The Samizdat University

The April 2015 edition of First Things included an article by Sir Roger Scruton, titled The End of the University. As Scruton points out, the university as an industrial-scale certification factory is in ruddy good health, enrolling an increasing proportion of the population. Nonetheless, his article is not about some distopian future in which these enterprises collapse, but about the distopian present, in which some essential capacity of the university has been vitiated.

It addresses also the other meaning of the phrase, “the end of the university”; exploring the process by which Scruton himself began to question his purposes in teaching: to what end?

…I asked myself what exactly I was trying to teach, and why.

In his approach to these questions, he sketches in a few sweeping lines the guiding principles of the university, from the inspiration of the Greek paideia through the Middles Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment to the impact of industrial society in the nineteenth century. The rise of the middle classes, and the demands of industry for technicians of the natural sciences who could bend Nature to productive ends, superseded the theological and moral imperatives of times past, as new specifically secular universities were founded.

Newman wrote The Idea of a University in 1852, largely to defend the university as a transmitter of high culture. For Newman, it was this cultivated set of mind that produced, from indifferent material, gentlemen. As Scruton puts it,

Within college walls the adolescent is granted a vision of the ends of life; and he takes from the university the one thing that the world does not provide, which is a conception of intrinsic value.

Newman’s university, Scruton points out, looks “more than faintly ridiculous” in comparison to its contemporary descendant. Today’s universities have no religion, no class (so to speak), and are populated more by women than by men.

Scruton rehearses his arguments for universities as the means by which a social elite perpetuated itself. With the decline of that elite, and the rise of the university as an aggressively self-expanding commercial enterprise, albeit with strong demands on the public purse, the hallowed halls have become museum pieces supporting the competitive fund-raising activities of those institutions venerable enough to possess them.

In keeping with a view of the university as propagating (and if necessary generating) a community based on a common high culture, Scruton contrasts the elite high culture of the Victorian school with the multi-racial, multi-religion, co-educational campus of today. What culture, what community, is being constructed here? It is by definition multi-cultural, a condition that militates against the very notion of a tradition of high culture. The only cultural commonality it produces is multiculturalism itself. To provide intellectual buttresses for this unstable dislocation, various ideologies fell to hand.

…the culture of the West remains the primary object of study in humanities departments. However, the purpose is not to instill that culture but to repudiate it… The Marxist theory of ideology, or some feminist, poststructuralist, or Foucauldian descendent of it, will be summoned in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status to the power that speaks through them, and that they are therefore of no intrinsic worth.

The results of this ideology for the study of the humanities have been catastrophic.

… the whole idea of our inherited culture as an autonomous sphere of moral knowledge, and one that it requires learning, scholarship, and immersion to enhance and retain, is cast to the winds. The university, instead of transmitting culture, exists to deconstruct it … It is no longer permitted to believe that there are real and inherent distinctions between people. All distinctions are “culturally constructed” and therefore changeable. … And since our inherited culture is a system of distinctions, standing opposed to equality in all the spheres where taste, judgment, and discrimination make their claims, the modern university has no choice but to stand opposed to Western culture. [Emphasis mine.]

Reading this obituary at any time over the past year inevitably brings to mind the struggles of The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to find a congenial home at an Australian university. The fanatical opposition of academics has, in spite of the hankering of corporate managements after the cash, torpedoed a number of approaches. One has to ask of the Ramsay Centre trustees, why they are obsessed with these charnel-houses of learning?

Academic freedom has gone the way of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The slogans are still put about, but the meaning has been corrupted, like the Seven Commandments on the side of the barn at Animal Farm. Academic freedom is the freedom to adhere to the academic consensus. Academic freedom means the freedom to attack every manifestation of Western culture.

Sir Roger Scruton encountered this nihilistic juggernaut in his own teaching at the end of the 70s.

But what is the alternative? If the universities do not propagate the culture that was once entrusted to them, where else can young people go in search of it?

He was offered one answer to that question in 1979 when he accepted an invitation to address an underground seminar in Prague. There he found people…

…for whom the pursuit of knowledge and culture was not a dispensable luxury but a necessity. Nothing else could provide them with what they sought, which was an escape route from the world of lies by which they were surrounded. And by discussing the Western cultural heritage among themselves, they were marked out as heretics, who risked arrest and imprisonment merely for meeting as they did.

The world of lies. This is world we in the West now inhabit. Václav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” (1978) had inspired the underground seminars, with its injunction to “live in truth.” A precursor was Solzhenitsyn’s essay, “Live Not By Lies,” written and circulated at the time of his exile in 1974. It opens…

At one time we dared not even to whisper. Now we write and read samizdat…

According to the Oxford English Dictionary app:

NOUN [mass noun] the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, especially formerly in the communist countries of eastern Europe.

For ten years Scruton went back and forth to Prague, working “…with others to turn these private reading groups into a structured (if clandestine) university…”.

The communists had performed a…service to intellectual life in Czechoslovakia, by preventing the publication of anything save those works deemed so precious that people were prepared to produce them in laborious samizdat editions. These would be passed from hand to hand and read with eager interest by people for whom knowledge, rather than career advancement, was the goal. [Emphasis mine.]

From this experience, Scruton learned two “important truths.”

The first is that a cultural inheritance really is a body of knowledge and not a collection of opinions—knowledge of the human heart, and of the long-term vision of a human community. The second is that this knowledge can be taught, and that it does not require a vast investment of money to do this…

What Scruton, his colleagues, and his students had set up, with almost no resources, was what might be called the Samizdat Centre For Western Civilisation. No recognised degrees were issued, nor were there any recognised masters’ programs. The library was a collection of typewritten, carbon copied, mimeographed and photocopied documents, held in secrecy and passed from hand to hand, from mind to mind. All of the Czechs who were involved risked their futures to escape the world of lies, indeed, but also to satisfy a hunger as demanding, in its own constant and insistent way, as that for sex; the craving of the intellect. This craving for intellectual dialogue – of the mind with an author, a teacher, a student, a colleague – has been the engine of the university from the Academy and the Lycaeum to the modern university of recent memory.

In a few, the vast majority of whom have never and will never have the opportunity to realise it, this hunger amounts to a vocation. Sir Roger Scruton touches on this in another article in First Things, Living with a Mind. This was the vocation of all who gathered surreptitiously in Prague. It is from such as these that Western civilisation emerged and developed; if it is to survive and be carried forward, it will be by such as these; and it is for such as these that the various canons of Western civilisation must be taught.

…we have allowed ourselves to be intimidated into the belief that, because universities have libraries, laboratories, learned professors, and substantial endowments, they are also indispensable repositories of knowledge. In the sciences this is true. But it is no longer true in the humanities.

It is not merely that the accoutrements of the established universities are no longer indispensable for the teaching of the humanities: they are toxic to it. The late, great David Stove wrote the following in his essay, “A Farewell to Arts,” in the May 1996 issue of Quadrant.

The Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney is a disaster area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.

That was 23 years ago, and it was a disaster already twenty years in the making. Keith Windschuttle used this quote and image in his Quadrant Editor’s Column of May 2017, titled “A Disaster of the Active Kind,” on the incompatibility between the aims of the Ramsay Foundation and the attempt to realise them through existing Arts faculties. He quotes Scruton on the latter’s efforts in Prague, with its contrast between financial parsimony and educational riches.

We composed a curriculum entirely of classics on a budget of £50,000 a year… We the teachers, and they the students, were volunteers; our shared concern was knowledge, not ideology; conversation, not conscription.

Windschuttle then discusses the establishment in 1976 of Britain’s first private university, the University of Buckingham. Buckingham, unlike the samizdat university of Prague, was not focussed exclusively on the classics. It always aspired to offer the gamut of university studies. In addition to the school of Humanities and Social Sciences(!), it now has schools of Business, Law, Medicine, Computing, Education, Psychology, and Postgraduate Medicine and Allied Health.

He concludes his article with this admonition.

Instead of throwing good money after bad into Australia’s state-run universities, this is the model for the teaching of Western civilisation that the Paul Ramsay Foundation should be contemplating.

I take it that the model he refers to is that of Buckingham. However, it seems that the samizdat model is closer in spirit to the aims of the Ramsay Foundation. In the two years since Windschuttle’s article was written, we have seen a French classroom farce played out, with the anxious guardians seeing their beautiful and beloved Western Civilisation, with her $125m dowry, snubbed time and again.

Scruton said of the underground seminars that the circumstances were unusual, and nobody would want to reproduce them. To return to the second of his “important truths” – that the cultural inheritance can be taught – he says that it “requires teachers with knowledge and students eager to acquire it.”

Such teachers are increasingly difficult to find within our universities. Such students are also wheat amid the chaff. No, we do not wish to reproduce those circumstances. The circumstances we wish to eliminate, though, are the risks of arrest and imprisonment, and of subsequently being denied access to state-sponsored qualifications for employment. Paradoxically perhaps, it was precisely these circumstances of Prague that drew eager students into the colloquium.

Here’s another paradoxical example from closer to home. At around the turn of the seventies, so the story goes, as Western universities were still embroiled in the upheavals of the sixties, a lecturer in Philosophy at one of our metropolitan universities delivered a course in Social Philosophy. He announced at the outset that only those who were very determined would fail. It proved a very popular course. Students from other faculties with a requirement for a smattering of humanities subjects sniffed it out rapidly. That had been anticipated. On the other hand some students threw themselves into the subject with such intense commitment that they neglected their other subjects, some submissions being almost book-length. Such efforts offered little extrinsic reward, and indeed carried extrinsic penalties. For these, “knowledge, rather than career advancement, was the goal.”

Once again, this is not a situation one would wish to reproduce, but such are the students, and such the commitment, that will preserve and enhance the tradition. Perhaps this is not so paradoxical. Perhaps it is just the expression of the desire of young adults, or more specifically young men, for a quest that is worthy of their total commitment. Masculine quest has always been the engine of culture, in the least as in the greatest. The form of that quest in multifarious cultures depends on the vocation of the person. In the great civilisations, the quest for what is good, beautiful and true is one of the pinnacles; and Western civilisation is the greatest the world has known.

The challenge for the Centre is to offer such a quest in order to discover and cultivate the vocations of the mind. Courses arranged within the inherently hostile university humanities environment will undoubtedly call some vocations out. But these will not be of the same character as in the situations above. Perhaps such students are undesirables, as those in Prague were to the government. But, if we believe that they are, in fact, desirable, what arrangements might draw then in?

The Centre could conduct an experiment. It could set aside some portion of the dowry to purchase or rent a large house or a small office block in an area well served by public transport. It could engage suitable tutors, enthused by the experiment, offer courses taught by these tutors in small groups and face-to-face. The students would be required to pay fees. Upon satisfying the requirements of their tutors, they would receive appropriate recognition from the experimental school. The school would not seek reciprocal recognition from any existing tertiary institutions, nor any recognition or support from governments, so that, for example, students would neither be eligible for HECS loans, nor have their studies recognised by any other university. Would students be motivated to enrol? I believe so.

One might think that such a scheme would collapse in its first year. But were the tutors excellent within their respective fields, they would attract students; for such has always been the case. Students who enrolled would have to be highly motivated. It would necessarily be said of them that “knowledge, rather than career advancement, was their goal.”

Apart, perhaps, from arrangements for access to libraries, such a school would be completely independent of the existing university system and of its government patrons. The startling advantage of this experiment is its low cost. Should it survive, its status would wax or wane with the quality of its civilised graduates. It would truly be a community of scholars. The experiment, because it is so economical, could be repeated in other metropolitan centres.

Should it thrive and multiply, its schools would be the nucleus for the re-civilisation of the humanities, and the institutions dedicated to de-civilisation would wither and die, rattling all the time like desiccated pods. We can hope.

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