What is the University for?

This is a question asked by Prof. Premesh Lalu, as he challenges us to look at universities as spaces for inventing the unprecedented, by fashioning communities that are open to the future.

Prof. Premesh Lalu,
Director Centre for Humanities Research
University of Western Cape

Something, I believe, needs to be said about the appropriation of the university to what we now necessarily, but often too hastily and capaciously call globalisation and neo-liberalism. This has often resulted in a defensive, as opposed to affirmative, stance on the appropriation of the university to global shifts in institutional formations.

The tendency to approach knowledge as a matter of consumption and the often forgotten indebtedness of students that ensues appear to have resulted in the evacuation of the very spirit of thoughtfulness, critique, and freedom through which the university came to be conceived in the first instance. This current state of the university that finds itself battered by the uncertainties of currency markets and structural adjustments is, in one important respect, a product of the very inheritance of the university born from a specifically European modernity.

It was already clear that the idea of the university borrowed from a European modernity would always and necessarily be up for grabs. Rather than simply saying what the university is against, perhaps the challenge today is to ask what is the university for.

The seemingly new script of the university appears to know in advance what the university is for through a reductive notion of what it stands for. In the process, it displaces the principles or values that the university might be said to agitate on behalf of.

Unlike the global north, in South Africa the possibility exists to admit to two ways we hear the parsing “for” in “what is the university for.” On the one hand, we hear a question about what the university is supposed to be doing now, and on the other, we hear a question about the university’s standpoint.

With the emergence of a new scripting of the university in the image of capital and its drive to accumulation, the question of what the university stands for seems to take precedence over the question of what the university is to be doing now. The demand is not to reverse the orders of these questions but to realize that in South Africa today, the opportunity exists to study both senses of hearing the phrase “what is the university for”, in their very simultaneity, and at whatever speed.

In such simultaneity the university may open itself to a future in which it more searchingly requires its students, faculty and workers to think ahead by asking what we should be desiring at the institutional site of the university.

In all the ways we think about the university today, and in all the ways its idea is up for grabs, we would be failing if we did not think of it as more than an institution that preserves the best of what we have learned for the greater public good. The university is, and must be uncompromisingly intellectual in its desire, commitment and pursuits of these two simple, albeit contested ends.


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The university is perhaps to be approached less as a question of putting knowledge in the service of the public, than as a space for inventing the unprecedented. For such a university to adequately address the urgent crisis that confronts the world, it may help to reclaim the time and leisure needed to study the precedents that have wrecked the notion of the public, if only to properly elaborate a concept of the public not yet available to our present.

Should the idea of the university as a space for the invention of the unprecedented not serve to figure more centrally, guiding both what it ought to do as an institution and its standpoints?

As much as universities are thought to advance knowledge, its reigning ideas have shifted considerably over the centuries. If at one moment the reigning idea of the university was that of reason, it later emerged as an institution grounded in the concept of culture. Today it is being appropriated to the logic of the market and a prospective future of growing indebtedness. Taken together, this latest installment of the idea of the university that appears to be proliferating globally is creating a deep sense of anxiety, alienation, and a feeling of proletarianisation. The university is becoming a hyper-industrialised information machine that is beginning to reveal itself as an information bomb.

In contrast to the hyper-industrialised information machine, the university’s uncompromising intellectual sense historically derives primarily from the idealism that brought it into being, and in the second, in its overwhelming, but not exclusive location in the changed circumstances of the Second World War.

Such idealism contended with the hegemonic formations of state, capital and the public sphere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Africa, the birth of the university accompanied the wave of nationalist independence movements that swept through the continent in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the promise of development underwriting its public commitments. And in South Africa specifically, the university was tied more fundamentally to the determinations, intensification and demands of a racialising state and capitalist formation. The distortion in the original idealism of the university has been overtaken by the long twentieth-century in which the university became entangled in an even longer process of dehumanisation. It has also been overtaken by a rapid expansion of technological objects through which research and teaching are now extensively mediated.

Bound at once to a contract with the state and simultaneously to a public sphere, the university has had to reinvent its object of study, abiding by duration and commitments to the formation of students in respect of its reigning ideas. It is in the interstice of these seemingly opposing social demands that the inventiveness of the university as an institution is most discernible.

 “the university ought by virtue of its idealism to be true to its commitment to name the question that defines the present in relation to which it sets to work,”

Rather than being given to the dominant interests of the day, whether state, capital or public, the university ought by virtue of its idealism to be true to its commitment to name the question that defines the present in relation to which it sets to work, especially when that question of the present may not appear obvious to society at large. Yet, in naming this question the university is ethically required to make clear that it does not stand above society.

Today there is growing concern that the university has lost sight of its reigning idea, and all the contests that ensue from claims made on that idea. In the process its sense of inventiveness has been threatened by an encroaching sense of the de-schooling of society, instrumental reason and the effects of the changes in the technological resources of society that have altered the span of attention, retentional abilities, memory and recall, and at times, the very desire to think and reason.

Scholars around the world bemoan the extent of plagiarism and lack of attention on the part of their students; features that they suggest have much to do with the changes wrought by the growth and expansion of new technological resources. What binds the university as a coherent system is now threatened by the waning of attention and the changes in processes of retention and memory. In these times, retention has been consigned to digital recording devices. Students and faculty are now compelled to labour under the illusion that the more that we store and the more we have stored, the more we presumably know.

The movement that unfolded in the 1980s at SA universities was less a statement of force against the cynical reason of apartheid. It contained an element of the creative act, the process of inventing the unprecedented, which underwrote every effort at turning apartheid’s rationality on its head. It is a version of the creative act that is now threatened by the onset of memory loss. In it’s place seemingly more vacuous words have come to take the place of formidable concepts in formation. Words such as efficiency and excellence now replace more thoughtful and thought-provoking notions of “epistemological access”. Where the concept of “epistemological access” articulated by scholars such as Wally Morrow in the 1980s generated extensive curricula debate in the 1980s, efficiency and excellence serve as buzzwords with little or no epistemic grounding. For Morrow, the question of how to combine experience, creativity and knowledge as a condition of induction into philosophical thinking about education proved profoundly important in the midst of apartheid’s erosion of educational possibilities. Now, newer scripts of creativity are producing fantasies that may yet prove to be the nightmare for students in the future.

The speculative logic of the student as an entrepreneur of the self lends itself to the promise of consumption and fulfillment, but at the same time, drags students into a state of limbo and mere functionality. Against this slide into mindless creativity, an older notion of the creative act, like the notion of a work of art that resists death, must surely be a possible concept upon which to constitute a future university. This is a work of art that calls on a people that does not exist yet. It is the idea of the university that creates the space for the invention of the unprecedented.

“we should hear in the echoes of the past, the demand to keep desire alive, to remain awake, and to constitute a community that is open to the future.”

There has never been a better time to study the double way we hear the parsing “what is the university for.” There has also never been a more hazardous time to forget to ask “what is the university for?” The university’s future resides in cutting into the future and into established knowledge. All the while, we should hear in the echoes of the past, the demand to keep desire alive, to remain awake, and to constitute a community that is open to the future.

In South Africa, where the university under apartheid was placed in the service of a cynical state rationality that divided society along race, class and gender lines, the question of our time now demands that we ask how we reinvent the idea of the university. Forging the question of our times can no longer be postponed.

We need to think once again about approaches to technology, the state and the public sphere – and how each gives a view on the desire that now remains repressed in our respective knowledge projects. In the process, we ought to recuperate the sense of attention and play, of the creative act as opposed to the banality of neo-liberal creativity, that will prove indispensable for naming our present and finding our way out of those predicaments that threaten to undermine the best of our knowledge upon which the future of our students, faculty, its workers and that of the institution of the university rests.

Lalu writes in his personal capacity.

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