Universities

Universities are not a place of reflection. Here is another idea.

Until fairly recently in Western history, there were two basic career paths for people who hoped to make a living from ideas. One option was to join the church, whose schools, universities, monasteries, and pulpits provided scholars with training, salaries, and a forum for discussion. The other was finding a wealthy person to support you while you wrote your books, probably in exchange for services as an administrative assistant or private tutor.

Both tracks were broken during the 19th century. Religious institutions were secularized or supplanted by rivals who lacked their commitment to a theological belief. And the slow but steady rise of political and economic equality eroded traditions of patronage, as aristocrats lost the wealth and authority they needed to support large households of dependents. Some intellectuals won support from the state, which took responsibility for formal education. Others have found that new communication technologies allow them to earn a living as journalists while pursuing more serious interests at the same time.

But now modern alternatives to old models are being turned upside down. In the grip of a moral panic, the secular university increasingly resembles its religious predecessors. Although framed in terms of diversity and equity, the demands that students, faculty, and administrators embrace anti-racism and social justice in all aspects of their work reflect the professions of faith still required by some denominational schools. Past developments in communications have generated mass markets and corresponding revenues outside of educational institutions and personal services. But more recent developments, especially social media, have returned “content creators” to the precarious condition of pre-broadcast men of letters, dramatized in novels like George Gissing’s. New Grub Street.

Enter Nicolas Berggruen, the billionaire son of a prominent art dealer. The subject of a recent profile in The New York Times, Berggruen has devoted more than a decade and millions of dollars to the study and promotion of philosophy through the Berggruen Institute. Best known for its annual prize for “advancing the ideas that shape the world”, the eponymous Institute is now engaged in an even grander project, which Berggruen describes as a “secular monastery” for scholars to live and work in. the Santa Monica Mountains.

Berggruen’s description may be partly ironic, but it’s telling nonetheless. If realized, the “scholars’ campus” will combine aspects of earlier models of intellectual life. Like the monastery, it will pursue the ideal of community of thought and service — but without the orthodoxy that sustained its ecclesiastical successors. Like the secular university, it is meant to uphold freedom of inquiry, but without the burdens of administration and initial instruction that characterize the traditional university. Like the public intellectuals of the 20th century, he will emphasize ideas that deal with real political and social problems rather than school sharing.

As ambitious as it is, this vision is not unprecedented. The Institute of Advanced Study near Princeton and a few other institutions attempted to establish monasteries without beliefs, universities without students, and think tanks without ideologies. What is different is the enormous personal wealth that Berggruen brings to the project. His aspirations could be compared to those of the American plutocrats who generously endowed colleges, libraries and museums (including the Getty Center, which is near the property designed for the planned community), Berggruen apparently prefers an analogy with the Medici or other European patrons of high culture.

This model has both obvious and hidden flaws. The most obvious is that we are still not comfortable with the kind of clientelism that Berggruen wants to revive. The cultural glories of early modern Europe depended on explicit class hierarchies and extreme wealth inequality. Great lords and magnates gave richly, but expected social deference and often political loyalty in return.

Populist reaction to figures like George Soros, whom the Time profile mentions as peers of Berggruen, may take an exaggerated form. But it is rooted in the accurate perception that the nation-state was meant to constrain these hierarchies and make power more accountable than in the aristocratic order. Soros and Berggruen certainly have no intention of restoring feudal nobility. But their type of cosmopolitanism paradoxically presents similarities with the old regime.

Direct patronage can be intellectually as well as socially and politically distorting. Even when clients take a relatively hands-off approach, their beliefs, expectations and, perhaps, whims set the agenda for the thinkers they support. Berggruen’s preference for ideas with impact is defensible in itself. But this is somewhat in tension with his stated commitment to philosophy, a practice skeptical of immediate relevance and whose leading practitioners are not always famous in their lifetimes. By honoring prominent individuals nearing the end of their careers, the Berggruen Prize has functioned more as a lifetime achievement award than as a way to recognize new thoughts or thinkers. And some of the winners, as critics like University of Chicago professor Brian Leiter point out, were not “philosophers” by academic standards, or perhaps none at all.

More important than its disciplinary ties, however, is the focus on offering activities of the Berggruen Institute. Its affiliates are not household names. Yet many are already employed by elite institutions and others are among the usual suspects of the centre-left establishment. It’s hard to believe that such people or their ideas would receive insufficient support without Berggruen’s help – or that they don’t receive enough attention now.

Meanwhile, the low-profile schools and universities that educate the vast majority of American students are cutting back on teaching and instructors in philosophy, the arts, and other areas that Berggruen aims to cultivate. It doesn’t just narrow the current audience for big ideas, whether new or old. It also offers little support to develop and pass them on in the future.

It is easier to find fault than to establish lasting institutions, even for billionaires. Like the University of Texas at Austin (technically UATX until it receives accreditation), Berggruen’s Magic Mountain is a flawed but honorable answer to a real problem: the lowering of the intellectual horizon encouraged, mutually reinforcing, through the moral disruption and bureaucratic ossification of mainstream higher education. There are many reasons to doubt the success of these ventures: perhaps what we lack is neither visionary patrons nor academic freedom, but the religious traditions that sustained Western civilization until the upheavals of the 19th century. century. Even so, their founders and supporters deserve credit for trying until something worked.