Peter Munz

The idea of the university in a free market society

The Government’s proposed review of tertiary education countenances and encourages a highly reprehensible process: the amalgamation of universities and polytechnics. Such an amalgamation will inevitably wipe out the academic education available in universities.

When students are treated as “customers” and what they learn as “commodity”, the sheer pressure of supply and demand will transform what is left of our universities into polytechnics. As Wyatt Creech puts it: “It should not be a matter of where it is taught but whether it is good or not.” Such a comment betrays a remarkable misunderstanding of the differences between tertiary academic and tertiary technical education, and assumes that all tertiary education is no more than instruction in certain skills.

The Government’s proposal is completely irresponsible because it will deprive our society of the academic education desperately needed in a free market society dedicated to economic growth. In order to facilitate economic growth, most traditional cultural restraints have had to be abandoned. Academic education is something like a substitute for the culture we have lost. Culture or a substitute are needed not just as an adornment for our leisure, but as an essential support for the disorientation which results from humankind having too large a brain for its own good.

The proposal has nothing to do with right-wing or left-wing politics. It is simply based on ignorance of the human condition and of the requirements necessitated by a free market society. The Government’s ignorance is not only irresponsible, but perverse. First it creates the culture-free conditions which facilitate economic growth and make universities necessary, then it turns round and does its level best to ensure that universities are converted into polytechnics – leaving society doubly impoverished. Wyatt Creech is quietly sawing off the branch on which his Government has made us sit.

Let me briefly explain first why cultures or substitutes for culture are essential to the human animal; secondly, why traditional monolithic cultures had to be abandoned to allow economic growth; and thirdly, why and how universities are different from polytechnics and why it is essential for this difference to be preserved.

In order to live in this world, we need information about the world. But the tantalising fact about information is that it is never, by itself, sufficient. It has to be sorted, assessed and interpreted. Human beings, alone of all animals, need paradigms for dealing with information. The outsized human brain picks up too much information and in order to orient themselves, human beings need paradigms which interpret such information. If information were strictly “domain specific” and limited, one would merely need to calculate how to use it. But where there is a surfeit, as with humans, calculation is not enough. One also needs judgement to sort and interpret. Judgement is required when one has to go beyond the information given.

To take a complex example from contemporary public life. There are good arguments for the removal of tariffs, because cheap imports will free money for investment which will create new jobs. However, there are equally good arguments telling us to keep tariffs, because existing jobs will be protected as will the social fabric and the moral code which go with job security and comparative immobility. (“It takes a village to bring up a child,” as Hillary Clinton keeps reminding us.)

Both arguments, though incompatible, cannot be resolved by mere calculation. A paradigm is required within which we can assess which way we ought to go. What is in question here is not the information, but the meaning of the information and how to evaluate it. Put bluntly, there are choices, but to choose one must judge. Calculation alone gets us nowhere.

The archaeological record shows that until relatively recently all human beings lived in groups which had cultures. The invention of culture was an exercise in damage control, enabling people to discriminate between the masses of information they were picking up. The culture provided the paradigm in terms of which information could be categorised, evaluated and interpreted.

In cultures which acted as authoritative guides to their members, all that was required by way of education was the acquisition of skills. This was done usually in workshops or by the family. In the Middle Ages, when such societies had become much larger and the skills required more complex, special institutions of tertiary education were created. These were called universities, but were really polytechnics because they provided no more than instruction in the skills of law and theology. There was no call for other more academic education to cultivate judgement, because a single, fairly monolithic culture was present and taken for granted as a backdrop against which the information available was interpreted. The presence of the culture empowered people to form judgements.

But this condition did not last. Two or three hundred years ago, in Europe at first and more slowly elsewhere, it came to be realised that increasing population density would require increased economic growth. It was Adam Smith who first pointed out at the end of the 18th century that cultural traditions stood in the way of economic rationalisation and prevented economic growth because they impeded mobility and new ideas. He advocated that those traditions should be abandoned and added, sagely, that in any case, they were unnecessary because the self-interest of all human beings was sufficient to furnish the social and economic considerations which would make individuals cooperate and so keep societies together.

Not long after, Karl Marx, a more subtle sociologist and a more astute observer, warned that when the traditions of monolithic cultures go, then, no matter how vigorous the economic growth, all that has been solid will melt into thin air. He meant that while thin air is enough for people to calculate their self-interest in financial terms, it is not enough to live on – because it lacks the paradigms which help people to interpret and sort the information they are able to pick up, including information about where their self-interest actually lies.

It was about the time Marx was pondering the problem created by Adam Smith’s followers that universities in the proper sense of the word developed as modern institutions. One can put one’s finger on the fairly precise date of 1871, the year it became possible to take a degree at Oxford and Cambridge without subscribing to the 39 Articles. This abolition of the Church of England’s Charter acknowledged that tertiary academic education was more than an instruction in the skills required for running the state and its church. The first provincial, red-brick universities were also founded during this period.

These newly developing universities were totally different from the mediaeval polytechnic institutions which had taught skills. In the modern world, now that the culture which had presented the paradigm necessary for interpreting information had gone, there had to be a substitute which provided paradigms and showed people many ways in which to assess different paradigms. There is chilling evidence to suggest that people neither can nor will live on the thin air left behind by Adam Smith and, in New Zealand, by the Round Table, the followers of Adam Smith. When the old culture has gone and not enough academic education which might serve as a substitute is available, people are likely to resort to self-help and grasp at the straw of a merely “instant” culture (like instant coffee). They follow revivalist leaders and, desperate for any kind of paradigm, fall victim to all manner of fundamentalist temptation.

The modern university, as it developed from the mid-19th century, was precisely the sort of tertiary institution in which people could learn to cultivate the art of forming judgements as distinct from the mere skill of making calculations from the available information. The modern university thus filled the gap left by a disappearing monolithic culture. A modern university, as distinct from the polytechnic of the Middle Ages, was an institution where paradigms were invented, discussed and evaluated. It was not a place where students enrolled to be instructed in specific skills.

There is no simple formula to cover the many different ways in which universities cultivated such an ability. But briefly, universities were able to do this because they were (ideally). corporate self-governing bodies – that is, communities of scholars and students who pursued their interests and researches and let younger people watch and be initiated into the discussions which took place. When universities became very large, these scholars had to employ a few professional managers to run their affairs. In such universities, the scholars were free to research and to teach. And when their daily schedule was over, they would adjourn to common rooms, pubs or cafés in order to continue their discussions. The core curriculum consisted, apart from the exact sciences, of literary, philosophical, psychological and historical studies. Students read Shakespeare and Dante, Plato and Shaw, Freud and St Thomas Aquinas; and acquired intellectual habits of assessing the place of these writers as well as their relations to each other, historically, aesthetically, sociologically and philosophically.

The cultivation of the art of forming judgements requires that only those subjects be studied in which there are irreconcilable differences of opinion and taste. Students are – and this is the essence of university education as opposed to polytechnic instruction – initiated into the art of inventing and handling paradigms, and learning that raw information by itself assumes a variety of guises according to the paradigm one chooses to interpret it by.

What it comes down to is cultivating choice. It is the hallmark of the uneducated mind to want to have its cake and eat it too. We daily witness our political leaders making artless and arbitrary choices and seeing nothing wrong in pursuing incompatible goals. The art of making choices is not something that can be cultivated and promoted in the uniform tertiary institutions envisaged by Wyatt Creech. Our public life is already riddled with the consequences of uneducated minds and we should diminish their influence, not increase it.

For example, our Government proposes we obey a moral code and, in the same breath, abolishes tariffs, destroying the village communities which alone could help to instil and support this moral code. They have information about the benefit of moral codes, and they have information about the benefit of lower prices. But they have no paradigm which would enable them to handle these disparate pieces of information. Tertiary education provided by proper universities aims to enable people to handle conflicting choices by relating them to paradigms and, moreover, helps people to see how different paradigms are related to one another. By this token, tertiary university education should exclude all instruction in mere skills such as accountancy, nursing, marketing, physical education. The exercise of these important skills requires calculation and nothing but calculation. None of these skills are substitutes for the traditional cultures which have been jettisoned for the sake of economic growth.

Both universities and polytechnics have a vital role to play in tertiary education, but as institutions they must remain distinct. The freer, the more market-oriented a modern society is, the greater the need for a substitute for the culture which had to be jettisoned for the sake of economic growth. The proposal to eliminate the difference between the two institutions is irresponsible. If there were still a unitary culture, as in the Middle Ages, we would only need polytechnics. Modernity, however, requires a substitute for the monolithic culture which once helped people form judgements. The very promoters of modern free market societies ought to be the very people to appreciate the fact that we have to maintain a “culture substitute”. It is chilling to realise that these very promoters are now doing their best to amalgamate universities and polytechnics as if tertiary education consisted of nothing more than instruction in skills.

Peter Munz is Professor Emeritus of History at Victoria University of Wellington.

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