Academic Civic Engagement: Epistemology of the Group v. Epistemology of the Individual

by Mark Wallace

I have been prompted to reflect on the Idea of the University by several articulations thereof I have come across recently, including the Strategic Plan (2012-2017) of my own institution, Dublin City University:

We are the antithesis of the ‘Ivory Tower’ university and, through our actions, reflect a clear commitment to the pursuit of symbiotic relationships with our city, our region and our nation across all of our core activities.

So that is the binary we are faced with: at one extreme we have the “ivory tower”, at the other “civic engagement“, “social responsibility (USR)” and the like. It is the latter which is dominant in contemporary discourse, not only among newer and more business-oriented universities like DCU, but also even among those institutions old enough to actually have been part of the “ivory tower” set-up. Take Trinity College Dublin, by far Ireland’s oldest, established in 1592. TCD’s strategic plan has nine goals, and these include “strengthen community” and “engage wider society”. Even closer to the historic ideal of the “ivory tower” is Cambridge University, but here, too, the concept of the “ivory tower” is rejected – the “myth” “exploded”, indeed. The point is that no university today would be caught dead branding itself an “ivory tower”; rather words like civic engagement, community, social responsibility, social dimension, etc. will always crop up in any university’s mission statements.

Revealing, also, is the EU take on the subject. The EU provides much funding for third-level institutions, so this take is important. In the London Communique on the European Higher Education Area (2007), the future of third-level education was described as follows:

Building on our rich and diverse European cultural heritage, we are developing an EHEA based on institutional autonomy, academic freedom, equal opportunities and democratic principles that will facilitate mobility, increase employability and strengthen Europe’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

So the three goals for third level relate to mobility, employability and competitiveness. Here we see clearly the outward-looking orientation of the project. Employability describes particularly the results of academic study outside academy, in the labour market; competitiveness is again strongly linked to economic ideas and to performance in the market place. So, within the EU, there can be little place for an “ivory tower” university.

What, then, have we relinquished with the death of the “ivory tower” model? Central to John Henry Newman’s classic 19th-century text The Idea of the University are the notions of “seclusion” and “retirement”:

He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new. The common sense of mankind has associated the search after truth with seclusion and quiet. The greatest thinkers have been too intent on their subject to admit of interruption; they have been men of absent minds and idiosyncratic habits, and have, more or less, shunned the lecture room and the public school. Pythagoras, the light of Magna Græcia, lived for a time in a cave. Thales, the light of Ionia, lived unmarried and in private, and refused the invitations of princes. Plato withdrew from Athens to the groves of Academus. Aristotle gave twenty years to a studious discipleship under him. Friar Bacon lived in his tower upon the Isis. Newton indulged in an intense severity of meditation which almost shook his reason. {xiv} The great discoveries in chemistry and electricity were not made in Universities. Observatories are more frequently out of Universities than in them, and even when within their bounds need have no moral connexion with them. Porson had no classes; Elmsley lived good part of his life in the country. I do not say that there are not great examples the other way, perhaps Socrates, certainly Lord Bacon; still I think it must be allowed on the whole that, while teaching involves external engagements, the natural home for experiment and speculation is retirement.

Note how this association of seclusion with learning is considered to be common sense, and that Newman is laying no claim to novelty here, merely confirming what he takes to be a widespread and almost inarguable view. We have seen a very striking about-turn since then. With regard to the university, our faith in seclusion and retirement has been totally shattered, replaced instead by a faith in committees, meetings, conferences, expert groups and engagement. Knowledge is not gained by the individual, but by the group. There are simply no (or few) avenues in place for individual knowledge to be accepted into the epistemological structure of the modern university.

I, a (part-time) academic of sorts, see some dangers in this epistemological shift. The knowledge of the group, that which is taught in schools, churches, families and other social institutions and now in online communities creates its own problems of groupthink, of the hive mind, the madness of crowds, the folie a deux. Ultimately, there is really no reason for assuming that the wisdom of the group is any more epistemologically grounded than that of the individual. There is only the contingent and temporary swing of the pendulum. One could also go into the congruity between the devaluation of purely scholastic knowledge and our old friend the neoliberal agenda, the much-bemoaned corporatization of the university.

Let us recall here Thomas Carlyle’s once-influential plea for the epistemology of the individual from his early work “Signs of the Times“:

Instruction, that mysterious communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods, to attain the same end; but a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand […]. Has any man, or any society of men, a truth to speak, a piece of spiritual work to do; they can nowise proceed at once and with the mere natural organs, but must first call a public meeting, appoint committees, issues prospectuses, eat a public dinner; in a word, construct or borrow machinery, wherewith to speak it and do it. Without machinery they were hopeless, helpless […].

With individuals, in like manner, natural strength avails little. No individual now hopes to accomplish the poorest enterprise single-handed, and without mechanical aids; he must make an interest with some existing corporation, and till is field with their oxen. In these days, more emphatically than ever, “to live, signifies to unite with a party, or to make one.” Philosophy, Science, Art, Literature, all depend on machinery.

We academics, tenured and precariat, need to learn how to speak again without machinery, without committees, without peer review, without public dinners, but as individuals. Of course, that’s what people do on the internet, but just because the lay community does it, does not mean that academia should vacate the field of individual speech. Yes, we risk much getting down to that level, unprotected by disciplinary expertise, but without that, the relevance of the university is significantly diminished. The “ivory tower” university where the individual could learn and write in relative seclusion had, ironically, relatively little difficulty in speaking a general human language that was comprehensible to those outside the walls, but today’s engaged university will have to relearn speaking outside of the discipline if it is to really engage beyond rhetorical flourishes.