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The University as Institution and Idea

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012
pp. 21-25 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The title of the book, Love the Questions, is taken from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Speaking to the young Franz Xaver Kappus, who, as it turns out, did not eventually become a poet, Rilke advises him as follows:

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

(34-35)

I didn't choose the title, though. We had only a few days before the production deadline, and the great people at Arbeiter Ring Press all pitched in to go through the book and to try to pick out a title. Someone came up with this one, which is a title that reflects what the book is really about. It is a great experience to publish a book with a group of people who understand it, and stand behind it, making writing and publishing into a shared project.

This quotation from Rilke articulates an intense relationship between self-expression and self-knowledge: self-knowledge through self-expression and self-expression through self-knowledge, so that answers pale beside the way of life that is opened up by searching. This is what I call "enlightenment" in the book and which I argue is connected to the essence of university education. At its most basic, enlightenment depends on the notion that one's own view of the world matters, that there is something new and precious about addressing one's experience of the world first-hand, that education—and, indeed, life itself—is not just about fitting into the world but understanding it, acting in it, and changing it.

I first went to university in 1967, so it perhaps understandable that I assumed that the university was naturally at the forefront of social criticism and innovation. Gradually, through over thirty years of teaching, I have been disabused of this assumption. Teaching at university has been professionalized, that is, it is seen as just another good middle-class job like a doctor, lawyer, or bank manager, and students see themselves as just suffering through a necessarily extended schooling due to the advanced credentials that a scientific and technical society requires. My practice in the university, however, in everything from teaching to committee work was based on the assumption that the ideals of the university—free inquiry and social reflection—were still valid. I thought of the obvious failures of this ideal in practical situations as just that: failures to realize an ideal that was still valid and, for the most part, operative.

Two events led to my asking some basic questions about the structure and function of the contemporary university. First, the violation of the academic freedom of David Noble by the Simon Fraser University administration, and, second, the story about teaching a second-year humanities course that I tell in the book, where the inability of students to understand Rilke's ethic made me wonder if they expected anything like enlightenment from their studies. Rilke advised the young poet that "we must try to assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the un-heard of, must be possible in it" (67). This ethic has expanded beyond poetry and philosophy and into the daily activities of work, marriage, and friendship. It is at the centre of the idea that we should actively live our world and not just be victims of it. I began to wonder if the idea of enlightenment as self-responsibility any longer had a place in the university. And, if so, what sort of institution was I going to pass on to the young who would inherit it?

I wanted to ask basic questions about the university...


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