Saturday, 24 January 2015

Visions of a university

I've just finished John Williams' Stoner, a truly brilliant novel. The protagonist, William Stoner, leads an apparently unexceptional life, much of it occupied with his work as a lecturer at a small university in the states.

Of course no life is really unexceptional; yet, at the same time, all lives have a mundanity, a prosaic-ness that art very rarely manages to capture - as soon as a life appears in a novel, for instance, it inevitably loses its mundanity and becomes something special through the act of being observed. This problem seems to me to be one of the major obstacles that novelists face when they try and write truthfully - J.M. Coetzee manages it brilliantly and here too Williams' story of this ordinary life is a triumph of truthful story-telling.

The story also holds a special resonance for me, given that much of my life is occupied with my work as a lecturer in a small university.

The quotes below are all from Stoner:

... Masters, holding aloft a hard-boiled egg from the free lunch as if it were a crystal ball, said, 'Have you gentlemen ever considered the question of the true nature of the University? Mr Stoner? Mr Finch?'
    Smiling, they shook there heads.
    'I'll bet you haven't. Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free weill and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful, They're just around the corner, in the next corridor; they're in the next book, the one you haven't read, or in the next stack, the one you haven't got. But you'll get to it someday. And when you do - when you do...'
    'And you, Finch. What's your idea?' He held up his hand. 'You'll protest you haven' thought of it. But you have. Beneath that bluff and hearty exterior there works a simple mind. To you, the institution is an instrument of good - to the world at large, of course, and just incidentally to yourself. You see it as a kind of spiritual sulphur-and-molasses  that you administer every fall to get the little bastards through another winter; and you're the kindly old doctor who benignly pats their heads and pockets their fees.'
   Finch laughed again and shook his head. 'I swear, Dave, when you get going -'
   Masters put the rest of the egg in his mouth, chewed contentedly for a moment, and took a long swallow of beer. 'But you're both wrong,' he said. 'It is an asylum or - what do they call them now? - a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incomptent. Look at the three of us - we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don't we? We know well...'
    '... We're all poor Toms, and we're a-cold.... And so providence, or society, or fate, or whatever name you want to give it, has created this hovel for us, so that we can go in out of the storm. it's for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that's just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn't give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive. And we shall survive - because we have to...
   '... But bad as we are, we're better that those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world. We do no harm, we say wheat we want, and we get paid for it; and that's a triumph of natural virtue, or pretty damn close to it.' (p.31)

Some remarks: I like this vision of a university! In particular, I like the explicit unworldliness of this idea of a university. It seems to me that a  university really should be a place outside the main stream of the world, a world where the struggle to survive imposes such dramaticrestrictions on conduct, on thought and on experience. I'm thinking of a world that encompasses the daily grind of the poor labourer through to the efficiencies and strategic-planning of corporate business.

Sadly, of course, I write this as universities (at least in the UK) move ever closer to business models, where the discourse of higher education explicitly treats students as consumers, universities as 'service-providers' and all the rest of it. There is some value in this kind of approach, of course - in the more classical set-up of universities (as described in Stoner) students laboured largely according to the whimsy of their somewhat-God-like lecturers, and if you got a bad one, God help you....

These days, professors do not wield the sort of absolute power that they once held and, in many ways, that is a good thing. The price of this change, though, is that academics now operate in a world of endless checks and balances, limited in their movements by a succession of evaluations and check-lists. It's not just the bad lecturers that are hamstrung, then - where once an inspirational professor could take her students on a journey of learning and discovery that could genuinely change lives, now one fears that such a journey would inevitably transgress the limitations the bureaucracy imposes and be swiftly curtailed.

One might argue the merits of the respective approaches to university life... What worries me about our current state is that the bureaucratic limitations I describe strike at the heart of this "unworldliness" described so beautifully in the quote above. And if (as I think I believe) this "unworldliness" is really at the heart of what a university should be, then this current obsession with evaluation and regulation may destroy the essence of the very thing it tries to preserve.

One more quote of an entirely different flavour; this one is self-explanatory.

He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the o Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living. (p.40)