Thursday, 18 February 2010

Universities: utilitarian and sublime. Ian Clunies Ross.

Ian Clunies Ross (who is described in wikipedia as "the 'architect' of Australia's scientific boom") at the Centenary of the University of Sydney (1952): excerpts from his oration in his Memoirs and Papers.

"How fanciful must have appeared the rhetoric of William Charles Wentworth, when, moving the Bill for the establishment of the University in 1849 ... 'a long list of illustrious names of statesmen and patriots, of philanthropists and philosophers, of poets and heroes...'

It is noteworthy, and indicative of the change that 100 years have wrought, that Wentworth made no mention of scientists ... indicative not only of the lesser place of science and of the scientist in the hierarchy of university men, but of the appreciation which we have now lost that there was then a unity of knowledge" Memoirs and Papers, pp. 171-2


"This heart-searching is stimulated by the recognition, during and since the war, that the universities have fallen from that traditional high estate in which they exerted a commanding influence on the ideas and ideals of their times. Neither within nor between countries did they provide a rallying point, a vital philosophy with which to counter the evil philosophies of Fascism, Nazism or Communism. In so far as we have gained a respite from the assault of these dark forces, it has not been through any counter-balancing or nobler view of life imparted by the universities and contemporary education, but through recourse to the barbarism of war and the more efficient use of science and technology prostituted to that end." pp 172-173

"If we look back 100 years, we can picture how these imposing buildings must have dominated the straggling town of Sydney; so, too, must the power and purpose of the University have appeared to offer promise of a new view of life and a philosophy of living to the men of that day. Is there, perhaps, an analogy between the present position of the University, encircled by the drabness of a great city, and its decline to an institution whose purpose, in popular estimation, is to teach men how to earn a living rather than a way of living, to acquire learning rather than wisdom?" 173

"We are, I believe, faced with the paradox hat, while the university's main function is sublime, it is at the same time essentially utilitarian: utilitarian in that, from medieval times, the university has sought to meet the needs of society by the training of theologians, doctors, lawyers and .. sublime in that, whatever the nature of vocational training for particular functions or techniques, it sought to provide a system of vital ideas about the university and man's relation to it" 173-174

"It is significant that, today, we seldom think of university men, collectively, as possessed of sound judgement or of a vital system of ideas which unites the past and present in an intelligible whole. We think rather in terms of special skills and techniques; of a celebrated physician, a great engineer, a distinguished physicist or chemist; and woe betide us should we attribute to them wisdom or judgement outside of their technical competence!" 174-5

"...we find ourselves at the height of the scientific age...science is everywhere about us, interpenetrating the whole fabric of life, influencing our minds no less than our bodies, or relations as individuals no less than as peoples. And science tends increasingly to dominate the life and purpose of the universities. Through the achievements of science...the universities must win popular acclaim.

Even at the lowest material level, the sciences must preoccupy the minds of university administrators, since modern science... is an infernally expensive business, so that to you, Mr Vice-Chancellor, it must seem an insatiable monster of ever larger and more threatening proportions.

Society will provide no escape from this predicament, since it recognises that it musy live by science even at the risk of dying painfully by it." p.177

"Science poses the major problem of education because of the very magnitude of its success, so that the ceaseless and bewilderingly rapid proliferation of knowledge forces its votaries into ever-narrowing specialisms. ... what is more, they not only suffer this fate but glory in it: for are not specialists the new elect, the high priests of the cult whose mysteries none may share? Not for them
'To see a world in a grain of sane,
and a heaven in a wild flower'
The grain of sand has become all the world and the heaven they know or seek to know." pp.177-8

"We are confronted, then, with the paradox that, while science, whether pure or applied, must occupy a more commanding place in the universities, it threatens, by its very nature, to accentuate the movement from broad scholarship towards a fragmented and specialist learning; that while scientists and professional men, by virtue of their numbers, education, and the importance of their functions, should take a vital part in the life and thought of their times and in all aspects of human relations which are concerned with administration and government, and the operation of the social organism, they are not only ill-equipped but, as a result of their university training, so permanently mutilated that it is idle to expect anything of them." 178

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