A university\’s soul is the freedom to make mistakes


Can a university have a soul?

To say that an institution has a \”soul\” is to say that it is more than the sum of its parts. It is to say that something about that institution holds its disparate elements together, and gives them a common tone or ethos or culture. If the institution acts in accordance with that \”something\”, then it acts with integrity. And we might extend the metaphor and say that, like a soul, that \”something\” can be lost when the institution ignores or obscures or neglects it. All this talk is difficult, of course, because it takes place without empirical evidence. But that doesn\’t make it redundant.

We might all agree that the \”soul\” of a university is its freedom: freedom to grant freedom to others, by educating and not merely instructing, as Michael McGhee has written. We might also agree that utilitarian conceptions of universities, linking degrees to future earnings, may well curtail that freedom. Why read and think about the Nicomachean Ethics when you could be instructed in international finance? Some would agree with McGhee while also believing that utilitarian conceptions of value in education are basically correct. A degree that takes in the wider reaches of science, regardless of how useful that education may one day prove to be in terms of earnings, should still be part of university life; because science as a whole has proved to be so useful, so universally. A person who thinks like that may not be so sympathetic to a degree taking in the wider reaches of humanities and the arts. They might still feel that \”usefulness\” is paramount.

But universities, it seems to me, are a good place for making mistakes; and the freedom which is a university\’s soul includes the freedom to make mistakes. This freedom should be the privilege of the young. At the precise moment when they are coming to full understanding of their intellectual powers – say, at the beginning of their 20s – they should understand how fallible they are. Not everything in life will be useful. Not every journey starting at A gets to B. Some journeys never get anywhere. There will be mysteries, doubts, mistakes, dead ends. Outcomes aren\’t everything. The humility of knowing this is an essential part of \”being educated\”.

The Authorised Version of the Bible renders Mark 8:36 like this: \”For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?\” It\’s in a passage that, unusually, has a parallel in all four gospels; so we might think it absolutely central to Jesus\’s ministry. It suggests that there is a way of striving for success that leads to failure; that the world\’s notions of success are not necessarily accurate; that in the process of advancing ourselves, we may lose what we hoped to advance. It is a warning about human bombast and confidence as old as the Tower of Babel. It should be part of every university course, and reflected in its organisation.

There are many examples in the history of ideas of \”gaining the world but losing your soul\”. Historians of Christianity might point to the reign of the Emperor Constantine: Christianity advanced, but lost its soul, becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. In the aftermath of the second world war, Adorno and Horkheimer thought that a similar thing had happened to the Enlightenment Project: a movement intended to elevate reason and freedom had somehow resulted in irrationality and oppression. Hardly a war has been fought since that has not seemed to bring defeat and victory in equal parts: the war on terror, for example. Whatever was accomplished, it was not universal calm.

Maybe something called a university education in the future may well be linked to earnings and outcomes; and therefore linked to \”what the customer wants\”; and maybe we will proceed from instruction to achievement in one unbroken stride. All the mysteries, doubts, mistakes and dead ends will be ignored. But something will have been lost.