Flat White

The concept of the university

21 June 2018

5:32 PM

21 June 2018

5:32 PM

David Long writes:

In the December of 2001, a group of about 70  past students gathered in the St John’s College Chapel at the University of Queensland to pay their last respects to their teacher, Dr Richard Staveley.

Dick Staveley had returned to Australia in 1967 from the United States where he had taught for ten years after being awarded his PhD in political science at the University of Chicago. His supervisor was the late Professor Leo Strauss.

With his return, Staveley brought the Socratic teachings of natural right for which priceless gift the Philistines at UQ made him pay dearly. Nevertheless, thanks to him the University of Queensland was the only campus in Australia where a proper study of the Great Books of the Western tradition was possible. Since Staveley’s death, Australian universities have shut their minds firmly against that knowledge, as ANU has recently proved.

Staveley understood well, the problem of introducing a liberal education into Australian universities. He left the bulk of his estate on his death to the University of Chicago in order to further that institution’s liberal arts programme. He had paid his own way to Chicago in the 1950s and worked part-time to fund his post-graduate education.

It is unlikely that the Ramsay Centre’s plan will ever materialise in an Australian university for universities will never surrender their right to appoint academics just like themselves. However, a more practical and even cheaper alternative might be for the Ramsay Centre to fund scholarships to specific US Universities which offer liberal arts degrees. Thanks to Staveley’s work, there are Australians in the US who are teaching these courses who could advise which campuses were suitable.

During the Springbok tour of 1971, the radical left at UQ called for a moratorium on all classes. A mass meeting was called in the Great Court to discuss the topic “My Concept of a University”. Staveley was ‘volunteered’ by one of his students to speak:

My Concept of a University, Dr R W Staveley, July 1971:

My official notification that I had been co-opted to participate in this symposium reached me only on Friday last. Had I been invited to speak I would have declined, because I don’t believe any good purpose can come from such public expositions. Plato showed this convincingly in his dialogue – The Apology of Socrates – and I would commend that dialogue to the listeners. It is still relevant to man, as is the real apology of Socrates, The Republic, addressed to those who might understand as well as hear. The Platonic message, I believe, was eternal, unlike contemporary publicists who purport to speak for their times – for what is allegedly relevant now. Accessibility to the great minds – to the great philosophers – is I believe the key to what a university is. For bureaucratic and historical factors this is no longer possible constitutes the dilemma of our times I shall try to suggest in my remarks.

I should have preferred not to have been a participant: seeking clarity on such issues is properly the work of the classroom, not of the forum or the “Great Court”. A genuine dialectic is possible only in the classroom – and indeed only in classes where the number and quality of the students is compatible with the questioning and answering whereby student and teacher may jointly come to some understanding, if not of the Truth at least of wherein it lies.


In the Republic of Plato, Socrates is asked to define justice and he builds a city-in-speech. No just city was known to him to exist or to have existed. Cicero, however, when confronted with the problem of defining the just regime described the Roman Constitution. Edmund Burke followed Cicero’s practice and described the British Constitution. The task of defining a university would be made easier if the course available to Cicero and Burke was still open. I don’t believe it is. That doesn’t force us to the Platonic alternative, because, while no university currently exists, universities have existed and did produce ‘universal’ men. This may even have been true of Australia, as it may have been true of U.S.A. in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If it once was true it is an empirical fact that no university properly understood exists in Australia today and only marginally in U.S.A. As Australia has inherited the English tradition and U.S.A. the German – i.e. positivism and historicism respectively, it follows that England and Germany are similarly deficient in universities.

Clark Kerr called the university the multivarstity and it’s no accident that he did so as a university administrator. While their generic name, university, survives – the multivarsity is the more apt name. Multus replaces unus – many replaces one – and the turning around many things replaces the turning around or towards one thing. The universal – or comprehensive view of the whole – has yielded way to many views, facets or areas of specialization. The name university survives only as an historical legacy. These so-called institutions of higher learning are bureaucracies of many departments, indistinguishable in purpose from colleges of advanced education under different names. The multivarsity is variously administered – but whether democratically, by the majority vote of staff or faculty or by a central authority such as Vice-Chancellor and Professorial Board – the unifying principle bringing the various departments together is primarily an administrative requirement.

This is, however, not primarily due to the practical requirements of day to day administration of applications to the Australian Universities Commission, of appointing heads of departments and so on. Administration requires decisions and some mode of deciding must be established. In the multivarsity the administrative procedure – the bureaucratization – is at root but a reflection of the principle which separates branches of knowledge into departments, faculties and/ or schools. It represents a division of labour. We may ignore the applied fields, like medicine, accountancy, engineering, education, law, physiotherapy, social sciences and the life sciences. At one level the distinguishing principle – or classificatory principle – of the multivarsity seems to be the lifeless – as against the life-bearing.

This is not fully so. The principle of classification implies a common element or denominator, namely, science and the scientific method; and the genesis of behavioural patterns in inorganic and organic matter and within the latter a subdivision between the less complex and the more complex – who are characterised by speech or other societal properties. Man, that is, is only a different degree of organic matter from the subject matter of botany and zoology and the social and life sciences differ only in degree from the physical sciences. Such an assumption is at the root of applying the scientific method to the understanding of human conduct. The division of labour bureaucratised administratively as the multivarsity is for economy of effort in the scientific multivarsity, whose replacement of the university is thus directly related to the replacement of the university is thus directly related to the replacement by the science of philosophy – in its pre-seventeenth century understanding. One might say that the decay of the university represents the triumph of science over philosophy.

This is the goal Hobbes set for himself. You may be perplexed by the fact that there still exist in the multivarsity disciplines called “departments of philosophy”. You will resolve your perplexity by realising that what is now called philosophy is actually another applied science, whose model is mathematics. Philosophy, which was compatible with a “university” – namely Socratic philosophy – is, to the best of my knowledge, not taught as Socratic Philosophy in any department of philosophy in any Australian university. I know of only a few teachers, who as bearers of the Socratic tradition teach in philosophy departments in North America, Britain and France. There are some more who teach in political science departments, but I doubt that there is more than a minute proportion of university teachers who remain sympathetic to the Western tradition of Jerusalem and Athens.

The triumph of science over philosophy shows itself in many forms. Most conspicuously it exists in social science departments, less conspicuously in departments of history – as historiography – in language and literature departments – as linguistics and contemporary literary criticism – and in music – as musicology; and so on. The attempt to analyse human behaviour by the scientific method requires that these relations be overt and quantifiable, of being expressed, mathematically. Statistics – the mathematics that deals with probabilities – is a prerequisite for any analysis of human behaviour, whether individual or social – and algebra is a requirement in many “disciplines” in the social sciences. The tables have been turned. Mathematics is now the master, not the hand-maid of philosophy. The consequences of the triumph of science are many – but they have rightly been called , ‘ the crisis of the West’ and the dilemma of modernity.

Warren Winiarski, in his essay on Machiavelli in Strauss & Cropsey History of Political Philosophy (Rand McNally Chicago: 1963) writes, pp. 247-8:

It has now been obvious for some time that modern man stands at the threshold of a most awesome reckoning. Modern political thought and the actions that flow from is premises have perhaps generated a contradiction of mortal proportions. The crisis of modern thought and modern life appears today only more incontrovertibly, and thus only most obviously, in the confrontation of armaments whose destructive might halts the imagination, rends the mind, and thus tends to paralyse the actions of reasonable men. Modern thought is no longer certain that it has consummated a progress. This uncertainty puts itself out of heart with itself. It looks with great distrust upon its liberation – the liberation that Machiavelli effected.

Winiarski wrote that before the Free Speech Movement began at Berkeley … the overt act from which is dated the beginning of the confrontation between the multivarsity and the polity – a confrontation that could well destroy any remaining freedom the mind still enjoys in the multivarsity.

The erosion of the university of which the radical movements are but a symptom is the consequence of modern science. The spectacular success of the physical sciences which culminated in the production of thermo-nuclear weapons was believed to have applications for the study of man and his conduct. In the application of the methods of science to the study of man’s behaviour a necessary transition occurred in the concept of human nature. Man’s mastery or liberation  – meant he could no longer be regarded as the created thing, as a creature. Mastery and liberation gave man a new perspective – the belief in man’s power made him independent of any supra-human support for his humanity. This is what modern liberalism meant — man was radically free – in the decisive respect of making his own humanity – life, civilised life was a human project – without any directions from God or nature. God and nature are irrelevant. Indeed the modern view denies the possibility of either. God is dead; and nature is replaced by history. If man made his own humanity – if he constructed – as they say in the social sciences – his own value-system – his view of his humanity was dependent on forces prevailing in his historical environment. There could therefore be nothing intrinsically valuable for man as man. Values were relative – what was good for the Nazis was determined by the historical circumstances of Germany – similarly for the U.S.S.R.,  America, and the Tropriand Islanders.

To put it therefore in language that will be clear to any student of social sciences – values are culturally relative. This assertion recognises the decay of the university and the destruction of that on which it was based – the belief in the freedom of the mind. If values are acquired by the forces of history there is no freedom of the will. The liberation of man enslaved him by confining him to the earth to the human all to human. The multivarsity, characterised by the dominance of value-free positivism – by what is the monopoly of thought in social science departments and philosophy departments – cannot give man a reasonable answer to the question still, it seems, common to man, how ought man live? Being value-neutral, departments such as psychology, political science, sociology and economics only purport to give the students training in manipulative techniques. They are the incubators of totalitarianism and anarchism both of which are contemptuous of decency and the pre-modern or old-fashioned liberal virtues. For the student he can succeed in passing the courses only if he applies the techniques and regurgitates the rationale of their validity; for the student activist, positivistic social science leads him to irrational protest, intemperate speech and lawlessness. He imitates the ways, not of respectable men, but of the beast. Contemporary, anarchism like Nazism and Fascism before it and other forms of existentialism are the manifestations of the triumph of science.

The university when it existed taught man proper use of his freedom by teaching him the nature of that freedom; not a liberation or mastery, but a freedom compatible with the dependence of man for the faculty of reason on a benevolent nature – on a Divine Providence. Through reason, man was the most divine creature – God-like – or created after the image of God. Liberal education as formerly understood was the exhortation of men to virtue and decency as the basis of living well according to nature – which intended man to be happy by being just and decent. The replacement of liberal education by the scientific education has denied man’s divine origins and asserted his bestial origins. Civilization and Humanity are alien to him. It is not surprising therefore that having been taught that he is a beast or animal that he should behave like one. As the multivarsity is the breeding ground of the theories, it is not surprising that it is the producer of uncivilized, indecent, illiberal conduct.

Given the source of the discontent – in the triumph of science over common-sense or philosophy – and the virtual monopoly exercised by its proponents – in philosophy, history, and the social science departments – one can only despair for the future. There seems little possibility that the transition effected by Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes and Locke can be reversed. Part of the reason is that these teachers are no longer themselves accessible to students. To the extent to which they are accessible to students it is by way of commentaries which interpret their teaching from the vantage point of the contemporary peak in the scientific progress of knowledge. In most departments they are simply “old-hat” and in consequence the students are denied the opportunity of discovering their attempts to answer the Socratics, Plato and Aristotle. The contemporary student is instead presented with the scientific method as a fait accompli.

Science and its method are dogmatically accepted and the dogma is taught as part of the catechism of social science that the disciples must regurgitate to pass examinations and aspire to admission to the closed profession. In social science departments, not only in Australia, but most conspicuously in Australia – a teacher has to be a member of the Union – he must subscribe to the positivistic orthodoxy in order to secure an appointment – and subsequent promotion. This closed shop, union-practise, ensures the inviolability of the sacred dogma – that they will be passed on to new generations of students who must not, nor cannot question the articles of faith, because they are denied access to the outstanding minds of the past. The reading of these philosophers in an attempt to understand them on their own level involved a way of reading that is now almost lost. This was a contribution of Scholasticism and liberal education and it survives only marginally – in some universities, mainly in North America.

Such access to the great minds of the past has been replaced by cost-benefit analyses, voter opinion surveys, studies of the pecking order of chickens, the behavioural patterns of the natives in the highlands of New Guinea, and the caste structure of Indian economic development culture and civilization. The only justification for the proliferation of these value-less courses in the multivarsity is that mysteriously they hold the key to human conduct – as though chickens behave like statesmen and professors, and primitive savages behave like businessmen and politicians; and that mere opinion is the same as reason or understanding.

In Australia there is little hope of developing universities, rather than continuing multivarsities. It is on such a development, of allowing the mind freedom from positivistic orthodoxy, that the possibility could exist for a revival of liberal democracy in Australia after its brief existence in the nineteen-forties. Of course, the survival of liberal democracy depends ultimately on the U.S.A. The situation in Australia is made worse by the lack of a liberal tradition. This is not unrelated to the failure of the universities to provide its theoretical defence.

Regrettably the peculiar mode of governing the Australia universities by professorial boards and professorial heads of departments aggravates this defect. First of all the mode of selection of professors by their peers has resulted, with few notable exceptions, in a remarkably undistinguished peerage. This, in itself, would not be disastrous if the professorial heads of departments where magnanimous men; but magnanimity is usually associated with brilliance of intellect. The professorial head of department virtually controls appointments to his department because of the composition of selection committees; and in the fields most sensitive to the liberal spirit this practice ensures undeviating adherence to orthodoxy, an adherence sanctioned by the head of department’s role in promotions and bestowing the other perquisites within this largess. I fear that this combination of the power of the professorial board and its club rules of mediocre orthodoxy afford little hope for the liberal way of life.

It is the dominance of the positivistic orthodoxy that is the most damning: the character of a university is decided by those departments which should sponsor scholarly and reflective inquiry into the nature of man as distinct from scientific research into his overt behaviour patterns on the tacit assumption that he is descended from the beasts. This abdication from common sense constitutes the crisis of the universities. Only a crisis of greater proportions can conceivably force the universities back to common sense. This is unlikely. The crisis can only be resolved by positivistic philosophy and social science recognising and admitting their guilt: that far from solving the problem of modern man, they are responsible for it. Unable by their own conditioning and indoctrination to understand the source of the crisis they are equally denied by the value-free tenets of their dogma the ability to propose a way out.

If somehow some social scientists sense that something is wrong, being thus precluded from knowing its source, they feel committed to irrational action inconsistent with the trans-political character of the University. They thereby invite the repression which Aristotle feared and which prompted him to close the Lyceum, lest the city sin a second time against philosophy.  Today there is this crucial difference that the real threat to the remaining freedom of the university comes from within; from those people who by denying the cognitive status of values cannot afford any reasonable defence of its freedom. To paraphrase the words of a man whose name is anathema to positivistic social scientists:

The crisis of the (university) liberal democracy has become concealed by a ritual which calls itself methodology or logic. This almost wilful blindness to the crisis of liberal democracy is part of that crisis. No wonder then that the new (social) – political – science has nothing to say against those who unhesitatingly prefer surrender, that is, the abandonment of liberal democracy.

Only a great fool would call the new social science diabolic: it has no attribute peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle and colourful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.

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