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The alternative is an embracing of the university’s violence – leaving the university to its utterances opens up the field for self-irony. This ethos of ‘anything goes’ vacates the modern university’s tactic of restructuring radical uncertainty in favor of a lack of commitment – implicitly calling for endeavors to resolve the university’s violence on their own

Barnett 99. Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education, London (where he was both Dean of Professional Development and (subsequently) Pro-Director for Longer Term Strategy). In his academic work, he has been trying to advance a social philosophy of the university, in which he has been attempting to identify creative concepts and practical principles that offer ways of enhancing universities and higher education. Recently, he has been advancing an idea of the ecological university [“Realizing The University,” 1999, The Society for Research into Higher Education]


All the main claimants, then, to providing a basis for an ethos for the late-modern university are in difficulty. The neutral umpire, the celebration of difference and the self-critical academic community: none of these turns out to have much substance to it. Nor are they exhaustive of the possible claimants: there are at least two other current ideas, those of excellence and of authenticity. Both can quickly be set aside. As one author has recently noticed, ‘excellence’ is a vapid concept (Readings, 1996). By itself, it says nothing. To declare, as many universities do in their ‘mission statements’, that they are in favour of excellence is to say nothing. Who could be in favour of its opposite, whatever that might be? More to the point, the declaration is empty unless we are told what the university has in mind by ‘excellence’. But, having told us that, we are then inevitably into controversial territory. Much as quasi-state bodies in higher education might like to pretend otherwise, what counts as excellence in any setting, together with the criteria for its identification, will be controversial. That is to say, it is always open to legitimate argument. The idea of excellence can and should be put aside. ‘Authenticity’ could be seen as a response to the idea of excellence. If excellence can be suspected of being a carrier of a state-driven ideology (connected with numerical assessment, efficiency and output), authenticity can be understood as an attempt to wrest back some vestige of personal autonomy. But it, too, runs into difficulties. Authenticity gains purchase from there being a core or stable self to which individuals can be ‘authentic’. It is a doctrine of ‘to thine own self be true’. The trouble is that, despite recent philosophical attempts to shore up the concepts of self and of person, we can no longer proclaim with any conviction that there is a self to be true to. Authenticity may sound all to the good, and a university may - in its open discursive spaces - appear to be just the place in which to be authentic. Unfortunately, in this postmodern age, we have now to jettison the hope that there remains a stable self to which we might be authentic.“ It just may be that there are yet other contenders which we have not encountered and which could still provide an appropriate ethos for the contemporary university. But that we have been able to show the limitations of a number of potential claimants is in itself significant. The thought begins surely to form that there just might not be any secure ethos to the university in an age of supercomplexity. If supercomplexity is that cognitive and moral condition in which all our frameworks for understanding the world and each other are contestable, then the point must follow for a would-be ethos. It, too, would be contestable. And this, surely, is just what we see in the contemporary university: different views as to the proper character of the university's ethos. Where, then, does that leave us? Are we to conclude that the university is without any unitary ethos and that one never could be forthcoming? To believe that is the case is to abandon the university to the many forces that would undermine any sense of community; and such a stance is both unduly pessimistic and premature. For an ethos for our times, let us embrace positively if not warmly the dominant motifs of our analysis. If nothing is certain, if this is the dominant idea to which the university now has to orient itself, let that become the basis for the ethos of the university. If the university knows, because this is its modern calling, that all its utterances, all its moves, all its activities, all its goals, all its hopes, all its prizes, all its self-beliefs and all its values are challengeable, that there is no security to be had, then surely a collective ethos of self-irony must emerge (cf. Rorty, 1989). The university might present itself as a source of authoritative insights and of secure frameworks, but it is understood that these are presentational. The reality is that all is insecure. To repeat, the radical contestability of all that the university does is not something that happens to the university but is largely of the university’s making. There would be, therefore, a certain coherence in the university taking seriously the logic of its own functioning. If all is uncertain, if claims and utterances can always be held up to new insights from contending frameworks, it follows that no move can be made with any security. Self- irony is surely a suitable collective quality in this setting. But self-irony is appropriate not just through the lack of security that accompanies moves and their frameworks. It is also appropriate to the impurity that characterizes the university’s activities. Much as the university might wish its activities to be guided solely by the demands of pure reason, it understands that other motives, from both within and without the academic world, are intertwined in all that it does. Instrumental reason and economic reason are combined with the professional self-interests of the academic sub-cultures. Nor is this simply a matter of a conflict between the university’s managers and the academics for the academics are themselves being invited to become entrepreneurs, marketing their skills and knowledge. We can legitimately suspect every utterance within the university of being imbued with multiple value systems. There is no space left for pure motives in the university. In such a situation, the ethos of the university cannot be pure. The university knows, deep down, that its fundamental value structure is impure. There is no way round this situation. It is the condition of the modern university. Our conscience survives only with our tongue in our cheek. Our values remind us of what we wish to be, of what we can sometimes achieve; but we know that, often, we must fall short of our values. Collective self- irony is the nature of this ethos. The main conflict in the modern university, accordingly, is not between instrumental and collegial reason, but between those who pretend to be certain and those who demonstrate their awareness of radical uncertainty. The faces around the Planning and Resources Committee might be serious but, deep down, the participants know that there is no absolute authority to be found for any of the positions taken up. They may seem certain, but their certainty is bluff. The seriousness of the one is actually a dismay at the seriousness of the other. Taken on board as an ethos for the university, collective self-irony will be manifest in a number of ways. It will be evident in a generally relaxed environment since, if we can be certain of nothing at all, we shall be unable to commit ourselves absolutely to any move that we make. Amid self-irony, individuals cannot take themselves too seriously. Much as any act in academic life calls for commitment, still there will always be an existential gap in all that is conducted. If we cannot be absolutely secure in anything that we say or do, we can be pretty relaxed about things. We can do things and say things and then see what happens. Light the blue touch paper and retire: this is a tempting stance. Self-irony can lead to a lack of any commitment. But this is to allow in mere pragmatism; it is to invite again an allegiance to ‘anything goes’ and that we have just repudiated. So collective self-irony has to have an edge to it. It calls for endeavours to work things out collectively and openly, but it will be understood that decisions are never final in the sense that they are never entirely grounded.

Edited by canttouchwarming
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"Good alts"



if only there was ever a good alt for anything, lol. Even though I love them dearly, K authors are better at complaining than solving.

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