April 2013 President's Letter: What's A University For?

In The New York Times on April 5, David Brooks asks a fundamental question: “What is a university for?” (“The Practical University”, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/opinion/Brooks-The-Practical-University.html?ref=davidbrooks&_r=0).  In answering, he distinguishes between “two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge”.  Basically, “technical knowledge” is “the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task”, “like the recipes in a cookbook”, whereas “practical knowledge” is a kind of “practical moral wisdom”, absorbed rather than memorized, acquired and sustained through practice.  According to Brooks, the online revolution in education will have its main effect in the domain of “technical knowledge”, and the real “future of the universities is in practical knowledge”. 

This is certainly an interesting way of thinking about what universities do, but it stops short of addressing the initial question, “What is a university for?”  In a more Socratic vein, we need to go deeper and to ask what the purpose of a university is, what its goals ought to be, in order to answer that question.  One can imagine Socrates interrogating David Brooks along these lines, trying to get him to isolate what the real thing is that universities ought to be aiming at, what their goal, their telos, is.  Brooks would begin by offering his two kinds of knowledge as the answer, and Socrates would pick away at them for a while in his usual way, showing that they are surface features of what happens in universities, rather than the actual thing that universities are for.  By the end of their conversation, we would reach the familiar impasse—Socrates: “So then, we still do not know what the telos of the university really is”; Brooks: “It appears so, Socrates.”  Rather than enact that hypothetical dialog, however, let me refer you to a genuinely Socratic approach to the problem, as given by Richard Gombrich, in a lecture which to my mind offers the best one-word answer to this hard question.  

In 2000, towards the end of his tenure as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University (1976—2004), Gombrich gave a lecture at Tokyo University entitled "British Higher Education Policy in the last Twenty Years: The Murder of a Profession" (http://indology.info/papers/gombrich/).  In the course of his argument he speaks of how “institutions work best if they have clear goals and are designed to achieve those goals”.  Socrates would put it a bit differently, asking, for example, “What is the goal of the art of medicine?  It is to cure the sick, is it not?  And of navigation?  To guide a ship safely?”  But this is in effect what Gombrich is saying of the institutions which embody the various “arts”, with his declaration that “hospitals are for care of the sick, orchestras for playing music, and they should be used for those goals”.  Analogously, then, says Gombrich, “universities are for truth”.  And he expands his definition of this goal: “to promote its pursuit (curiosity) and encourage its use under all circumstances”.

This will sound wildly utopian to many, and you don’t have to be a paid-up poststructuralist to acknowledge that there are different ways of defining truth.  But in history and in the contemporary world there are many examples to hand of what happens when a society has no sector dedicated to Gombrich’s kind of truth—to free and disinterested enquiry, and to communicating the fruits of that enquiry.  It is not a human activity we should take for granted, and it is always and everywhere under threat.  Modern universities are under all kinds of pressures to put other goals first, but it is not only faculty and students who are at risk if members of the universities abandon this species of curiosity and if we stop insisting that in our domain the criteria of truth trump other criteria. 

Certainly, the acquisition of technical and practical knowledge is compatible with Gombrich’s definition of what the telos of the university really is: in fact, the better universities are at keeping their eye on their real goal, the better they will succeed at making the acquisition of such knowledge possible.  But they need to keep their eye on that goal, on that Socratic telos, if they are to do anything worthwhile.

Denis Feeney
President

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In his history of the long and costly war between Athens and Sparta, the historian Thucydides explained that he had written his narrative to be “a possession for all time” and to be of assistance to those of future generations “who want to see things clearly as they were and, given human nature, as they will one day be again, more or less."1 Thucydides was a shrewd observer and analyst of human behavior, and his work has frequently been cited in times of crisis by those who see patterns in history.  At the famous ceremony dedicating the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863 at which Lincoln also spoke, former Secretary of State Edward Everett delivered a eulogy

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 04/03/2020 - 8:10am by .

As we all contend with the unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 Coronavirus, I want to start by highlighting a gratifying fact: the indispensable expert and voice of reason, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, majored in Classics as an undergraduate at Holy Cross!  This is a timely and inspiring reminder that Classics majors go on to distinguish themselves in many different careers and to perform many kinds of vital service.

I also want to emphasize that, despite the ongoing crisis, the SCS is fully up-and-running. Our three fulltime staff members, Helen Cullyer, Cherane Ali, and Erik Shell, have made a seamless transition to working remotely, thanks to careful advance planning on their part. They are maintaining regular business hours even as they work remotely, and are available to help our members however they can.

View full article. | Posted in Presidential Letters on Sun, 03/29/2020 - 2:22pm by Helen Cullyer.

­­The Classics Everywhere initiative, launched by the SCS in 2019, supports projects that seek to engage communities worldwide with the study of Greek and Roman antiquity in new and meaningful ways. As part of this initiative the SCS has been funding a variety of projects ranging from reading groups comparing ancient to modern leadership practices to collaborations with artists in theater, music, and dance. In this post we focus on projects that bring creativity and science into the Classics classrooms of secondary schools from California to Louisiana, New Jersey, and New York.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 03/27/2020 - 6:25am by .

The SCS Board of Directors has endorsed a statement by the American Sociological Association on faculty review and reappointment during COVID-19.

Read the statement and full list of signatories at this link

https://www.asanet.org/news-events/asa-news/asa-statement-regarding-faculty-review-and-reappointment-processes-during-covid-19-crisis

View full article. | Posted in Public Statements on Mon, 03/23/2020 - 4:26pm by Helen Cullyer.

As the pandemic known as COVID-19 grips the globe, thousands of instructors in the United States and elsewhere have been asked to transition their courses online for the remainder of the semester. To some instructors, such as the superb Classics professors at the Open University, distance learning has become a normalized pedagogy. To many others facing teaching online: this is uncharted territory.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 03/20/2020 - 8:43am by Sarah E. Bond.

Please see the following on access to digital resources during COVID-19:

1. The digital Classical Loeb Library recently announced that it is making its subscription free to all schools and universities affected by COVID-19 until June 30, 2020. Librarians should email loebclassics_sales@harvard.edu for more details. In addition, SCS members can access the library for free until June 30, 2020 via the For Members Only page of our website. Log on to https://classicalstudies.org and access the For Members only page via our Membership menu. 

2. Johns Hopkins University Press and a number of publishers that contribute content to Project Muse are making books and journals freely accessible for several months. JHUP journals include AJP, TAPA, and CW. 

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 03/19/2020 - 9:03am by Helen Cullyer.

Results and materials from the Classics tuning project we've mentioned in prior newsletters are now available publicly. See the below press release from the project's authors for full details:

THE ACM CLASSICS TUNING PROJECT: REPOSITORY OF MATERIALS

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 03/18/2020 - 11:02am by Erik Shell.

We're proud to announce the digital publication of "Careers for Classicists: Undergraduate Edition." This work is a completely new version of our previous "Careers for Classicists" pamphlet, providing the latest insights on how undergraduate classics majors can best prepare for jobs in a variety of fields.

You can read this newest publication in our online book format here: https://classicalstudies.org/careers-classicists-undergraduate-edition

We'd like to thank Adriana Brook, Eric Dugdale, and John Gruber-Miller for doing so much work in putting this volume together. The print version of "Careers" will be available in a few months, and will be one of several benefit choices for departmental membership.

And, in case you missed it, you can read the Graduate Student version of this publication here: https://classicalstudies.org/careers-classicists-graduate-student-edition

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Mon, 03/16/2020 - 12:51pm by Erik Shell.
We realize that this is a time of unprecedented turmoil, disruption, and challenge in all our personal and professional lives. SCS is delaying deadlines for 2021 annual meeting program submission in the hope that some extra time will be helpful to anyone planning to submit. The new deadlines are:
 
- April 21 (by 11.59pm EDT) for all submissions other than individual abstracts and lightning talks
- April 28 (by 11.59pm EDT) for all individual abstracts and lightning talks
 
As circumstances change, we will continue to adapt. While it is too early to say what effect COVID-19 will have on our annual meeting in January 2021, we will adjust as necessary and provide an annual meeting in some form. 
 
View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Sun, 03/15/2020 - 4:26pm by Helen Cullyer.

Here is a modest aggregation of some helpful links and resources that link out to other resources. Thanks to all who have shared their wisdom online:

https://classicalstudies.org/about/so-you-have-teach-online-now

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Sun, 03/15/2020 - 9:51am by Helen Cullyer.

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