Why Universitas?

Mihhail Lotman is a member of the Semiotics Research Group at the University of Tartu and Professor of Semiotics and Literary Theory at Tallinn University. In Tartu, Lotman also teaches in the international master’s programme in semiotics.

Higher education is under pressure worldwide. This is especially true of the traditional European model of the universitas. It’s claimed to be outdated, not meeting the expectations of the government, economy, or society as a whole. What’s the use of spending 3+2+4 of the best years of your life, when it doesn’t guarantee a good income or an interesting job?

We see more and more young and successful people who haven’t attended university or have left their studies still becoming really rich and not just that — many of them have managed to break through in the world of the most cutting-edge technology.

Goethe's Faust

Goethe’s Faust. A poster by R.R. Holst from 1918. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The problem is not quite new. As Heinrich Faust, PhD admitted in frustration many centuries ago:

I have, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.

Faust has completed studies in each of the four classical faculties. Still he quips indignantly that no one of these would bring about wisdom. Faust is absolutely right. The university does not make you wise (In fact, I’m not aware if the affirmative could be said of any place at all).

In modern society a university has three roles, all inseparably bound together. First, society needs specialists. We need doctors, engineers, architects, teachers, etc. These can only be prepared through a college-like institution. This function of a university is so visible that many people, especially officials, consider it to be the most important. Education functionaries’ logic is simple: for “optimization”, it has to be discovered which kinds of specialists are needed by the society, and then a respective order must be declared, according to which the necessary specialties would be favoured and the not so necessary ones constrained. The fear of duplicating subjects comes from the same source.

The second function is not so obvious and the functionaries might not like it at all. A university is not just a teaching factory; it is an important social institution as well. Although autocratic societies have tried to exert governmental control over universities, the latter aspire to be the carriers and creators of free spirit even there. Ideally, a university would be a fully autonomous and independent social entity. Universities need intellectual freedom and radiate it into society on an even larger scale.

The carriers of intellectual freedom are called intellectuals. In a way, an intellectual is the opposite of a specialist. A specialist knows the business and is acutely aware of the limits of his or her narrow specialty: an oncologist doesn’t repair teeth, etc. An intellectual, on the other hand, often gets into trouble while defining his or her true vocation. Determining limits turns out to be even harder task: a philosopher is not ashamed to criticize a tax reform, and an expert of Slavic philology might authoritatively discuss the hot spots of foreign politics. Critical-mindedness is something intellectuals have in common. One might ask: why do we need such parasites?

Society needs intellectuals like somebody who takes care of his or her appearance needs a mirror. The intellectual’s function is exactly that — criticism of society. The university supplies society with alternatives. This goes for the ideas themselves, as well as the styles in which they are expressed. The university teaches society to see and analyse itself in new categories, not like the inert mass or functionaries. The university brings about new discourses.

Authoritarian societies try to cut down this function of universities, but in advanced democracies it’s really respected. In the United States, the most fervent criticism towards the government’s policies in both the homeland and abroad comes from the universities. The state, the society, the entire Western civilization is not criticized just by local scholars but by experts from around the world, invited to do just that. Studies in the fields of neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, or postcolonialism began in various countries but came into bloom in the U.S. I’m a rightist thinker and social activist, but every time I hear someone being labelled a “red professor” I have my doubts if the person uttering these words even understands what a university is.

And the third, the main function: a university is a place where scientists work, teaching others and learning themselves. The unique inspiring atmosphere is extremely important too, something that can only come into being in the climate of evolving science and in communication with the leading scientists of their fields. I’d like to stress it: at its core, the universitas is a scientific centre. If that’s not the case, then it fails to perform the above-mentioned functions, too, boiling down to a vocational school at best. Intellectuals come only from a scientific university as well.

Unlike a specialist who applies yesterday’s or today’s knowledge, a scientist works for the future. It’s not just that vocational studies would stagnate without the progress of science. This closely relates to the university’s first function — preparing specialists. Education functionaries base their specialty orders on the current situation; however, by the time a student graduates the situation — not just in science, but also in the economy and job market — might have changed remarkably. In the beginning of 1990s it seemed as though the most promising fields in Estonia were law and economics, and very soon the job market could not accommodate more of these specialists.

A modern universitas must carry each of these three functions, but in no way may its main function — preparing scientists — suffer. Who is a scientist? We can emanate from the pragmatic conception that the word signifies a person who is professionally active in the field of science and gets paid for it. But I for one would prefer a more romantic notion: a scientist is someone with a thirst for truth, someone who is addicted to truth. Science, just like art, can even be considered to be a form of handicap.

Indeed, a scientist’s priorities are a far cry from the “normal person’s” priorities. Being addicted to truth, just like intelligence and artistic talent, cannot be taught. Where it comes from is unknown, and I have to admit that on its own it can be quite a dangerous thing. It is a quality that is also characteristic of conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, etc. Still, there is something that distinguishes a scientist from this lovely bunch — methodology. A university cannot teach talent and wisdom, but scientific methods for analysis are a different story. It’s not just that the university can teach those — it must, as well as to inspire young people use them.

And a final thought: universities in the mould of the universitas, as a specifically European phenomenon, were formed by the beginning of the Renaissance, and have been an engine of society’s progress since then. The universitas is a place where knowledge is being joined together, not just shared. New synergetic forms arise, ones not anticipated by previous scientific progress — not to mention the plans of the Ministry. Small specialties, useless as they might seem to some economically minded people, might turn out to be the unique piece, crucial for tomorrow’s puzzle to come together.

A shorter version of this post appeared first in the Estonian weekly Eesti Ekspress.

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