deep and universal human yearning to learn from, and with, other people. Productive rumination about the future of the university therefore requires not only struggling with the important matter of higher-ed economics, and the wider social impacts of university programs, but also being alive to the poetics of the university, attending to how we see the university when we call it up in our imaginations; how we think about its role in the world; the stories we tell of it; how we imagine its past and future. And, most importantly, how we dream about the kinds of lives that universities make possible.

Monolithic thinking about universities feeds the elite mentality, by suggesting there is one true measure against which everything should be judged. Instead, our stories need to recognize that modern universities are complex and prone to change, they are a disorderly collection of programs and schools that evolve and adapt. The history of the university is therefore not a single story, and there is no reason to believe the future of the university will be simple either. In spite of clickbait claims that we face a future with only ten universities, there is no reason to believe we are converging toward a single model, or toward global uniformity, and no reason to think that this would be a good thing. Such a trend would violate all the norms of evolutionary processes, which militate against monocultures and instead tend toward highly diverse ecosystems, filled with niches within niches where diverse species can flourish and interact.

We are finite beings with limited time, so the university’s mission to enlarge knowledge is always in creative tension with the preservation and transmission of existing bodies of knowledge. But precisely because universities are organic entities, governed by laws of variation and selection through scholarly genealogies, this explains why they are so full of puzzling inherited traits. Like all living things, they embody their history. They are not designed so much as a haphazard collection of adaptations to the current moment.

In a highly interdisciplinary course I teach with several colleagues, called The Idea of the University, we ask our students to go through the exercise of drafting a charter for their ideal university. We encourage them to think about why their university exists, what role they want it to play in the world, who gets to govern it, and how decisions will be made.

We ask our students: What would you do differently? What would your ideal university value most? Would it be a global entity, living online, fully embracing a virtualized future? Or, would it harken back to the original academy, set in a grove of ancient trees, close to the earth, sea, and sky, a place of physical presence and long conversations, surrounded by nature? Would your ideal university focus on serving inner cities or rural towns, indigenous communities, or isolated islands nations, providing access to students who would otherwise never dream of going to university? Or, would your university focus primarily on charting a course into the more traditionally understood academic stratosphere, dedicated to the creation and preservation of arcane knowledge, a true Ivory Tower?

The answer was that our students collectively wanted all of these models represented among future universities. In fact, there is no reason why, in a world as prone to disruptive change as ours, a world of uneven development and even more uneven wealth and privilege, there is no reason why we should limit our imaginations to one stereotype of the university in our 21st-century stories. We should not restrict our imaginings only to sylvan quads or cloistered courtyards, tree-lined walks or pebbled paths, theatre seating for large lecture classes where professors drone and students doze, a cloud of chalk dust hanging in the air, while a campus carillon tolls the hours in the distance. We need new and better stories about the 21st-century university, stories that get at the heart of the matter, university poems to feed our dreams about what’s possible.

Image: High Street, Oxford, 1890s. Photoglob Zürich, reprinted by Detroit Publishing Co. [Public domain]

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