University : Anat Matar

Artist / Title
Youngsuk Suh / Untitled Exterior #5

University : Anat Matar

In the rough and tumble reality of the Middle-East, Tel-Aviv University is at the front line of the critical work to maintain Israel’s military and technological edge.

—Gil Zohar, “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy”1

Part I

The modern university is undoubtedly heir to the Platonic academia and the universities of the Middle Ages. But it is the dramatic development of this institution from its pre-modern phase to its modern and then post-modern stages that motivate this essay’s focus on the liberal university, as it was shaped in the eighteenth century and then crystallized over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Alongside its (prima facie) loyalty to traditional values, the conceptual and historical changes that transformed the university resulted in inevitable inner tensions, whose exposure should occasion reflection on possible means to resolve them.

Thus, in considering the journey towards post-liberal horizons, I shall follow three maps: one tracing the essentials of liberal thought, as these are reflected in the modern concept of the university; a second highlighting a set of relevant historical facts; and a third, superimposed upon the other two—both following and correcting them—expressing a post-liberal vision. As detailed below, the contradiction embedded at the very foundation of the modern university creates a gap between the ideal and its historical manifestation. The university’s traditional goal is truth; yet the unavoidable elusiveness of truth bars claims to have reached it.

The means through which the liberal university addressed this fundamental problem engendered the catastrophe we are witnessing today within and outside academia, as those in power abuse the liberal “solution” in a post-liberal world. If academia is to break through this impasse and move towards a post-liberal horizon, it will have to reject this solution and confront—not only in theory but also in practice—the contradiction that constitutes it. While not at all sure what the result of such a confrontation would look like, I’m convinced that it is vital. What I propose in the present essay is merely an introduction to such a move, no more.

As early as his 1784 treatise, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Kant proposed that “the public use of man’s reason must always be free . . . I mean that use of which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public.”2 Ten years later, Kant formulated the direct link between academia and the general statement about Enlightenment, truth, and freedom. His series of treatises on the university focused, more precisely, on the relations between the “lower faculty”—consisting mainly of philosophy—and the “higher faculties”: theology, law, and medicine. Today, we would add to the latter such faculties as engineering, economics, management, security, and diplomacy, which were not part of Kant’s academic world.

It is clear that this division is made and this terminology adopted with reference to the government rather than the learned professions; for a faculty is considered higher only if its teachings—both in their content and the way they are expounded to the public—interest the government itself, while the faculty whose function is only to look after the interests of science is called lower because it may hold whatever propositions about science it finds good . . . It is absolutely essential that the learned community at the university also contain a faculty that is independent of the government’s command with regard to its teachings; one that, having no commands to give, is free to evaluate everything, and concerns itself with the interests of the sciences, that is, with truth . . . For without a faculty of this kind, the truth would not come to light.3

Kant includes in the lower, philosophical faculty, the natural sciences, as well as math, history, the humanities, and metaphysics (that is, the metaphysics of nature and of morals); in other words all of the theories that “are not adopted as directives by order of a superior,” whose fundamental commitment is, rather, to the “book of nature” and to autonomous reason, capable of judgment.4 Nevertheless, he clearly assigns the human sciences—philosophy in particular—the central, key position in his discussion of the lower, independent, and critical faculty.

The necessarily critical character of this faculty is what grants it independence just as, conversely, the dependence of the higher ones, which serve and order, entails their necessarily uncritical character. It is therefore clear why attempts to grant or apply “academic freedom” or “independent thinking” or “multiple opinions” to academics from the higher faculties are, of necessity, merely cynical:

As tools of the government (clergymen, magistrates, and physicians), they have legal influence on the public and form a special class of the intelligentsia, who are not free to make public use of their learning as they see fit, but are subject to the censorship of the faculties, so the government must keep them under strict control.5

1. Gil Zohar, “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy,” Tel Aviv University Review (Winter 2008/9): 4.

2. Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’,” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 55.

3. Immanuel Kant, “The Conflict of the Faculties,” in Religion and Rational Theology, trans. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 249. Last emphases are mine.

4. Immanuel Kant, “The Conflict of the Faculties,” 255.

5. Immanuel Kant, “The Conflict of the Faculties,” 248.

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