The Chief Purpose of Universities: Academic Discourse and the Diversity of Ideas - Mellen Studies in Education S. v. 105 (Hardback)
  • The Chief Purpose of Universities: Academic Discourse and the Diversity of Ideas - Mellen Studies in Education S. v. 105 (Hardback)
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The Chief Purpose of Universities: Academic Discourse and the Diversity of Ideas - Mellen Studies in Education S. v. 105 (Hardback)

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Hardback 448 Pages / Published: 13/07/2005
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Civil societies around the world today are arguably facing existential crises in political, economic, scientific, technological, religious, moral, and environmental spheres, many of which leave them politically divided and torn asunder by conflict. This book makes and elucidates the assumption that universities have a primary role in shaping collective efforts at responding to this situation. The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Lord Maynard Keynes :What you are about to read may seem like Social Darwinism. It isn't. It will read to some like Social Darwinism because the underlying model is based upon the logic and principles of systems theory, cybernetics, and evolution by natural selection. It says that the civility, humaneness, and quality of life in human societies improve through advances in knowledge, that knowledge advances through a natural selection of ideas, and that the university has a vital role to play in these advances. Granted, the underlying logic and principles are in some respects similar to those of Social Darwinism, and some ideas clearly have the same implications to which Social Darwinists would point. For example, one of the ideas that defined the Shakers was not to reproduce. This is clearly an idea that was selected against by natural criteria and was not destined to last very long. It typifies and instantiates the way that natural criteria of the sort considered by the Social Darwinists can select against some ideas. At the same time, the selection criteria for some ideas and against others are not necessarily natural, at least not in the sense that they inhere within primitive, untouched systems unchanged by humans. Viewed through the lens of cybernetics and systems theory, evolution is a generalized process of alternating generation and destruction of variety. It is not restricted to genetics. If the system is genetically based, the variety is genetic and the selection criteria operate through factors that affect biological reproduction. In contrast, if the system is ideationally or linguistically based, as are bodies of knowledge, the selection criteria operate not only through biological reproduction but also through other channels, not all of which have a physical or biological basis. Moreover, ideas are selected for various reasons. Some, such as those underlying bodies of scientific knowledge, enable better, more reliable prediction of events in natural, social, and psychological systems. Others, such as the idea of justice, help individuals find and experience meaning in their lives. They are adaptive simply because they tend to increase peoples' happiness or well-being. Still others may be emotional or help give clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life. Ideas give character, form, structure, and potential to human action, and they can be used in a lot of ways. That is, they may constrain human action but do not necessarily determine it. A simple analogy can be drawn with automobiles. Much as the definite form and structure of automobiles ensure that they cannot fly or transport anyone on water, so the definite form and structure of particular ideas govern and constrain their potentials for guiding human action. Automobiles may be adaptive as vehicles for ground transportation, but they would be selected against for flying off a cliff or driving on a lake. Similarly, ideas have characteristic form and structure that makes them suitable for some uses but not for others. Another analogy can be drawn here with language. There may be an inherent biological tendency or determination in humans for the use of language, and maybe even one for the use of nouns and various parts of speech. But individuals are not leashed to any given language, and they can use language in all sorts of ways. For instance, language is the basis of the knowledge required for an adolescent teenager to pass a drivers test. It is also the basis of Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, as well as the works of Blake, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. The point is that while ideas are constrained by their characteristic form and structure, these constraints are for most people of no more importance than are the constraints fixed by the form and structure of automobiles or language. What really matters is, within the constraints determined by an idea's particular form and structure, where, when and under what conditions can it be utilized to achieve a given purpose. Within the context of the pertinent constraints on an idea, what really matters is not its particular form and structure, but rather how it is used, and in particular whether it helps to enable attainment of the ends toward which it is placed. In writing this book we owe numerous intellectual debts, but none more than to the late great methodologist and psychologist Donald Campbell. In discussing the difference between Social Darwinism and the post Darwinian logic of evolution as applied to the growth and development of knowledge, Campbell (1987a) said: What Spencer missed was the profound indirectness of knowing necessitated by the natural selection paradigm, and the inevitable imperfection and approximate character of both perceptual and scientific knowledge at any stage. Instead, believing that an infinitely refinable and sensitive human cognitive apparatus had in the course of evolution adapted perfectly to the external environment, he became a naive realist accepting the givens of the cognitive processes as fundamentally valid (p. 74). In other words, Spencer assumed that knowledge resided in perfect cognitive structures and, accordingly, the focus of Social Darwinism was on the relationships between individuals, especially competitive relations and the survival of the "fittest" individual in reference to an assumed Hobbesian state of nature. In contrast, the cybernetic focus in the post-Darwinian logic of the evolutionary adaptation of ideas is instead on relations between "ideas" rather than individuals. Thus, whereas the ideal Social Darwinist is the powerful, self-made millionaire, such as John D. Rockefeller, the ideal person on these principles is one whose ideas and knowledge better enable prediction, understanding, or the creation of beauty. The ideal may be the scientist, such as Stephen Hawking, or perhaps the avatar such as Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed, or the poet such as Omar Khayyam. Moreover, only some of the relations that select for fit ideas are competitive in nature; others are also cooperative (Axelrod 1984). Fundamentally this is a treatise about human freedom, about how universities can unleash the potential for free human beings to change and improve themselves and their world, and about the likely effects of doing so upon social and environmental systems. It is about autopoietic processes through which individuals, organizations, and institutions produce and sustain themselves through advancements in knowledge. In stark contrast to Social Darwinism it is not naively realistic; it does not assume that any human cognitive structures are fundamentally valid. Rather, it assumes on one hand that the elementary forms of primitive conceptual and cognitive frameworks are in some respects basically arbitrary and that, therefore, virtually all perspectives on most of the complex social and environmental systems in which we live are mere partial representations of poorly understood systems. In this respect the treatise is a-foundational in orientation. On the other hand, it assumes that sets of primitive concepts can be defined so as to have certain logical relations or linkages with one another, and that when these are systematically applied in ways that are consistent with the laws of mathematics and logic they can provide a sort of meta-theoretical foundation that potentially leads to improvements in knowledge and control over systems. In this view, the human mind is assumed to be immanent in the social and environmental systems in which we live, not transcendent over it, and knowledge is assumed to be an instrument with which to organize, foresee, and perhaps control experiences. Viewed this way, humans have genuine freedom of choice in the world. But it is not completely unconstrained or unlimited. Free choice is constrained by biological facts of human nature, attributes of the situations in which the choice is made, attributes of the individual or group of individuals making the choice, and available methods of inquiry. None of these things can be changed at will, at least in the short run. But within the constraints they impose, humans are free to decide what to believe or accept, or what to prefer or prize, or what to do or perform. Moreover, within this freedom is found the grandeur and glory of all deliberate human action. It is the very essence of the human condition, the treasure of our lives. It is given to human beings as the first element of the world we come into. It is our contention that the highest priority within universities is to create, preserve, transmit and find new applications of knowledge so as to enhance and extend free choice throughout society. More specifically, this is accomplished in large measure by removing various unnecessary conceptual, behavioral, and institutional constraints upon the epistemological and communication processes through which individuals transform uncertainty into belief into behavior, habit, and the discernable patterns of environmental tracking systems we refer to as culture. In establishing the conditions most conducive to removal or relaxation of these constraints, universities provide individuals with an opportunity to develop themselves in the direction of enhanced freedom, increased cognitive complexity and stability, and higher levels of adaptability and intelligence. In writing the book, our formal educational training was of little direct use. One of us studied Zoology, Logistics, Public Administration, and Regional Analysis. The other studied Industrial Relations, Psychology, and Sociology. One of us spent a few years as an officer in the United States Naval Supply Corps and the remainder of his career, so far, as a faculty member within a university setting. The other has served as a faculty member, and now as President of two major state universities. It should, therefore, be clear from the outset that neither of us can claim any disciplinary authority for a good deal of what follows. Rather what we say is based, in essence, in our experience and what we have learned over the years. This means that we are sticking our necks out quite far and should therefore probably explain our motives. We were prompted to write the book largely by irritation at the way ideas are treated within and around universities today. It is not a polemic. Its purpose is constructive: to describe the institutional and intellectual functionality and structure of the university, and the role this plays in personal, regional, and social development. The thesis is that the university is - or should be - the institution in society primarily responsible for conserving the variation of ideas; and that the success with which society produces the knowledge needed to adapt to major social and environmental problems depends vitally upon conserving this variation. The "enemies" are idea-vetting systems that restrict or constrain the variation of ideas that can be used in inquiry, deliberation, and action. They are enemies inasmuch as they tend to place binding constraints upon inquiry in such a way that it is bounded in principle not only by logic and systematic reasoning from experience and in practice not only by free and open debate conducted within the context of civil association and decided on the basis of reasoned deliberation. Rather, in the presence of the enemies it is bound far more tightly and inflexibly. In the course of writing the book, we relied upon the advice, council, inspiration, instruction, and support of numerous colleagues and friends. Thanks especially to Chieh-Chen Bowen, George W. Dent, Jr., David R. Elkins, Shari Garmise, Charles Goodsell, Richard Grandy, Nelson Hairston Sr., Kingsley E. Haynes, Randall W. Jackson, W. Dennis Keating, Ralph P. Hummel, Mukesh Kumar, Iryna Lendel, Sam Miller, Rita Nolan, Kevin F. O'Neill, Susan Petrone, Mark Rosentraub, Joanne Schwartz, Robert N. Sollod, Michael Spicer, Roberta Steinbacher, Vir Sondhi, Roger R. Stough, and James G. Wilson.

Publisher: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd
ISBN: 9780773461796
Number of pages: 448

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