by Søren SE Bengtsen and Ronald Barnett
A heightened gap between the university and society is now evident. On the policy level, discourses of excellence, world-classness and value-for-money press upon universities while, on the societal level, there are calls for impact, skills, employability and marketable knowledge. Additionally, in a post-truth and fake news era, universities struggle to establish their legitimacy, and some students even report that they may actually be doing themselves a disfavour by taking a higher education degree. All this is symptomatic of a wide societal, and even worldly, sudden loss of faith in the university. From being an institution associated by society as having valued sets of insights into the world through its highly specialised knowledge systems, the university today is a target of suspicion from the wider world, being separately associated with privilege, elitism, arcaneness, and a lack of trustworthiness.
More deeply still, in the wake of poststructuralism and following a period of ‘anti-foundationalism’, where there is felt to be no firm knowledge foundation on which the university can stand, it can be plausibly contended that poststructuralist theories and associated academically-inspired agendas have effectively undermined the very institution from which they sprang. At times, it appears that the wider societal and worldly loss of faith in the university seems even to be buttressed from within the academy itself.
In order to (re-)gain faith in the university, we contend that a principal tack lies in a new focus on knowledge, and to come at it via a particular kind of realist perspective. Instead of knowledge as a mirror of the world and so being apart from the surrounding world (both the natural environment and the socio-cultural milieu), knowledge should be understood as an opening to life. In its essence, knowledge is valuable because it issues from life (the life that flows through the universe, including the speck within it that is the Earth), it gains from the life that effects its creation (whether in research or teaching), and it enhances life (across this world).
Knowledge, therefore, is a responsiveness to the way other lifeforms and materials imprint us with their different forms of being and becoming and how we, through knowledge and knowing efforts, also become a part of them. Through knowledge we gain insight into our surroundings and environment, and through research even more subtle and strange dimensions of the world are revealed to us. However, knowledge may also lead us in to darker places and confront us with layers of reality which may be unsettling or even terrifying; or simply lurking there, perhaps to be brought into the light through our knowing efforts. In line with the idea of ecologies of the university and the mystery of knowledge, knowledge and higher education may contribute to a wider societal need to become re-united with the whole world, including but going well beyond the human domain.
Instead of seeing knowledge as a means of separating universities and the wider society, knowledge should be understood as a relational bond and ‘social contract’ (or even ‘pact’) between the institution and society. In this mode, the university does not speak of and about society, but from and for society. Knowledge is part of the lived life of society and becomes a living of that life, mediated through knowledge; and helps – or can help – to further that living. Through knowledge and its promulgation, the university is well-placed to widen and to enliven the public sphere in totally new ways. By ‘public sphere’ we have in mind the positive critiques that look to a multiplicity of publics, to which the academy might be sensitive. This path connects, too, to the debates concerning anti-colonisation and epistemicide (in the epistemic dominance of the Global North over the South).
To open such a connection to life (the whole of life) through knowledge is to open a path that is critical of the academy’s past, in its silencing of voices, as well as providing opportunities to engage anew with those hitherto without voices. There is an ethical imperative embedded within research and knowledge, where academics through knowledge can release the voices of the marginalized, the outsiders, the obscure, and the persecuted. Through promulgating knowledge, the academy may speak not for itself, but for others and in the place of others. This matter connects, too, to recent studies of how knowledge may foster academic citizenship.
The current strained relation between universities and society is ultimately a matter of faith, and its loss. Having faith in the universities and its members and partners means to trust that the university’s pursuit of and interest in knowledge is meaningful, worthwhile, and can and will change the world for the better. Having faith in the university, through its fundamental interest in knowledge, is not immaterial. To the contrary, faith in the university is bound up with our empirical and material reality.
Of course, universities will continue to remain strange institutions to many. And faith, after all, points to belief in something that is both real and mysterious. But this faith held by the wider community in the university cannot be assumed; it has to be earned. Even if only tacitly, universities are coming to this understanding, that in order for the world to reach towards them, they should be reaching towards that wider world. And the university’s knowledge can help to address the material and ideological aspects of life; witness the way in which some universities around the world are seriously developing programmes of action to address the United Nations’ Development Goals. Faith in the university, accordingly, is not immaterial but is part of a mutually reinforcing and virtuous circle of faith and redemption.
SRHE member Søren SE Bengtsen is Associate Professor at the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media, Deputy Director of Centre for Higher Education Futures, Aarhus University, and Chair of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society. Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London, the President of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society and a former Chair of SRHE. This blog post is based on a paper they gave at the SRHE Research Conference in December 2018.