Monday, October 01, 2012

The University

"Your finer senses are protected, the eye by bone socket, etc."
Ezra Pound (ABC, p. 82)

Universities are sites of 'fine sensation', let's say. They are places where one can cultivate and exercise what Jonathan Mayhew calls "receptivity". Just as the eye needs the skull to protect it, so too do the finer receptors (and even 'motors', the tiny engines) of our minds need to be protected from social pressures of various kinds. We can ask: do universities protect our finer senses?

These last few posts might sound like a complaint about the state of the university. They are, at least, an expression of concern. (I'm no longer employed at a university, so I am not really in a position to complain.) The idea that "the work of knowing" is an exercise of highly sensitive mental faculties, and that scholars must therefore be "protected" by their institutions of higher learning seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor. What's so special about academics? people now ask in all seriousness. Why should they have special protections?

The answer is as simple as Pound's truism about the eye. Scholars have been entrusted with the task of knowing complicated things, of understanding difficult issues. To do this they need to keep their minds "open"; they need a certain amount of naiveté about social life. They cannot continuously worry about the social relevance of their work, the security of their job, their ability to find funding for the next project, even to publish, and also care properly for their objects of knowledge.

The thick skin they develop to deal with these pressures necessarily implies reduced sensitivity.

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