[lit-ideas] Complexity??

  • From: "Steven G. Cameron" <stevecam@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 23 Jul 2004 13:04:35 -0400

**What is critical and how do we impart it to our students (ethics, 
mortality)??  Interesting article.


/Steve Cameron, NJ

The Case for Academic Autonomy          Friday, July 23, 2004

In a key sentence in the final and climactic chapter of his book The 
Moment of Complexity (University of Chicago Press, 2001), Mark C. Taylor 
declares that "the university is not autonomous but is a thoroughly 
parasitic institution, which continually depends on the generosity of 
the host so many academics claim to reject." He continues: "The critical 
activities of the humanities, arts, and sciences are only possible if 
they are supported by the very economic interests their criticism so 
often calls into question." The standard rhetoric of the academy may be 
anti-market, but the "university and the people employed in it have 
always been thoroughly implicated in a market system."

As a description of the university's inevitable involvement with, and 
dependence on, the forces and investments of the larger society, this 
seems to me exactly right. But the prescriptive conclusion that Taylor 
draws from this description seems to me to be exactly wrong:

"Education is too important to remain confined within the walls where 
many people would like to keep it. Colleges and universities are not, 
and should not be, autonomous institutions devoted to the cultivation of 
useless knowledge."

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Taylor hesitates between two arguments. 
In one, the walls between the academy and the "real world" are becoming 
"permeable screens," with the effect of rendering "the university as we 
have known it for two hundred years ... a thing of the past."

In the other, the walls between the academy and society have never been 
anything but permeable; globalization and the Internet merely make what 
has always been the case perspicuous and impossible to ignore.

Either argument -- the one that begins, no longer is it possible to 
maintain the divide, or the one that begins, there never was a divide in 
the first place -- leads Taylor to the same conclusions: Let's stop 
pretending that we can operate in a splendid (but fictional) isolation 
from everything that enables us; let's accept the fact that we are in, 
and of, the market and "find new ways to turn market forces to [our] own 
advantage"; let's prepare "students for life and work changing at warp 
speed"; let's go beyond the kind of critical analysis that does little 
more than "promote organizations and institutions whose obsolescence is 
undeniable"; let's adapt to the real conditions of our existence and 
eschew "a politics that is merely academic," a politics that is "as 
sterile as theories that are not put into practice."

I have two objections to his conclusions, one practical and specific to 
the situation of the academy, the other theoretical and capable of being 

If we are worried about obsolescence and the loss of relevance, the 
surest way to court both is to become so attuned to the interests and 
investments of other enterprises -- the market, global politics, the 
information revolution -- that we are finally indistinguishable from 
them. If there is nothing that sets us apart, if there is nothing 
distinctive about our task or the criteria for accomplishing it, if 
there is nothing that marks our work as ours and not everyone's, there 
will be no particular reason to support us by giving us a room (or a 
franchise) of our own. We will be exactly what Taylor suggests we are -- 
a wholly owned (and disposable) subsidiary of something larger than 

Distinctiveness is a prerequisite both of our survival and our 
flourishing. Without it we haven't got a prayer.

Someone like Taylor might reply that any distinctiveness we might claim 
would be illusory, for it would assume an autonomy that is contrary to 
the fact of a radical dependence ("the university is a thoroughly 
parasitic institution"). No autonomy, no distinctiveness, no independent 

This is where my theoretical objection kicks in; for the argument, more 
than implicit in Taylor's pages and in the pages of many other theorists 
of our condition, makes what I would call the "system" or "network" 
mistake -- the mistake of thinking that because something is embedded in 
a network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape, it 
is incoherent to speak of its properties, or of the boundaries that 
separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network. 
Since identity is network-dependent, the reasoning goes, nothing can be 
spoken of and examined as if it were free standing and discrete.

The trouble with that reasoning is that it operates at a level of 
generality so high that you can't see the trees for the forest.

Yes, everything is finally interconnected and has a diacritical rather 
than a substantive existence (and is therefore, in some sense, not 
identical with itself), but it doesn't follow that there is nothing 
distinctive to say about it, any more than it would follow that because 
the heart and lungs and the spinal cord are what they are by virtue of 
the system of which they are components, they perform no isolable 
functions, display no special characteristics, obey no special laws, and 
cannot be studied in their own right.

No one would say that about the parts of the body; nor should it be said 
of the university which, despite the fact that its conditions of 
possibility are exterior to it, does have an internal reality to which 
one must be attentive if you would hope to make observations that are 
relevant and (perhaps) helpful.

Indeed, if you do not attend to the internal perspective of a practice, 
to what legal theorist Ernest Weinrib has called its "immanent 
rationality" (Yale Law Journal, May 1988), you will be in danger of 
missing what is most crucial to its performance and you will ask it to 
do things appropriately done within the precincts of other practices, or 
you will complain that it does badly or minimally what it should not be 
doing at all.

As Weinrib points out, if a practice is to have a "determinate content," 
is to be something rather than anything or everything, "a this and not a 
that," it must be centered on a matter "set apart from other matters"; 
otherwise it runs the risk of "falling back into the chaos of 
unintelligible indeterminacy," the risk of claiming to do everything and 
therefore doing nothing.

That is a risk more than courted by some of those who responded 
indignantly to John J. Mearsheimer's declaration (in Philosophy and 
Literature, April 1998) that the University of Chicago "is a remarkably 
amoral institution" that makes "little effort to provide [students] with 
moral guidance." By that Mearsheimer does not mean that the university 
is immoral and gives bad counsel or that individual faculty members lack 
strong moral views; rather he means that the university gives no 
counsel, and that it is the professional, and in some sense moral, 
obligation of faculty members to check their moral commitments at the door.

The professional obligation is moral because it holds faculty members to 
the particular morality of the institution, the morality that comes 
along with its immanent rationality, which is the rationality of truth 
seeking, to which one cannot be faithful if one does not "condemn 
cheating, academic fraud, and plagiarism," all actions "antithetical to 
the search for truth."

To be sure, that is not the whole of morality -- there are legions of 
moral issues left unaddressed -- but it is, or should be, the whole of 
academic morality.

Mearsheimer concedes that an academic morality, narrowly construed, does 
not meet all of the moral "demands of our society," but, he says, the 
university is not the institution equipped or authorized to meet those 
demands: "providing moral guidance is no longer in their job 
description. ... Religious institutions and families are expected to 
provide their members with explicit advice about moral virtue, but 
universities are not."

For the most part, those who take issue with Mearsheimer's statements 
fall into the everything-is-interconnected error. They reason that no 
human activity is without a moral dimension and add that this is 
particularly true of the activity of teaching. "I wonder," asks one such 
critic who responded to Mearsheimer's essay, "how we can expect our 
students to engage seriously and honestly in higher education itself if 
we studiously avoid all concern with moral education?"

And another interlocutor points out that in the humanities, at least, 
the concerns of moral education are the explicit content of key texts: 
"How does [Mersheimer] suppose anyone manages to teach Aristotle's 
Ethics, the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the works of Plato, Kant, 
and William James ... without engaging students in genuine inquiry about 
what is moral and ethical behavior, and on what kind of persons they 
should become?"

But the fact that moral concerns turn up in the texts students study 
doesn't mean that what the students are learning about is morality. They 
are learning about the ways in which poets, philosophers, and political 
theorists structure their inquiries and reflections. Those inquiries and 
reflections will often begin and end with moral questions, but what 
makes those authors worth studying is not the answers they happen to 
give to those questions -- you can find Plato and Melville compelling 
without either affirming or rejecting the morality they seem to be 
urging -- but the verbal, architectonic, or argumentative skills they 
display in the course of implementing the intention to write a poem, or 
a piece of philosophy, or a meditation on the nature of government.

The "genuine inquiry" in which students are (or should be) engaged is 
not an inquiry about what kind of person they should be but an inquiry 
about what kind of person Plato or Hobbes or Rawls or Milton thought 
they should be, and for what reasons, and with what poetic or 
philosophical force. The exam question is not, "If you were to find 
yourself in such and such a situation, what should you do?" The exam 
question is "If you were to find yourself in such a situation, what 
would Plato, Hobbes, Rawls, and Kant tell you to do and what are the 
different assumptions and investments that would generate their 
different recommendations?"

You can answer that question in a good academic fashion -- answer it, 
that is, as an academic question -- without coming down on the side of 
any morality whatsoever, and no instructor should penalize you because 
you stuck to the business at hand and declined the invitation -- often 
proffered, but always to be declined -- to make the educational 
experience everything in general and nothing in particular.

Of course, somewhere down the line the academic answer you once gave to 
an academic question may factor into the moral response you give to a 
situation; but down the line is a long distance away, and meanwhile both 
faculty members and students will do well to remember the point of the 
enterprise they are now a part of.

The fact that a determinate project may, in the course of its 
self-realization, make use of everything under the sun does not mean 
that it is everything under the sun. It is what it is, and if we forget 
what it is and try to expand its claims to infinity, it will lose its 
very shape and fall back into the chaos of unintelligible indeterminacy.

Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the 
University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column for Chronicle 
Careers on campus politics and academic careers.

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