The University and the Catholic Church are the oldest institutions of the Western world. The University is, therefore, a pre-modern institution deeply marked by the religious and theological traditions of Christian civilization, as well as by the traditions of secular thought that culminated in the Enlightenment with the ideals of modern European culture. These two traditional pillars are founded, in turn, on the legacies of the Greco-Roman civilization and the contributions of Hebraic and Islamic thought. Europe”s expansion and world hegemony, with its complex scientific, political, economic, and technical wealth, and with the contradictory display of exploitation, inventiveness, destruction, and creativity, has deeply marked today”s world.
This unavoidable historical background forces us to rethink the future of university studies in times of unprecedented technological and scientific advances; times of weakness of thought and affective calamity; times of weakness and misfortune that can”t but unchain the sad alliance of promiscuity, anti-intellectualism, and the premature aging of desires, particularly among young people. Attention deficit disorders, bulimia, anorexia, and bipolarities are authentic mirror displays of the discontent of contemporary culture that completely overflows organic valuations.
The formidable inventions of the human mind have weakened the faculty of understanding, the strength of language and the action of bodies. We live dazzled and captured by the demands of the voluptuousness possessed by the profuse saturation of merchandize. Given this situation, it should not surprise us that we mostly talk about the psychotherapeutic, pedagogic, and cosmetic formulas conceived to remedy the affective drift and emotional damage of lifestyles that are now more uniform and less sensitive and intelligent.
I use the concept of “formula” to refer to the fact that, in contemporary society, care of mind and body is delegated to the clinical, technical, media, and pharmacological powers that dictate the norms on how to live, reproduce, and die. The common denominator of these powers is the social relationships produced by the politics of adaptation, conformity, and normalization of capital, which is the Earth”s new master. The growing hegemony of capitalist logic and speech has transformed knowledge, education, health, and food supply by means of its commercial institutions.
In tune with this trend, the first great challenge to university studies, in their most fertile dimension, is how to explain what the cultivation of intelligence based on the millennial legacy of thought really means. Is there still a space for the University to be a center for questioning authority and standard knowledge? Or, on the contrary, must the concept of college itself be revised in such a way that university studies would no longer be regulated and administered by subordinating all forms of knowledge to the cost-effective demand of the infinite reproduction of capital? Contrary to what is normally said, I believe that triviality and indolence, the technification of learning, the low cultural level of students, and administrative policies that seek to make the student a satisfied customer rather than a free thinker, have displaced the experience of thought and research of true college culture. The drift of the University, all over the world, leans toward a polytechnic institution founded almost exclusively on the calculations of technology and financial interests.
Populist pedagogic formulas result in a kind of infantilization of the desire for knowledge. Infantilization indicates, as its root (infans) suggests, an impoverishment of speech that is easily caught between shrewdness and idiocy. Language does not count anymore; nor does the commitment to what we think. Everything seems to be designed to eclipse the basic sense of personal responsibility and, with it, the most elementary acknowledgement of the other. The political concept of “citizen” has been substituted by the economic concept of “consumer”. Thus, the role of the institutions, educational or not, must adhere to the demands of the clientele. Pedagogy has been reduced to guide a population that is increasingly dependent and servile. Here lies the second great challenge for college culture: is it willing to renew its legacy without denying its historical responsibility, and at the same time, not falling into the temptation of becoming an institution that redeems the moral damage of our times?
To sustain the actual image of the technical, thus degraded university, it is essential to bet on the powerful vocation of the human mind for self-deception. Cosmetic formulas must come into play, promoting an appearance, be it of speech, thought, or bodies. It must spread the idea that everything is well and under control. Cosmetic formulas are the new public relations strategies, conceived to perpetuate the feeling of order and normalcy, no matter what happens. Appearance is the calculating machinery of simulations. It is what is read and seen on the media and in the arrogance of their stupidity; it is what we hear in public opinion speeches, in the dreadful rhetoric of politics and in the empty hedonism of the entertainment industry; it is what we see and read in the docile ferocity of tattooed bodies, in the hypnotic fascination with electronic devices, and in the submission to television addictions.
There is a third challenge to college culture. Is the University, as a State institution, in a position to resist the false image of an education available to everyone, that is good for everything, but that, in reality, is good for nothing because it has nothing to think about, do, or say? This is the moment to remember that college culture is not for “everyone”; but rather for those who, regardless of their social and economic condition, commit to being at the level of its legacy, and are therefore capable of recognizing and maintaining the desire to learn simply because they love wisdom. This is valid for those who learn as well as for those who teach because it is clear that the one who teaches learns, and the one who learns, teaches. The horizon of college culture should then be a concern of the State and not of politics.
I propose a new concept for the University; impossible under the current political and economic conditions but conceivable in terms of cultural renovation. This outline has seven main axes, inspired by the medieval notions of the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium would include Philosophy, Science, and Art; the quadrivium would include Medicine, Jurisprudence, Architecture, and Technology. These axes are more heuristic than disciplinary, because they seek to awaken genius, inventiveness and creativity. The axis of Philosophy remits us to the conceptual experimentation of thought, and not so much to the history of philosophy conceived as a chronological summary of the opinions of past philosophers. Philosophy is placed at the start not because it provides knowledge but for its love of wisdom as a primary condition of college culture. Without that love nothing follows.
The axis of Philosophy is comprehensive. It includes the traditions of the Greco-Roman, Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim thought; but also Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, as well as mythological narratives of the world, examined in the context of their own traditions. The Latin concept of “religion” doesn”t apply. The axis of Philosophy includes three important legacies of thought: linguistics, psychoanalysis, and anthropology.
The axis of Science includes mathematics, geography, astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, zoology, genetics, paleontology, archaeology, as well as neuroscience, history, social, political, and economic theory. It is necessary to keep in mind that education is part of political theory, because it is inseparable from the mutual understanding of knowledge and power. This is why it does not appear as an independent subject matter. Psychology is not an independent subject matter either because it is implicit in philosophy and science.
If there is an institution that has been forced to separate from theology, due to its secular claims of rationalism, empiricism, and positivism, is the institution of science. We must distinguish, however, between the structure of the power of science, scientific research and its ethical and aesthetic dimensions. This axis must support a regrouping of specializations in order to respond to the general interest of wisdom, understood as an exercise of freedom.
The composition of the trivium ends with Art: fine arts, scenic arts, music, history of writing, literature, cinematography, martial arts, education (physics, theoretics) and chess. Without a doubt, philosophy, science and art converge, from three different levels, in one unitary movement that consists of questioning all forms of knowledge; as well as on the need for thought to determine the rules of conceptual discoveries and their empiric referents.
The quadrivium includes those axes whose study directly impacts how things work in order to set institutional rules in today”s society. It is important to identify the points where these axes meet on the trivium. This includes medicine in a society that has made health, physical and mental, into a gigantic and lucrative business. We would have to do the same with jurisprudence, the study of the fundamentals of laws, and their interpretation. We also have to mention architecture as it deals with the fundamentals of vital spaces of human coexistence, and with the functional interrelation of culture and nature.
It is necessary to understand the fact that we currently live in the environment that humanity has erected in its effort to tame the “merciless activity of nature” (Sigmund Freud”s phrase). The same technical resources that protect us from nature become an unprecedented threat for the conditions that natural support of culture. The biosphere has increasingly become inhospitable because of the desire to inhabit the techno-sphere; while human beings become more vulnerable and dependent on our formidable but fragile inventions. Architecture has an enormous existential challenge because it conceives how to occupy space on Earth. It is about rescuing a very old way of inhabiting this planet.
The axis of technology includes the study of the logical structure of capital and the way it forms, conforms, and informs the minds of the world”s population. Its topics and subjects of study are: engineering (civil, industrial, electronic, etc.), communications, advertising, business administration, planning, urbanism, pharmacology and technology, health, and business. I point to the word “technology”, made up of téchne that means skill, ability, practical or empiric knowledge; and of logos that means “speech”, “argument”, “explanation”, “to say that someone is right.” It is essential to understand the extent to which technology can be used to develop the understanding of culture and the violence it generates.
To conclude, I affirm that college culture must be recognized as an effort to make life nobler and not as a way to reproduce its degradation. Recognition, generosity and gratitude must be the ramparts of college culture. It is not about the “values” we must instill; it is about the consequences of love for wisdom and our commitment to the joyfulness of thought. It is not a matter of hope or desolation. It is a matter of inspiration and breathing, as stated in these verses:
sans espoir avec
waiting for nothing,
with the unexpected hope
Francisco José Ramos
Philosopher and professor
University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
This post is also available in: Español