The idea of a university: Newman’s vision and our reality | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 03, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:04 AM, June 03, 2021

The idea of a university: Newman’s vision and our reality

The title of this article invokes the name of an important book by a 19th-century British thinker, John Henry Newman. While the shadow of this great theologian-academician pervades the following musings, my primary objective, however, is to situate Newmanian insights into the very context of ours, and thereby expose the tragic discrepancy between the university that Newman envisioned as ideal and the kind of universities that we have created for ourselves.

Over the past few years, our universities have been in the news mostly for the wrong reasons, and rarely for academic excellence or even for other achievements—be it in sports, theatre, scientific discoveries, or other fruitful human endeavours. Also, who would deny that our universities, like many other institutions here, are increasingly becoming question-sensitive, and suspicious or intolerant of dissenting voices? In universities, difference and heterogeneity should be the norm. But what we often witness instead is the criminalisation of difference and an obsessive quest for homogeneity.

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The university, as Newman ideally conceives it, should exist as a system of engagement with differences, thus ensuring a vibrant intellectual and philosophical culture. The university will not only aim at giving a comprehensive coverage of available knowledge areas, but will also allow apparently conflicting thought systems to operate with their full energy. The university will encourage imagination of alternatives, and establish a congenial atmosphere for the birth of new, hitherto-unknown ideas and skills.

Newman emphasises the essential need for interconnectedness of diverse branches of knowledge. He conceives knowledge as an integrated whole, and recommends an interdisciplinary or "holistic" approach as a basic pedagogical principle. Rather than making students capable only of doing some particular job or producing mere professionals or technical hands, the university, according to Newman, produces "liberally educated gentlemen" (and gentlewomen) who are endowed with "[a] cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life." The university trains humans to think, "to reason well in all matters," and aims at a general, comprehensive, holistic development—that is, formation of character—of a person, the value of which is often undermined in the prevailing social and market parameters. Newman treats it as a danger when people become synonymous with their professions. A practical end that he assigns to university courses is training good members of society/humanity; their goodness, according to him, would bring with it a power and grace to every work and occupation which they undertake, enabling them to be far more "useful" than what the utilitarian capitalist market can conceive of them.

When we relate Newmanian insights to the present state of our university campuses, and the education and research climate there, we encounter things that are remarkably inconsistent or incompatible with the idea of a university. The entire arrangement appears to be plagued by limited vision, greed for immediate material profits, and an unholy nexus of local political elements and academic opportunists, resulting in a steep decline in intellectual and research standards as well as an increasingly shrinking space for academic freedom.

Since there are sustained attempts at valorising and legitimising bureaucratic invasions and reproduction of corporate values in our universities, we need to remain alert to diverse hegemonies hatched and launched by different establishments. But perhaps the most serious threat comes from within—from the formidable presence of people in our universities who are not academically inclined and almost clueless about Newman's "liberal education", "philosophical habit of mind" or "inner eyes"… who are not in search of knowledge and ideas, and whose eyes are rather fixed on immediate material rewards and lucrative positions. 

Let us not indulge in the illusion that joining a university automatically makes us academicians or intellectuals. No doubt, we become "technically" intellectual by dint of our university positions, but is it really that easy to acquire a "philosophical temper" and move beyond the status of an academic clerk? The responsibility of professors should ultimately transcend the boundary of their respective disciplines in order to engage with the larger issues, but a good number of our university teachers fail to understand the enormity of their roles and feel no qualms about being flatterers of people in positions of power; tragically, gratification of their personal greed comes at a huge cost, the cost being the university itself. This unspeakable servility also helps to perpetuate oppressive mechanisms and unjust structures in our socio-political arrangement.

A university must retain its autonomous character so that students and professors with diverse ideas and affiliations can operate naturally; so that they can teach, learn and research freely; so that meaningful interactions of diverse strands become possible; so that new ideas may be born, and higher ideas and ideals may be pursued; so that its residents know that there is life, there is reality, and there is meaning beyond material affluence and mindless consumerism.

Autonomy is a fundamental requisite of a university. You cannot run a university like a business house or corporate farm, or a military or civil bureaucracy. If you do so, it will diminish the culture of criticality and individuality, rendering a university intellectually inert and dysfunctional. Amid the frenzied dance of intolerants everywhere, a big hope of humanity lies in the universities—the importance of retaining the legacy of debates and critical thinking, the tradition of asking questions, and the passion for examining ideas, ideals and systems and exercising rational choices should, therefore, be understood and encouraged with more urgency than ever before.

We also need to understand the university's essential connection with, and disconnection from, the lived life (or the reality around); it has the responsibility to contribute to the material developments and needs of the present, but at the same time it should function as an "alternative social space" that creates and circulates new ideas and knowledge, and sets a higher ethical and intellectual tone for the community to aspire for. The university thus walks along with the society, and it also shows the society a way forward.

To what extent we would allow corporate, bureaucracy and other outside forces or neo-colonial institutions to intervene in deciding the curricula and character of the university is a real question we need to address. The fundamentals of a centre of learning like a university include critical pedagogy with deep politico-ethical sensibilities, its epistemological pluralism, and of course a wise and enabling administration nurturing an objective and democratic ambience for students, researchers and teachers to flourish as active participants in the cultivation and dissemination of diverse knowledge traditions. Academic engagement is a deeply political issue; it thus requires a critical consciousness so that you can apprehend power relations in the society, state and beyond, and determine your own role necessary to break the pattern of domination. Regrettably, some of our teachers are not "political" in the above-mentioned sense; instead, a significant number of them function as some sort of agents of mainstream political parties for their selfish gains, and their political bias is often reflected in their treatment of students and colleagues—a situation which is not only shameful but also dangerous.

Our universities are still alive because of the sincere and sustained efforts of some committed teachers and researchers in the campuses, among other things. We shall, however, be witnessing a tragic demise of our universities unless we come forward passionately for a genuine healing. It is not that what I am saying here is something new; you are, in fact, well aware of the miserable reality, but it is very important to remind ourselves frequently of these issues, and it is important not to become helpless witnesses of the slow, tragic death of our universities.

Let us remain academically focused and simultaneously build up a collective consensus so that our universities do not turn into desperate playgrounds for state and corporate fantasies, so that various hegemonic forces from outside academia may not ravage our universities irrevocably.


Maswood Akhter, PhD, is a professor at the Department of English, Rajshahi University.


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