Do we need Academic Caesars or Servant-Leaders?

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Steve Fuller, professor  of social epistemology at Warwick, writes today in the Times Higher Education that we need Roman-style dictators to lead our academic institutions in the current cultural moment and political climate:

This probably sounds vaguely threatening and, to a certain extent, it is meant to be. In the first instance, a Caesar of university leadership must be a proven academic who can command the respect of other academics (just as the Roman dictator had to command the respect of the other magistrates). But academic Caesars must also be consummate politicians. They must know the strengths and, especially, the weaknesses of their colleagues, so that they can divide and rule, impose their will and get some radical things done.

Yes, it sounds threatening. It also sounds utterly pragmatic. And it sounds like a place most of us wouldn’t like to teach.

Some of Fuller’s goals (financial stability, enfranchising alumni) are very attractive, even in my own, relatively small theological training institution. But surely there are wiser, more principled – and more theologically reflective – ways to proceed.

Fuller’s points about knowledge for the ‘public good’ and even the ‘vulgarisation of knowledge’ are surely worth considering, especially when we’re talking about Christian theology and Gospel ministry. But I’m sceptical of the values driving his strategic vision for increasing access to knowledge and re-imagining university level education in this country. Moreover, there are cautions here for theological college and church ‘leaders’ – I’d suggest Caesar is not the first-century ‘king’ we want to emulate.

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Dignity versus liquidity

 

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Zygmunt Bauman, reflecting on Boris Akunin’s concept of ‘aristonomy’, prefers to speak of human dignity. Bauman suggests five characteristic conditions or aspects of an ‘aretonomic’ or ‘fair and decent’ personality (Bauman and Obirek, On the World and Ourselves, 21-3):

  1. Foremost for Bauman is a kind of telicity:

[F]irst and probably the main characteristic, a kind of meta-characteristic – an axis around which all of the remaining elements of personality revolve, having been set and kept in motion by it – is, as I believe, the sense of a task to be accomplished; a task over and above the mundane concern for survival; a task capable of constituting an individual as an indispensable, unique and irreplaceable link in the order of things. Without complete dedication to it, and without continuously earnest effort, the task is impossible to accomplish.

2. Next comes dependability or

what Thorstein Veblen a century ago called ‘the instinct of workmanship’, which is in turn a condition of what Tadeusz Kotarbinski … associated in his 1955 ‘Tract of Good Work’ with the trait of reliability (or dependability). A dependable person is one who can be relied upon to pursue a given task to the best of his/her ability, to make good a promise made to him/herself and to others; a trustworthy person, a person who is known to do all in his/her power not to disappoint the trust vested in him/her by others.

3. Third, for Bauman, is honour (or integrity?):

This is a particularly complex quality, defying any attempt at a comprehensive inventory of its contents – but foremost among it traits are respecting the promises made, consistency in one’s actions and conduct, and acceptance of inalienable responsibility for their consequences for oneself and others … Hypocrisy and duplicity are antonymns of honour. An honourable person walks the road s/he advises others to take … honour requires admitting errors committed and sincere effort to correct mistakes … ‘Amicus ego’, the ancient teachers of virtue would say, ‘sed magis amica veritas’ [I am a friend, but truth is a greater friend].

4. Responsibility is Bauman’s fourth characteristic of dignity:

My personal responsibility for joint/shared welfare needs to stay always one step ahead of others’ responsibility for my own – with an incessant awareness that this is how things are and how they ought to be.

5. Finally, Bauman focuses on empathy (which he carefully distinguishes from tolerance):

[E]mpathy with other humans: a difficult art, one of the most difficult dignity demands – but there can be no dignity without the constant effort to master it … all encounters offer aretonomes occasions to advance their recognition of, and respect for, the subjectivity – alterity, otherness – of the other. Let’s beware, however, of confusing empathy with blanket tolerance, or with papering over or smothering differences for the sake of peace, or with indifference … We speak here of empathy defined by the principle of sapere aude, etiam curare aude … (‘Dare to know, also dare to care’).

Bauman’s thoughts are worth considering from the vantage point of the biblical doctrines of common grace and anthropology, particularly with relation to the central category of the image of God and in connection with current debates over access to the ‘good life’ and what constitutes ‘human flourishing’. His emphases are notably on duties rather than rights.

Trust and learn

Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the trust-1418901_1280master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of Enlightenment epistemology … a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others … the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction (Viking, 2015), 137-38.

No escape from responsibility

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What can I say? It is hard to go through life with the weight of responsibility on your shoulders – it weighs you down and constrains your movements. It can hold you back from fulfilling even the most ardent wishes and, if it fails to do so, it will only add to your burden before capitulating. There is no escape from responsibility; and it is more rigorous in its search for truth, as well as harsher in its judgments, than even the most consummate, the most erudite and pedantic of high court judges. Judges presiding over earthly tribunals may be persuaded of your innocence, sometimes even bribed to acquit you, but your conscience, that tireless police constable in your mind and heart, stationed there by your responsibility from the moment you became aware of it, will not be swayed by even the most persuasive arguments or handsomest bribes – will not so much as take a nap, close its eyes for a moment or look the other way …

Zygmunt Bauman, On the World and Ourselves (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), 2-3.