by Giles Jackson
“The future is a race between education and disaster”, HG Wells rightly said. With disaster clearly having the upper hand, the question is what can be done. Part of the problem lies with the modern university, which having lost sight of its origins, also lost something vital. We at Liberation Kilt Co intend to do something about it — with or without the blessing of the powers that be!
Progress often unfolds in a mysterious double movement. That is, before we can take a meaningful step forward, we must look to the past for “survival knowledge”. As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
The seeds for the university were planted a thousand years ago, when Paris was the intellectual centre of Europe. In those days, students could either enroll in the Archbishop’s school to become a member of the worldly clergy, or in one of the monasteries on the other side of the River Seine and join a monastic order. The point is that schools symbolically located on either side of the river subscribed to different ideas and drew from different traditions.
Enter Peter Abelard, the intellectual jouster best known for his romantic entanglement with a student, Heloise (for which he was castrated, poor fellow). Unlike his contemporaries, Abelard refused to listen to any single church authority, arguing that the whole of the past should be represented with all of its contradictions. He met with great resistance. In The Story of My Misfortunes he wrote:
“I came at length to Paris, where above all in those days the art of dialectics was most flourishing, and there did I meet William of Champeaux, my teacher, a man most distinguished in his science both by his renown and by his true merit. With him I remained for some time, at first indeed well liked of him; but later I brought him great grief, because I undertook to refute certain of his opinions, not infrequently attacking him in disputation, and now and then in these debates I was adjudged victor. Now this, to those among my fellow students who were ranked foremost, seemed all the more insufferable because of my youth and the brief duration of my studies”.
Chased out of the Archbishop’s school, our hero attracted thousands of students to his freelance lectures. In his absence two principal charges were brought against him: first, that it was contrary to the monastic profession to be concerned with the study of secular books; and, second, that he was ill-qualified to teach theology. They stirred up whatever dignitaries of the church they could find to bolster their case, until finally the king of France himself banned Abelard from teaching “anywhere in the land”. Legend has it that Abelard took to the boughs of an obliging tree, and when the king forbade him from “teaching in the air”, he took to a boat on the Seine. The more his adversaries pursued him, the more his reputation spread — eventually landing him back in the very school that kicked him out (this time as a teacher).
Abelard’s brilliant treatise Sic et Non (For and Against), a compilation of 158 philosophical and theological questions on which there were divided opinions, demonstrated that things were not as clear-cut as everyone thought — both sides could be right at the same time. Rather than attempt to harmonise these apparently inconsistent positions, Abelard laid down rules for their proper investigation: look for ambiguity, check the surrounding context, draw relevant distinctions, and so forth.
While he paid a heavy price for his exploits (including, being forced to burn his book Theologia, accused of treason and found guilty of heresy), his spirit lived on and expressed itself institutionally in the form of the “university”, a new and dynamic place where on any given subject, opposite truths were taught at the same time and place.
In the university, teachers would duke it out right in front of their students — often over questions submitted in advance. What was tacitly understood is that everyone is a shareholder in the truth, which is only grasped in fragments. “Hearts united, minds opposed” might have been their credo. William Blake’s “I shall not cease from mental fight” captures the spirit perfectly.
This acceptance of the paradoxical nature of truth was revolutionary because it prevented the enslavement of the mind to one school of thought. It created an opening, an opportunity for students to reject what is known (“either-or”) and beat their own path by declaring “Neither, nor!”
In this context the modern university is unrecognisable. In lieu of mental fights we have mental breakdowns. Debates are rare, extracurricular affairs, which is a great shame given the myriad of benefits they confer, most obviously the cultivation of advocacy, empathy and other traits vital to any functioning democracy. Less obvious is the debilitating effect the absence of systematic debate has on the health of society at large.
Everywhere we look, factions are convinced they’re wholly right, denying a grain of truth in opposing arguments. The result is distortion of truth by both sides – “hearts divided, minds opposed”. A big lesson of the 20th century is that we are naturally so tyrannical, so absolutist in our thinking that mind must be opposed by mind.
In an ideal world, our institutions of higher learning would re-found themselves on this higher logic. Only they won’t, so our plan is to sponsor pop-up debates pitting professors, students and experts against one another. Granted, it won’t be as exciting as watching Red Bull daredevils fly over volcanoes in spandex wingsuits. Although when kilts are involved, anything can happen.
The writer is a professor and co-founded Liberation Kilt Co.