Universities were for a time the natural refuge or shelter of a particular form of life, or a particular choice for a form of life. I suppose the pretense, once upon a time, was that choosing a life of study and reflection over alternative possibilities was in itself worthwhile—something to do, not necessarily for its own sake, rather in view of remaining open to what we might sum up as experiences of existential truth. It was believed, rightly or wrongly, that a life of study simply created time for a deeper engagement with existential truth, and that the search itself was its own reward. What was the goal of that search? What could one possibly expect to gain from the loneliness and obscurity of a life not primarily turned to efforts for glory or wealth, to efforts for mastery, technical or political, in the abdication of the most obvious pretenses for fame, recognition, professional success, payment, in a word? One chose a certain simple probity, a wage-earning probity, presumably understanding the stakes. Not that the option was self-defeating. For a time the university could justify its own function through pedagogical projections: the thinker could talk to the students, and that would have been formative for the latter. Beyond pedagogical projections, however, the one who chose study and reflection over everything else, provided the choice was open, provided that it was as free a choice as choices can be free in any human existence, obviously hoped to obtain something in return. I know of no better formulation of this than the one offered by a still young Friedrich Nietzsche at the beginning of Human, All Too Human (and precisely the year, by the way, in which he decided to leave his own university behind):
From this sickly isolation, from the desert of such years of trial, it is still a long way to the tremendous, overflowing certainty and health that cannot dispense even with sickness as a means and a hook for knowledge, to the ripened freedom of spirit that is just as much self-mastery and discipline of the heart and that permits one to take the paths of many varied and opposed ways of thinking—to the inner comprehensiveness and pampered overabundance that exclude the danger that the spirit may somehow lose itself, even upon its own paths, fall in love with them, and remain sitting, intoxicated, somewhere in a corner, to the excess of plastic, healing, imitating, and restoring forces that is the sign of great health, the excess that gives to the free spirit the dangerous privilege of living for experiments and of being allowed to offer itself to adventure: the master privilege of the free spirit! (Stanford edition, 1995, 9)
Nietzsche’s great health of the spirit, summed up in a certain notion of freedom premised on the avoidance of counterfeiting: this is what I call existential truth, or truths. It could seem desperately old-fashioned today. It might be desperately old-fashioned in a world where the old virtues of an intellectual life, namely, probity, frugality, self-restraint, courtesy, dignity, and an aspiration to refinement in every sense have been rejected in favor of what the ideologues and lackeys of our time prefer to call a “positive psychology” of happiness and optimism, conducive to an allegedly seamless adjustment to service-oriented, consumerist society where everything is either a resource or an obstacle for personal advancement. And today the masters in charge have decided that only “social impact,” as measured by contests and competitions that they themselves determine to the detriment of any possible notion of academic freedom, counts as a measure of advancement at the university.
There are many possible ways of living one’s life, and I do not begrudge any of them. What seems to me wrong is the travesty of imposing on a certain form of life procedures and expectations that do not belong to it, that the said form of life has always already rejected in order to constitute itself as such. When it is done massively and systematically, we need to confront the fact that we are witnessing an attempt to erase the form of life itself. This should be no laughing matter, as it has the status of a gesture for civilizational change, and clearly for the worse. It is no laughing matter for my generation, but I wonder whether it has become one for more recent generations. It is a genuine question, and I would appreciate attempts at answering it.
All of this comes to what current university administrations are now calling “faculty excellence.” Of course it is only one dimension of the ridiculously pretentious and counterproductive but all-pervasive notion of “excellence” that has flourished on our campus at the hands of its worst elements. But it is a symptomatic one. What do you make of a paragraph like this? (for obvious reasons I am redacting names from the paragraph, which is in any case generic and in that sense not the property of any single institution, unfortunately: they are all doing it):
The dean agrees with the University Distinguished Professors that the Department of … and the College should support Dr. … in pursuing avenues, including competitive university-wide research awards, that would be springboards for more prestigious national and international prizes and awards. Therefore, I encourage you to support Dr. … in seeking and attaining one or two highly prestigious national and/or international awards that would further affirm …’s already distinguished scholarly profile. Such an addition to … ‘s scholarly eminence would better position Dr. … for a possible successful future UDP nomination.
To sum it up: either you pay your way to professional recognition in monetary terms or you will not get professional recognition. The damage that such a mind structure does is probably unmeasurable. It is beyond measure to the very precise extent that it aims to subject everything to calculative measure. The one who chose to devote himself or herself to a life of study and reflection must recant, must turn back on his or her choice, must understand that at the end of the day everything was about the instrumentalization of spirit, now quantifiable in “international prizes and awards,” which have become a sine qua non condition not just of advancement, but merely of recognizable presence.
But I am still reluctant, and probably terminally so, to educate my students to become nothing but strategic calculators, whatever form of life they end up choosing, even if they want to go into finances and become famously wealthy. There is something properly repugnant about it. Perhaps feeling this way is in itself old-fashioned. Well, then, so be it.