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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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.

The brain makes stories, doesn’t merely store facts

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The brain does not store facts, ideas, and experiences like a computer does, as a file that is clicked open, always displaying the identical image. It embeds them in networks of perceptions, facts, and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time. And that just retrieved memory does not overwrite the previous one but intertwines and overlaps with it. Nothing is completely lost, but the memory trace is altered and for good.

As scientists put it, using our memories changes our memories.

Benedict Carey, How We Learn (London: Pan, 2015), 20.

Monsieur Le Clerc (on John Locke) on Common-places

In all SoLe Clerc on Lockerts of Learning, and especially in the Study of Languages, the Memory is the Treasury or Store-house, but the Judgment the Disposer, which ranges in Order whatever it hath drawn from the Memory: but lest the Memory should be Oppressed, or Over-burthen’d by too many Things, Order and Method are to be called into its Assistance. So that when we extract any Thing out of an Author, which is like to be of future Use, we may be able to find it without any Trouble. For it would be of little Purpose to spend our Time in Reading of Books, if we could not apply what we read to our Use.