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Amor Mundi: Non-Administrative and Non-Objective Truths

Non-Administrative and Non-Objective Truths

Ron Srigley has a long and important essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the victory of administrators over the faculty in the modern university.

“Administrators control the modern university. The faculty have “fallen,” to use Benjamin Ginsberg’s term. It’s an “all-administrative” institution now. [1] Spending on administrators and administration exceeds spending on faculty, administrators out-number faculty by a long shot, and administrative salaries and benefit packages, particularly those of presidents and other senior managers, have skyrocketed over the last 10 years. Even more telling perhaps, students themselves increasingly resemble administrators more than professors in their ambitions and needs. Safety, comfort, security, quality services, first-class accommodations, guaranteed high grades, institutional brand, better job placements, the market value of the credential — these are the things one hears students demanding these days, not truth, justice, and intelligence. [2] The traditional language of “professors” and “students” still exists, though “service provider” and “consumer” are making serious bids to replace them. The principles of collegial governance and joint decision-making are still on the books, but they are no longer what the institution is about or how it works.

The revolution is over and the administrators have won. But the persistence of traditional structures and language has led some to think that the fight over the institution is now just beginning. This is a mistake. As with most revolutions, open conflict occurs only after real power has already changed hands. In France, for instance, the bourgeoisie were able to seize control of the regime because in a sense they already had it. The same is true of the modern university. Administrators have been slowly taking control of the institution for decades. The recent proliferation of books, essays, and manifestoes critiquing this takeover creates the impression that the battle is now on. But that is an illusion, and most writers know it. All the voices of protest, many of them beautiful and insightful, all of them noble, are either cries of the vanquished or merely a dogged determination to take the losing case to court.

So what’s to do? Keep fighting and risk being canned? Admit the world has changed and join them? Concede defeat and quit?

These are all plausible responses, some uneasy mixture of which is likely what most of us use each day to survive. Personally, I’m less strident than the activists but more active than the pessimists. My own proposal is thus old-fashioned but also mildly seditious: I suggest we think about this change in the university in order to reach some understanding of what it means. Then we can act as we see fit, though without any illusions about consequences.”

Srigley’s call to think about the transformation of the university is Arendtian. Hannah Arendt frequently characterized her lifelong project as an effort to “think what we are doing.” In a world governed by systems, statistics, and processes that diminish the impact of individual initiative, thinking itself, Arendt argues, reinserts the unique individual as a ghost in the machine. We are never as powerless to change systems as we might think; when we think we reject the normalization that is the grease the keeps the machine running. Thinking doesn’t introduce new processes or develop new systems; but it does help preserve spontaneity, freedom, and humanity from being enveloped by administrative and technological systems. The call to respond to the administrative victory in universities with thinking is, therefore, uniquely welcome.

But Srigley’s effort to think the administrative university paints with too broad brush. For him, all the evils of the modern university flow from the rise of administration. Students are no longer being educated because what the “all-administrative university offers them is not an education but a credential with a market value and ample statistical evidence to demonstrate the necessity of having one if they wish to prosper economically.” The fact that the sciences prioritize grants over fundamental research and the fact that the humanities have abandoned rigorous scholarship for the acquisition of skills and competency is, again, attributed to an administrative ideology. The “fall of the faculty” is said to result from the corrupt power-plays of administrators. And the astronomical rise of administrative salaries—the shocking fact that so-called universities now pay administrators more than their faculties—is again the fault of administrators. There are real truths in what Srigley writes.

What is missing, however, is the recognition that administrators could only decimate the faculties because too many faculties and students have long since abandoned the goal of a rigorous liberal arts education. The goal of the university is no longer governed by academic, educational, or intellectual ideals. Above all, faculty and students no longer see the university a collective search for common truths. Indeed, the very idea of common or shared truths is seen to be dangerous. Too often, the very idea of a common purpose and common truths are imagined to be retrograde.

It is true that objective truth sits uneasily with politics; and also in aesthetics, there are no hard and fast rules for distinguishing the beautiful from the ugly. But the inadequacy of objective truth does not, and should not, mean that we abandon the search for truth. For it is equally possible, and indeed necessarily so, that there are non-objective truths. These are what Arendt calls shared truths that comprise a common world.

In her essay “Crisis in Culture,” Hannah Arendt claims that humanism, as a project born in ancient Rome, was founded upon the ideal of both artistic and political judgment. Judgment, she argues, is not based in truth or knowledge, but in the common world that emerges amongst people who see themselves sharing a way of living in the world:

“Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken in it, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.”

Arendt reminds us that the word “culture” derives from the Latin colere, to cultivate. Culture is intimately connected to judgments that decide what is beautiful and good and thus should be preserved and secured against both time and consumption. For a culture to thrive it must elevate some things, some persons, and some ideas above others. It must make judgments about the beautiful and the good.

Arendt understands humanism to be the guardian of a common culture and explains the humanist ideal by contrasting two Roman maxims. The first, a commonplace, says “A Friend of Socrates, A Friend to Plato, but truth is of greater value.” The second, by Cicero, responds: “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents.” The first maxim will sacrifice friendship to truth. Cicero’s humanism, however, understands that friendship is higher than truth. And it is Cicero, Arendt argues, who understands the central role of judgment in politics:

“It is a matter of taste to prefer Plato’s company and the company of his thoughts even if this should lead us astray from truth…. What Cicero in fact says is that for the true humanist neither the verities of the scientist nor the truth of the philosopher nor the beauty of the artist can be absolutes; the humanist, because he is not a specialist, exerts a faculty of judgment and taste which is beyond coercion which each specialty imposes on us.”

Arendt reminds us that “humanism is the result of the cultura animi, of an attitude that knows how to take care and preserve and admire the things of the world.” It is this humanism missing from universities today. And yes, the victory of administrators is a sign of this loss of purpose. The administrative takeover of higher education can be fought, but only by returning thinking and also judging to the central role of humanist education.

—Roger Berkowitz

Making Judgments

(Source: Karl Rabe)

Chelsea Manning spoke at Bard recently, co-hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center. She was questioned by Bard’s Dean and Professor of Computer Science Rebecca Thomas and Professor of Politics Kevin Duong. The most revealing exchange concerned questions about Manning’s judgment. Thomas and Duong pressed Manning repeatedly to offer an account of the ethical conflict around her release of thousands upon thousands of classified documents. And Manning repeatedly showed a refusal to even recognize the existence of an ethical question. For Manning, transparency and truth trump all ethical or political considerations. You can watch a ten-minute clip of this exchange here.


President For Life

Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed last week to amend the Chinese Constitution to remove the provision limitig the President to two consecutive terms. Such a change will make it possible for Xi—who is still in his first term— to serve past the end of what would be his second term in 2023. Li Datong, a chinese journalist and dissident, penned one of the few open letters seeking to dissent from Xi’s power grab.

“As I understand it, the stipulation in the 1982 Constitution that the national leaders of China may not serve for more than two terms in office was political reform measure taken by the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China after the immense suffering wrought by the Cultural Revolution. This was the highest and most effective legal restriction preventing personal dictatorship and personal domination of the Party and the government, and it was a major point of progress in raising the level of political civilization in China, in line with historical trends. It was also one of the most important political legacies of Deng Xiaoping. China can only move forward on this foundation, and there is emphatically no reason to move in the reverse direction. Removing term limitations on national leaders will subject us to the ridicule of the civilized nations of the world. It means moving backward into history, and planting the seed once again of chaos in China, causing untold damage.

I ask you please to take the greatest interests of the Chinese people into consideration first and foremost, earnestly considering our request and submitting your dissenting vote — for the long-term peace and stability of China, and for the preservation of political civilization in China.”

Green Tea

(Source: Climate One Podcast)

Ivan Penn in The New York Times, ran a feature on Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Party, who is a conservative environmental activist. Dooley will be speaking at the 2018 Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.” In Penn’s account, Dooley represents the populist and anti-corporate wing of the Tea Party.  

Debbie Dooley’s conservative profile seems impeccable. The gun-owning daughter of a Baptist preacher, she was an early organizer for the Tea Party movement. She voted for President Trump and still supports him.

But when it comes to energy, her independent streak sends her down a different path: She takes issue with some of Mr. Trump’s signature positions, goes up against some of the nation’s biggest utility companies and often crosses conventional partisan lines.

Ms. Dooley opposes the tariff the president imposed on solar-panel imports in January. As for coal, which Mr. Trump has championed, it will never “be the king it once was,” she said. She accepts that human activity is causing climate change — and worries that it will threaten the health of the next generation, including her 9-year-old grandson, who has asthma.

To her, those beliefs are consistent with the rest of her worldview. “We should be focusing on the technologies of the future, not the dinosaur technology of the past,” Ms. Dooley said. “Our energy grid is vulnerable to attack. Rooftop solar keeps us safe. People like solar.” What’s more, she contends that embracing clean energy affirms the populist beliefs the Tea Party espouses. The monopoly control of utilities over energy supplies stands in contrast to the free market, she said, while solar and wind power represent energy freedom.””

Posted on 4 March 2018 | 8:00 am

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