Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (2)

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

W.H. Auden

One of the most disturbing trends these days is the ease with which the university is getting "incorporated" into broader society, which is in turn fixated on "economic growth". It seems as though the only recognized limits to growth are environmental, whether in terms of resources or pollution. (If you really think they constrain corporate decision-making you might add political concerns like human rights.) The idea that "the truth" might also constrain human organization seems not to be considered. Indeed, the assumption seems to be that truth itself must be subordinated to the larger social project. This is what the rise of the corporate state means for the university. The pursuit of truth becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself.

"Whatever satisfies the soul is truth," said Walt Whitman many years ago. One way to institutionalize this insight is to ensure that there are places in society where individuals are free to satisfy their curiosity. That is what "higher learning" was supposed to be. If you want to know how life works, you have to provide a setting in which biologists can satisfy their own curiosity, not one in which they can find the cures that pharmaceutical companies can profit from selling. If you want to know what physical matter is made of, you need to let physicists satisfy their curiosity about it, not get them to make a you a bigger bomb than your enemy.

That's not to say we don't need cures and bombs. (I'm willing to discuss these things.) It's just that we also need to satisfy our curiosity. We need to make things work, yes, but we also need to know the truth, and the pursuit of truth is only that if its not subordinated to other ends. If it is organized on some other logic, it stops being what it is. Once we granted that policy makers and business leaders knew enough about knowledge to organize our universities, I fear, we gave up on one of the central projects of civilization.

Knowledge is in danger of no longer being a valued for what it is: a state of mind, a condition of the human spirit. And knowers are accordingly becoming merely another class of "professionals" whose dignity depends not on the clarity of their thinking, but the "incisiveness", as Heidegger put it, of their "ongoing activities".

T.S. Eliot once warned against a sense of tradition that demands at once too much and too little work on the part of poets.

While, however, we persist in believing that a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness, it is not desirable to confine knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity.

In these entrepreneurial times, it is almost impossible to articulate the possibility that our society will be worse off if we do not have a place where sensitive, intelligent but not very effectual people can cultivate their interests, follow their inclinations. Clearly, the current trend is to conceive of knowledge as that which can be examined and finally published—something that can be "produced", manufactured. The universities are becoming just another place for ambitious, "highly motivated" people to succeed. The importance of not encroaching on that particular form of laziness that is also a kind of receptivity escapes us, it seems.

The state currently reserves the right to keep people busy. It really should consider the value of letting them think.

1 comment:

Presskorn said...

I think most academics acknowlegde the problem, and yet as Phillipa Foot once pointed out "It is remarkable how utilitarianism tends to haunt even those of us who do not believe in it."...

PS: Thanks for the W.H. Auden-poem...