Toward the third epoch of the University



To date, at least from a Western perspective, there have been two incarnations of the university. The founding of the University of Bologna in 1088 marked the creation of the first university, although it was not fully established until the mid-twelfth century with a charter instituted by Frederick Barbarossa that bade it to ‘live in obedience to God and the Emperor’ (who was a minister of God). While its initial domain of learning was Roman and canon law, the university’s culture was dominantly theological. By the fifteenth century many other universities had formed, the influence the Greeks, especially Aristotle, was widespread and ‘natural magic’ (science) was gaining a substantial position as an experimental practice. The modern secular university had started to emerge, with reason becoming the foundation for creating new knowledge.

But today, notwithstanding a vast number of institutions and tens of millions of students worldwide, the modern university finds itself in a protracted afterlife. Learning has been reduced to functionalist expediency – as numerous theorists have observed in various ways for more than twenty years (for example: Bill Readings, J Hillis Miller, William Spanos., Jurgen Habermas and Henry Giroux).

The contemporary situation is one of structural unsustainability, of which climate change and its proliferating consequences, is but one dimension. This profound critical condition enfolds three linked future-negating factors: (i) the meta-myopia of ‘our’ anthropocentrism (which prevents us from seeing what we do); (ii) an increased disposition toward instrumentalism (wherein most of what we call sustainability is found); and (iii) a politico-economic paralysis in the face of the nature and scale of the problem (as it is refused to be confronted). In essence, and notwithstanding technological and scientific efforts, the university as the institution that helped bring the modern world into being, cannot deliver the kind of knowledge that could deal with what it’s created (a situation made all the worse for its bonding to the economic status quo as a service provider).
There is unquestionably a need for a new kind of knowledge – knowledge with a futuring potential able to reconfigure the fundamentals of eco-nomic exchange, to create a politics beyond democracy, and above all to transform the ‘nature’ of human being into a mode of existence able to advance, rather than diminish, all that constitutes sustainment. For this knowledge to come into being, the third epoch of the university must be made. To illustrate the point, a fragment of what this might look like can be given via a specific example that was embedded in an award-winning project.

In 2009 the Design Futures Masters Program at Griffith University Queensland College of Art won a major award in a national urban design competition created by Gold Coast City Council (a coastal city south of Brisbane). The submission was based on a long-term plan to move the city prior to projected rises in sea level. Within this design concept was a new kind of university –a ‘multiversity’.

The idea of the multiversity was based on developing that new knowledge implicit in moving large and complex cities in the face of significant global climatic, environmental and geopolitical changes. The actual instrumental actions of design, planning, disassembly, moving people and structures and thereafter urban (re)construction was just a small part of the picture. Transforming how human earthy habitation is understood, initiating a process of re-education (for a world in which urban life becomes fundamentally unsettled as both urban densities and extreme weather impacts increase), developing a new economic paradigm, creating forms of governance appropriate to emergent circumstances, forming cultures able to cope with growing global instability (not least from ‘climate war’) – these are but a few of the areas of knowledge that would be elemental to such an institution.

Underpinning the city-move project, and the thinking of its elements, was the recognition that it is vital that we humans understand and act ‘in time’ in totally new ways. The problems we have created for ourselves will exist for centuries. Acting ‘in time’, in this context, suggests both ‘acting preventively in time’ and ‘acting in the medium of time’ (for time is change not measure).

How can a new kind of university happen? The process has already started. Organisations and think tanks are emerging. Events to conceptualise and plan both form and strategy are already happening around the world (we have one here in Brisbane in July). True, there is no single view or approach, but the recognition is unfolding. Clearly, lessons have to be learnt from the past – and one of the key lessons is appropriation. The modern university did not arrive by being set up as new institution but rather the new way of knowing was appropriated by the existing so it could ‘develop’. So the challenge is to create not just another fashionable theory, but the foundation of a new materialist transcendental knowledge that the current academy cannot resist.