From a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

The film Inception that took one on a wild ride through the architecture of the mind grossed over $820 million worldwide and continues to earn money on the secondary circuit of TV and Cable. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and won four – for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects, that is, for its tremendously brilliant pyrotechnics rather than its script, direction or acting. The visual dazzle and thematic ambition marked an almost equally successful follow-up of nomadic exploration, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. That film really took us on a very different nomadic journey into the desert of space and a pristine environment. This is relevant because a university is created as a sanctuary, as an anti-nomadic movement, as a place where individuals from all over can come together in one place and study.

One mission of that university is to teach us how to distinguish a real oasis from a mirage, objectivity from subjectivity. But that initially took second position to the development of character. To leap forward, how did the Sanctuary of Truth dedicated to instilling values and character and creating a culture that would not succumb to the attractions of the Golden Calf, and its modern successor, the Sanctuary of Method committed to rules and professionalism, become transformed into a core institution that defines objectivity in terms of subjectivity? Does the explanation reside in the incompatibility of the two very different types of sanctuary that necessitated the emergence of a third idea of the university and then a fourth?

The university as a Sanctuary of Method was dedicated to unpacking authentic memories rather than the heroic ones that characterized the Sanctuary of Truth.  The university as a Sanctuary of Method was created as a vehicle for escaping the myth of an absolute and binding moral code into a realm of rules to ensure discovery on the intellectual frontiers of knowledge. Truth was no longer an inherited given. Just as the university in Canada entered fully into that maturity of a Sanctuary of Method a century later from its roots in Berlin in 1810, the existence of a spacetime continuum was proclaimed as a four-dimensional frame of reference rather than a three-dimensional one of space only. In Einstein’s turn of the century (1905) theory of relativity, distances and times varied depending on the initial reference frame.

Both time and space were relativized with respect to one another. Further, instead of fostering character and virtues, the university turned into a place to explore one’s identity for there was no boundary to any pursuit, including the pursuit of the inner self. In other words, the university as a Sanctuary of Method undermined the core ideas and ideals of a Sanctuary of Truth, but in the process made discoveries that undermined its own essential idea of providing at least an absolute methodological frame.

Is there a cognitive dissonance when the university is in fact a place of intellectual and epistemological thrills in the search for certainty only to discover the uncertainty principle and that certainty itself is a chimera? Is this a world akin to Nolan’s labyrinths where the only end is the revelation of an illusion and Truth remains forever out of reach? For if we believe in the foundation of the Sanctuary of Method, then we have escaped the world of divine revelation and faith into a belief system in which all explanations are constructed solely in reference to physical processes. However, if the physical processes themselves have no constancy, not even the constancy of a reference in space, the framework for the university as a steady state providing a solid reference for society dissolves.

Hence the entry of corruption and the paranoia about conspiracies that creep into this Sanctuary. However, we need not go abroad to reveal the tensions. A close study of Canadian intellectual giants like Harold Innis more often than not revealed this contradiction. Innis, though he became an agnostic, never lost the strict set of values and missionary zeal instilled in him by his Baptist upbringing. However, when studying for his PhD at the University of Chicago, he fell under the sway of George Herbert Mead and absorbed the idea that communications did not just entail the transfer of information but were both broader (including railways, the subject of his thesis) and deeper since the form of communications was critical in shaping the frame by which you understood the world.

Einstein’s theories were offered a complementary economic and political frame. Innis would spend his career warring against “static economics.” At the same time, he put forth the thesis that technology itself framed the Canadian mind as the railway became a mode of spreading European civilization westward. Further, the content on which that technology focused, the “staples,” fur, fish, lumber, wheat, mining metals, potash, and extracting fossil fuels, shaped the political and economic history and culture of Canada.

If communications are, as Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan argued, that through which a culture is brought into existence, sustained over time and concretized through institutions, then Canada in its development had a unique culture, one antithetical to that of its southern imperial neighbour. Until the emergence of the Sanctuary of Method, history, that had been a tale of heroic adventurers as told by “scholars” in the Sanctuary of Truth, became an interplay of geography, technology and economics in consolidating a culture. Innis was a pioneer of Canadian intellectual nationalism. But then how do you reconcile this fixity with the propulsion towards alteration driven by technology and new forms of communication, ideas now accepted as standard in explicating change? For Harold Innis himself was central to consolidating the Sanctuary of Method as the ideal model for a university as a substitute for the Sanctuary of Truth, but emerged later in his career as an advocate of the university as a Social Service Station.

How were those cultural roots set down? Through the cultural routes used by Canadian nomads as they traversed the continent. However, the intersection of cultures, of European users of beaver pelts for hats, of Canadian traders and of First Nations trappers, itself wreaked havoc on the traditions and patterns of native peoples and eventually undermined the very institutions and values so basic to their cultures. What Innis did not see is that the same process was at work in undermining the character of the university which had become his intellectual domicile. His own pioneering studies of the cultural industry and the mode by which knowledge is developed and spread and which gave some groups the authority and the power they had, was itself being undermined in the changes wrought over the two decades of the forties and the fifties.

The crisis came in the sixties and out of that maelstrom emerged a new type of university for Canada, a Social Service Station, one pioneered in America about a century earlier. The university itself was not a sanctuary ensuring stability but was itself subject to the forces of change, by the technology by which knowledge was revealed and communicated. Harold Innis had been correct. There was an interplay between power and knowledge, between economic and cultural values and, more fundamentally, between primarily time-oriented cultures and ones that leaned more heavily on space in the spacetime continuum.

Let me illustrate with a story. In first year premedical studies, I took Ed Carpenter’s anthropology class. Carpenter was a close collaborator of Marshal McLuhan. In that course, he introduced me to the ideas of Clyde Kluckhohn and his studies of the different conceptions of time in each of the five cultures that constituted the mosaic of a part of Texas. I was inspired when I attended his lecture in Convocation Hall and his analysis of the different cultures of adjacent communities of Southwest Zuni, Navajo, Mormons, Mexican-Americans and Texas homesteaders, each with its own conception of time.

Based on my experience as a carnie in the summer, I submitted an essay comparing the understanding of time and space by the nomads who lived and thrived in a carnival. When they told stories, they interlaced tales of the riots in Windsor with those of a fight with gangs when playing Scarborough. In their oral tradition of narrative, disparate events were melded into a single story with no differentiation along a time line to distinguish various incidents. The unity was not provided by reference to time and place, but by the subjective experiences common to different incidents. Any effort to correct those tales by pointing out geographical and calendar reference points that differed, fell on deaf ears.

Carpenter gave me my first A++ for that essay. It had deeper roots than I understood at the time. I had been brought up in a strong time-binding culture, a culture of clay tablets and the dedication to preservation instantiated by that culture. That was why Moses’ shattering of the two tablets when he confronted his fellow tribesmen worshipping the Golden Calf was so traumatic. Even as I threw off the heritage of a Jewish orthodox upbringing, the quest for a durable foundation remained inherited from a nomadic culture in search of and involved in creating a sanctuary dedicated to Torah, dedicated to study. However, my nomadic carnies lived in what was primarily a space-oriented culture, a culture in which events are fleeting and ephemeral, a space more in tune with media which constantly stresses “breaking news” while telling the same old stories but with new twists.

It did not matter whether the communications media were radio, mass circulations newspapers, television or the internet, as they morphed into one another, they made irrelevant the possibility of a sanctuary as a source of stability altogether.  For Innis, entrenched mass communication monopolies undermined the “elements of permanence essential to cultural activity” that today might account for the widespread rise of populism and troglodyte philistines into positions of power. At the saMe time, Innis was a progenitor of that development as he proposed a shift in the university mission from a Sanctuary of Method to a Social Service Station dedicated to research on public problems.

The university as a Sanctuary of Method could not survive such an onslaught and it was itself formally transformed in Toronto in the seventies into a Social Service Station in which the problems and norms of society shaped the university rather than the norms and rules of a university shaping society. In the ancient world, in Greece and in Jerusalem, writing had displaced the oral traditions and reified them in a script. Rome had married that mode of inscription with power to forge an empire. The innovation of the printing press in Europe created another volcanic eruption that buried the mediaeval university in quaint practices, obsolete modes and social irrelevance except as a playground for the aristocratic class. Was this an adumbration of the destiny of the modern university? Is that what is happening to the university as a Social Service Station as it mutates once again from a Social Service Station to an intellectual supermarket for consumers rather than producers of knowledge?

It is the imaginative world that Nolan spent his whole career constructing. Instead of a set and established field, we find the material to be in flux and ever-changing. Instead of one standard set of tools guided by common principles, we find a realm of clashing ideologies so that the university undermines its own self-defined role as a guiding star for society.

In Nolan’s Inception, the characters do not escape time, but are entrapped in it, in a world of technical virtuosity. Without eternal verities, they are thrust into a search for the delusion of eternity, that time is not passing and content themselves with a multiplicity of simultaneous offerings rather than living within a singular and wholesome whole. It should not be a surprise that the university as a Sanctuary of Method will in turn be experienced as ether. The institution had been thrust into a conviction that its direction must be defined externally, thereby undermining the very notion of the autonomy of the university.

Thus, universities in escaping the repressive environment of religiously imposed rules for the world, one governed, not by an omnipotent spirit or a totemic animal, but a world in which thought and intention, became omnipotent and altered the world. But the universities existed in that world and they themselves were changed. The Sanctuary of Method was transformed into a Social Service Station.

 

To be continued: The Social Service Station

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Birds of a Feather

Yesterday, we went out to dinner with two friends. They had been out that day with a guide trekking through the jungle looking at the flora and fauna. I had been invited to go along, but I declined. In my terrible black humour, I said that I was allergic to getting too close to nature. That, of course, was not the real reason. After all, I had walked up, not once, but twice – not accurate, one of those times I walked down – through the jungle on the side of a mountain.

I think the real reason is that, whereas others see the beauty and bounty of nature, ever since I was educated by one of my sons about the environment, I see what is missing. In my walks through the jungle, I did not see a single bird. They did, but it was a flower, a bird of paradise. They showed me the picture they had taken. When I asked whether there were fewer birds here than when they first came to San Pancho, they indicated that the reverse was true. There seemed to them to be more.

I was sceptical. When I woke up this morning, I looked up on the internet to find whether the bird population in Nayarit, Mexico was declining or rising. I could not find an answer. There were too many sites advertising the wonders of bird watching in this area. The San Pancho Bird Observatory conducts tours for birders. However, the site also briefly mentioned another objective – to protect the population of birds, both in types and quantity. They needed protection. They needed sanctuaries. I suspect, like elsewhere, one can over a period witness the tragedy of the few and the thinning of nature. After all, I have not seen a single butterfly since I have been here and this is the area where butterflies from Canada winter.

It is not as if I had not seen many birds. You only have to walk along the beach to see egrets and ducks, herons, gulls and ibises – especially near the estuary at the south end of the long beach. But I do not have to walk along the beach to see birds. The prehistorical-looking chachalacas shriek and scream just as the sun rises every morning as they fly around playing follow the leader. Watching black hawks soar and rise on the updrafts without a flap of their wings is to truly watch grace in motion. I have also seen what look like turkey vultures and even one falcon. If I was a birdwatcher, I surely would be able to distinguish the various types of sparrows, orioles, warblers – I recognize them from their songs – finches and rushes, terns and wrens that perch on the edge of the swimming pool, taking a swig of water and resting before flying off.

I did recognize several of the birds. One was a Killdeer. I know that bird because I once reviewed a play by the Canadian poet, E.J. Pratt, called after that bird. It has two alternating white and black bands around its neck and a white patch above its very streamlined beak Another bird that returned to the edge of the pool several times was small and yellow with black and white almost striated wings and a very short and stubby beak. Another much larger bird had similar wings, but a red top and golden cheeks. I even once saw a green parrot – and one woodpecker, several times. It was red at the top and had a banded neck.

However, instead of taking great joy in the bounty of nature that is there, I mourn the genocide of birds and animals by the human species. And I believe I know the deep rather than immediate cause. It has to do partially with the university as an institution about which I have been writing.

From feedback that I have received, I clearly have not been clear enough. I will retrace my steps, depicting the university as a Sanctuary of Truth and then its transition to the Sanctuary of Method that I referred to in my last blog and then the transformation of that type of university into a Social Service Station. Finally, I will describe the type of university that is currently emerging, the university as a consumer’s supermarket.

The mediaeval university went into serious decline with the onset of modernity during the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In the final stages of its estimable evolution in that period, what had become a home for aristocrats to play and sew their wild oats was taken over by the court in its battle with the country to ensure that noblemen acquired modern technical skills in contrast to the general disdain of the landed aristocracy for higher learning. Ranks were distributed based on one’s educational achievement. However, what was being measured was not the acquisition of knowledge or critical skills, but the ethos and ability to conduct oneself according to the standards of the court. In contrast, the landed aristocracy, rooted in one form of pietism, defended their faith as a source of their countervailing values.

Though Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper differed in their explanations for the crisis that afflicted the seventeenth century and to some degree its characterization, both concurred that the seventeen-hundreds were years marked by unprecedented turmoil. There has been a general agreement that during that mini-ice age and a severe decline in population levels, societies were riven with shifts in the political order and the well-being of society. A central component was, in my mind, a crisis of faith and it pervaded the whole world in that early expression of globalization. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange into the possession of the British crown. The Thirty Years’ War, the revolts against the Spanish Crown from Holland to Naples, the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and of the Shogun in Japan – one can go on and on to document the crisis of the seventeenth century.

And Mexico played a central role as gold, but especially silver, from this area flooded the world economy bringing about significant inflation. In this fraught atmosphere, society was pulled apart. A powerful and centralizing bureaucracy under the crown fought a locally-focused and land-based aristocracy rooted in deep-seated religious beliefs. The university was caught up as an instrument and representative of the battle between what has been called Crown and Country. The University of Königsberg in East Prussia, founded in the middle of the sixteenth century, was no exception. One reader sent me a message about Mark Twain’s portrait of the University of Heidelberg where the children of aristocrats spent their time duelling and frittering away parental wealth as they sought degrees guaranteeing them a place in the new state bureaucracies. It was just a typical example of the malaise that overhung universities.

As this tension moved into the eighteenth century, great scholars began to appear in the interstices of these decrepit institutions, at least decrepit from the perspective of any dedication to the preservation, creation and transmission of knowledge through the education of students. Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in that city as a child of artisans (harness makers) rather than of the landed aristocracy. His family’s pietism celebrated religious emotion and the divine authority of the Lutheran Church. But Kant, in spite of his enormous regard for his parents, was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France. He struggled and wrote, earned money as a tutor and lectured students for pay until he finally received an appointment at the University of Königsberg. Only then did he articulate his revolutionary philosophical principles in the 1780s that breached the divide between rationalism and empiricism, science and morality, the inner world of thought and the outer world of experience.

Humans achieved certainty because there were laws such as causation etched in our brains that were necessary conditions of any knowledge. In ethics, imperatives were also there as preconditions of any morality whatsoever. And beneath the whole edifice was the autonomous thinking self that gave us both our freedom to think and act. But, as we shall see in my next blog, no sooner had a new basis for certainty been forged as a substitute for faith than it all fell apart and the Sanctuary of Truth evolved into the Sanctuary of Method initially at the beginning of the nineteenth century at the University of Berlin.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. At the end of the eighteenth century, it was very widely believed that Kant had resurrected and saved the idea of final causes, of a teleology of reason that gave the world a purpose. But there was an inherent contradiction. As Kant opted for reason in place of emotional piety, as he chose the autonomy of thought over the dependency on grace, he tried to preserve a lofty place for his parents in the noumenal world of faith that lay beyond sensibility and reason as he inherited and imbibed their artisan attention to hard work, discipline and rigid order. He had linked the sentimental thinking of the Scottish philosophers – David Hume and Adam Smith – with Newtonian science and Leibnizian mathematics. But he did so by surrendering and submitting to the authority of the Crown and relegated the Country to a backwater of faith which he respected and put on a pedestal. Otherwise, country was ignored. His justification: faith was beyond reason and used reason to demarcate that sacred space and leave it alone.

So whence the corruption? Aristocrats may now have attended such a university to earn a status that allowed them to serve the state rather than to pursue and advance knowledge, but the core of the university, though only a core, had been resurrected as a place for the pursuit of truth. To make a long story very short, I will jump to the 1930s and 1940s when the Sanctuary of Method was leaving behind the Sanctuary of Truth as a respected and admired backwater, but no longer the centre for the advancement of knowledge. I jump to Oxford and Cambridge and the breeding of spies who betrayed rather than served the crown. I refer to the well-known story of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, of Kim Philby and Donald Maclean.

They were all scions of the aristocracy, sometimes the lower aristocracy, but the aristocracy nonetheless. Born into privilege, they were children of the Country being trained in Cambridge to serve the Crown. They had been raised at Eton with a grand sense of entitlement and of hierarchy, perhaps even more rigid, though not as explicitly depicted as in Prussia. That made it even more powerful in being understood rather than articulated, thereby instilling a deeper sense of disappointment if one failed to grab the brass ring of status rather than of money.

But why through an adherence to communism and, in particular, Stalin’s Russia? Because communism did not represent for them any identity with the working class, but resentment and revenge on the aristocracy in which they did not achieve the highest honours and recognition to which they felt was their due. Brilliance, wit, an ability to mimic the foibles and follies of one’s class, were all prerequisites. But insufficient. And if one failed, one was left with a set of tools with possibly no real outlet.

John Maynard Keynes in his intellectual brilliance and as a member of the Apostles – not quite the highest order in the hierarchy – or E. M. Forster, who would write Passage to India, one of the greatest novels of English literature, may have both belonged to the secret fellowship of Apostles that revered cleverness and wit, idiosyncratic rituals and a special jargon, but their intelligence and creativity offered them a positive outlet for their class resentment. Guy Burgess and Walter Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby all chose to become moles rather than attempt to soar as birds to the heights to which they believed they were destined.

They betrayed a decaying empire to serve a rising one, not the working class, but a fresh – and ruthless new imperial order. They belonged to the swamp of London in service to Moscow. Instead of free thought they chose a closed system so they could express themselves in actions untrammeled by the norms of their society. They were rebels with a cause, but the cause was driven by the psychology of resentment rather than any concern for the suffering and the deprived. Further, the crisis of both capitalism and liberalism as it faced the rise of fascism offered a ready excuse. They could ostensibly be high-minded even if they failed to achieve the highest status.

They had the perfect cover. They belonged, even as in their idiosyncratic beliefs and decadent behaviour merely served to reassure their acceptance as members in a privileged order. There were no real security clearances. They were all trusted as “good old boys”. They had been brought up to be irresponsible and they would prove that they had absorbed those values to the nth degree. Devoted to opulence rather than frugality, to cynicism rather than faith, to hypocrisy rather than a reverence for the truth, and to superficial display rather than deep thought, they had become members of a higher order than even the Apostles, an even more secret order.

As birds of a feather, one by one they went into exile together in that idyllic imaginary centre of a utopian higher order. The secret and exclusive order of M15 and M16 were merely waystations. Defensive snobbery and anxiety about slipping into the bourgeoisie combined to propel them to risk their own turf for a different hierarchy of privilege and crony network into which not one of them was really accepted as they lived out their lives in exile as ex-pats in Moscow.

Let me end by returning to the eighteenth century and the glory of the Sanctuary of Truth in a period when birds did not have to be protected by living in sanctuaries. Carl Linnaeus, the famous eighteenth century Swedish botanist and zoologist, was educated and ended up lecturing at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He was one of the greatest scientists of the century famed for his binomial nomenclature for naming organisms as he became the godfather of modern biology. He had already done for nature what Kant would accomplish for consciousness. But both were still rooted in an ahistorical conviction about both nature and the mind which was only set aside when the classifications and characterizations of both of these very original thinkers were reconfigured as part of a developmental and historically emergent system where classes and rules became convenient conventions for understanding, grasping and using the external world.

Instead of a fixed hierarchy of the social world, Linnaeus developed the concept of a nested hierarchy of kingdoms (later also phyla), classes, orders (later also families), genera, species and taxa (varieties in botany and subspecies in zoology). These were not hierarchies of power and coercion or of formal authority, but simply ways of comprehending the world. Instead of class being used to establish hierarchies, hierarchies were used to establish a method of classification. Similarities counted more than differences, observations counted rather than prejudices.

Further, as in Cambridge, Linnaeus had his Apostles at Uppsala, but they shared a kinship with the apostles who surrounded Jesus rather than those who gathered together in Cambridge. There were seventeen rather than twelve. Many of them sacrificed their lives as they went on dangerous expeditions around the world to gather specimens of plants, animals and minerals. There would have been no Darwin without an earlier Linnaeus and the methods he instilled in his charges for preserving and classifying plants and animals.

When my friends went on their walk in the jungle yesterday, they were paying homage to Linnaeus and the best that the Sanctuary of Truth had to offer even though the university at that time played a critical role between competing forces in society and even though most students attended to obtain, not knowledge, but credentials to enter into unnatural hierarchies.

To be continued.

Power and Influence in Universities

One Sample Feedback on the Previous Blog

  1. Right on, brother Howard. Where and how did the U lose its soul re such matters as tenure, etc., and plagiarism. It is as if those who secretly do not believe in intellectual integrity have grabbed control on the spurious grounds that making judgments of quality and/or honesty are oppressive. Every plagiarism case I brought — 2 in 40 yrs. of teaching — was thwarted by ad hominem accusations of being “harsh” (sic) and mean to these poor students. It was as if having called out the Emperor for nakedness had been the crime, not the student’s brazen behavior!!

 

Universities are not supposed to be about power. But they are most definitely; primarily one kind of power – creative energy. They are not supposed to be about power as coercion.

Let me approach the issue from a very angular take. As some know, in my youth I was a playwright and drama critic. The play I wrote as an undergraduate, Root Out of Dry Ground, was scheduled for a professional production when the last and only professional theatre in Toronto folded just before my play was to go on stage. Instead, the play was produced and directed by Robert Gill at Hart House, the University of Toronto theatre. It was the first original play put on in that theatre ever. The drama was also put on the English courses in faculties such as medicine, dentistry and engineering. I was an ersatz playwright.

Unknowingly, I had joined the school of angry young male playwrights. I blamed institutions. I blamed bureaucracies. They had failed humanity. As one character puts it in David Mamet’s play, Glengarry Glen Ross,  “I swear…it’s not a world of men…it’s not a world of men, Machine…it’s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders…what it is, it’s a fucked-up world…there’s no adventure to it.”

David Mamet is a real playwright known perhaps best for his plays and movie scripts such as the one above and Speed the Plow. They are written as poetic prose extracted from everyday speech in the best of the Irish dramatic tradition – like Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Glengarry Glen Ross opens in a booth in a Chinese restaurant with Shelly Levene breathlessly, in defensive stuttering, talking to John Williamson.

LEVENE

John…John…John.  Okay.  John.

John.  Look:

(pause)

The Glengarry Highland’s leads,

you’re sending Roma out.  Fine.

He’s a good man.  We know what he

  1. He’s fine.  All I’m saying,

you look at the board, he’s

throwing…wait, wait, wait, he’s

throwing them away, he’s throwing

the leads away.  All that I’m

saying, that you’re wasting leads.

I don’t want to tell you your job.

All that I’m saying, things get

set, I know they do, you get a

certain mindset… A guy gets a

reputation.  We know how this…all

I’m saying, put a closer on the job.

There’s more than one man for the…

Put a…wait a second, put a proven

man out…and you watch, now wait a

second–and you watch your dollar

volumes…You start closing them

for fifty ‘stead of twenty-

five…you put a closer on the…

All I am saying is that what Williams had accused him of is true – that he is throwing his leads away and developing a reputation for not living up to his potential as a more contemporary Death of a Salesman. Mamet’s black noir movie scripts, such as Heist, are similarly more cold than cool, cruel to the point that compassion has been pushed over a cliff. In his plays and scripts about distress and disquiet, turmoil and trouble, confrontation and contestation, words are used as weapons to conduct verbal warfare. When words become armaments, we are in the realm of coercion, of corrupting power rather than the creative power that propels words used to influence. When language is used to sell rather than persuade, we are into spin and propaganda rather than education.

The currency then becomes money rather than ideas; material influence supersedes intellectual influence. As Williamson puts it in the play:

Money. A fortune. Money lying on the ground. Murray? When was the last time he went out on a sit? Sales contest? It’s laughable. It’s cold out there now, John. It’s tight. Money is tight.

In 2010, Mamet published an iconoclastic treatise on drama called Theatre precisely because he had come to believe that it is theatricality that counts and not something esoteric like “drama.” A theatre is a marketplace where a play is sold to an audience – nothing less and, more importantly, nothing more. His treatise was decidedly anti-authority and anti-theory – of acting, of directing, of writing. In the following year, he published another volume, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture that was decidedly anti-authentic as well as anti-formal authority. The themes, though not yet given the clear light of day or a searchlight focus, were adumbrated in one of his most famous plays written two decades earlier, Oleanna, about political correctness and a college professor falsely accused of sexual harassment in the context of a war of students against faculty, administrators against scholars, and, most of all, the war of the sexes. Then he laid out the sides of the battle.

Twenty years later, he overtly took sides – with Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, with those who use power to reduce rather than seduce women and, perhaps, even worse, portray them as willing accomplices in a male unilateral exertion of power. In Mamet’s eyes, the real victims are not the men of power nor those who play along in the game of sexual warfare. The victims are the once prominent authentic and formal authority figures, now hapless and careworn, a scholar with an international reputation and a chair of his department or even a dean, now reduced to a piece of flotsam tossed around by the competing powers of the zeitgeist – a populist uprising in the name of either self-rule or rule by a figure of ostensible coercive power.

Both institutional formal authority and authentic scholarly authority are discarded into the garbage heap of history as the Donald Trumps and the Vladimir Putins, the Recep Tayyip Erdoğans and the Xi Jinpings, the Viktor Orbáns and Mateusz Morawieckis, purge mandarins and verbally assault civil society opponents (some do much more) in the battle to re-assert male authority in a threatening egalitarian world. The scepticism at the heart of academia has been turned against itself to deny the value of climate change or democracy, the rule of law or the rule of wisdom. In this larger story of the competition to grasp the brass ring of power, the university is shunted aside as irrelevant to the course of history. Instead of doctors of philosophy advising political leaders, their place is taken by spin doctors. Instead of a search for peace and prosperity, both are easily sacrificed to the need for either a circus to preoccupy the mind or a war as the ultimate technique of distraction to avert one’s attention from domestic scandals.

How did we enter this age of male paranoia? How did the university contribute to its own increasing irrelevance? How did the values of a steady hand and wise foresight become displaced by vacillation and volatility, self-evident contradiction and chaos, malaise and unrest? How did emotion displace reason, impulse displace reflection and consideration, and ego displace the responsibility o government for the sake of welfare and wellbeing of society?

The seeds were sewn when the university was at its zenith as a Sanctuary of Method, as an institution dedicated to providing disciplined professionals in a number of fields that could serve as social leaders – whether developing an expertise and mastery of a body of English literature and the techniques for dissecting and understanding that body of creative work, or in professions such as medicine and law. The university was no longer a place for amateurs, a place to cultivate and instill the values and norms of a ruling class, but an elite of expertise that could serve to guide the world. The university as a Sanctuary of Truth in defence of a faith had been displaced by the university as a Sanctuary of Method.

The process began when philosophers, beginning with René Descartes in the context of the emergence of the modern nation-state as a revival of the ancient Hebrew nation during the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, sought to ground knowledge in certainty rather than faith. The beginning of the end came three hundred years later with the publication of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Proof and Alfred Tarski’s indefinability theory in the 1930s during the zenith of the Sanctuary of Method. What began to end with Gödel and Tarski initially started with Descartes.

Descartes, the father of a coordinate system so critical to statistical analysis, of analytic geometry and infinitesimal calculus, all incidentally developed from his original interest in advancing his early profession as a military engineer, of the first principle of philosophy that doubt itself established the certainty of existence and thought since if one doubted, there had to be an individual doing the doubting and the doubting was itself an act of thinking. Instead of placing Aristotelian final causes on a pedestal, he smashed the quest as idolatrous and adopted the conviction of absolute freedom to allow reason to draw its own conclusions.

The history of that quest with its many manifestations came to a full stop with Kurt Gödel. No system of thought with its axioms and proofs could demonstrate its own consistency. This was the first half of his incompleteness theorem. From a system of axioms one can develop theorems expressed as effective procedures or algorithms so crucial to the modern information age (which I will deal with in a separate blog). However, no system could be complete in itself. Many academics became convinced that the only value of a theoretical system was its use value since the goal of establishing a solid theoretical foundation for certainty that was both complete and consistent was impossible. Nor, as Alfred Tarski subsequently determined, could any system be based on any effort to define truth since truth was proven to be undefinable. Lacking any fundamental foundation in consistency, coherence, completeness and clarity, the walls around the elite leadership in society eroded and, by the 1960s, virtually everywhere the university as a Sanctuary of Method was displaced by a university as a Social Service Station dedicated to a social problem-solving agenda rather than a self-contained collective of systems dedicated to setting standards for society.

But how did we get from a Sanctuary of Method and a Social Service Station view of the university to our current model? And what is that model? And what happened to authority, power and influence in the process?

 

To be continued.