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The Woman Problem & other prose

Grasping the Nettle

page 56

Grasping the Nettle

Now man's great day is almost done,
the colonels and the touts depart;
still lingers tiny on the Down,
a kike conversing with a tart.
The crammed last bus, last Hope, is gone,
and we, benighted, squeamish girls,
coldly regard how, darkly blown,
the crowd's foul pleasure-litter whirls.

Edgell Rickword

Bulging race trams disgorge the punters on to the streets of Megalopolis, where discarded tram and tote tickets are blowing along the gutters, along with the crumpled paper flowers of yesterday's celebration of the Millennium.

Among these subdued pleasure seekers there are, almost for certain, one or two academic people who have tried out infallible mathematical systems and, unaccountably, have come back to town lighter in the pocket. They are as disillusioned as the rest; like the rest, they are very thoughtful, and shiver slightly in the rising wind: bad luck behind, bad weather before them.

It is small wonder that their morning hopes have given place to anxiety and a kind of thin despair. For even the most cloistral of their colleagues, those who have never walked down the hill and taken a ticket in the great gamble, are disturbed and apprehensive. Cold winds are blowing from far away, stirring the local dust. In the weather sky is a rash of cirrus, hinting at storms to come. The barometer is still falling steadily. Rheumatic twinges in the joints provide evidence that is subjective, and therefore the more convincing, that there are difficult days ahead.

page 57

What are the purposes of the University? What is its proper relationship to society?

University people all over the Western world are debating these questions more anxiously as time goes on. Small wonder if (dropping all metaphor) we find that the more thoughtful of them are filled with apprehension. For the question that begins to obtrude itself is not whether salaries will be increased, or the new building scheme set in motion. The real question that has to be faced is whether the University will be able to exist at all in the kind of society towards which we are moving.

I do not wish my meaning to be mistaken. Undoubtedly, if we survive the impact of the atomic age, we shall have large buildings of one sort or another in which the techniques of applied physics, book-keeping, dental surgery, 'news-presentation,' social hygiene and town planning are practised and taught. Scholastic study will still be allowed to go on in a few odd corners, mainly for purposes of ornament and prestige. These places will still, no doubt, out of reverence for dead tradition, be called 'Universities'. But if we find that their entire nature and purpose have been changed, honesty may perhaps compel us in the end to find a name for them that is less misleading.

The harsh truth must be taken into the mind and endured: certain tendencies that in the past have been discussed as more or less remote possibilities have come to wear a more frightening look. They appear, not as possibilities, but as probabilities. It now seems likely that the 'closed' society, in one form or another, will come to be established. The drift of events and of social processes is bearing us steadily in that direction. Social Security, and that wolf in sheep's clothing, the 'full employment' policy, lead logically to an extension of State power. The concentration of economic authority in the hands of the State, the building-up of a system of interlocking 'controls', the increase of State revenue and its expenditure in an ever-widening field, all point towards the same shore.

I have very little doubt, myself, but that all this must lead page 58on to barbarism, unless heroic measures are taken to circumvent the defects and dangers of the 'planned' society. Perhaps that suggests the realistic way to look at the matter: perhaps we should accept planning as an inevitable outcome of industrial civilisation, and concentrate our efforts on dilution, modification and benevolent frustration of the Single Will that such a system must constantly tend to bring into being. If so, there seems to be very little hope of such a course offering us plain sailing; especially in view of the all too evident fact that at present we are just plain drifting.

My use of the word 'barbarism' needs justifying. The matter may be viewed from any one of a number of different (but related) standpoints; it may be discussed within various 'frames of reference'. Since it is the status of the University in society that we are concerned about at the moment, perhaps I may best put it in this way—that a society without institutions cannot, as I see it, hope to escape barbarism. And that is what faces us: the prospect of having to live (or of our children having to live) in a society in which the specialised function and authority of every existing institution have been absorbed into the centralised power and authority of the State. In such an event there would be only one institution in society—the State itself. But to use the word 'institution' in such a way is to deprive it of all meaning.

Church, School, Family, Army, Press and the other institutions of society have in the past enjoyed the right to exercise their various specialised functions in the body politic. Did I write 'Army'? No, not the Army—for it has been (in theory, and for the most part in practice) a simple instrument of State power. This has been tolerable because the status of the Army has been a very special one, not extending to the institutions proper. Give all social institutions the same status as the Army and you have produced the totalitarian State— which has no institutions, but only instruments. And (as is fully implied) its essential character will be military.

Am I required to prove that totalitarianism is a form of barbarism?

I could work out some threadbare analogies between the body politic and the human body, and I think they would page 59be valid. But they are sufficiently obvious. Let us proceed on our way.

The University is one of the major institutions of society. More than that it is closely linked with other important institutions. If it ceases to exercise the function and authority proper to it, then it will cease to be the University in any connotation that word may have for us at present. In a totalitarian society it must of necessity lose its proper function and authority.

The chief (and central) function of the University is the study of philosophy, in the full extension of the word. It has other functions, but they are all related in some way to that central one. Of course, the University today tends to be rather like a department store, with gents' haberdashery on the second floor, ironmongery on the third and philosophy just round the corner to the left. (Watch that you don't bump your head.) This state of affairs is not really defensible. The University should be concerned not only with the diversity of knowledge, but also in some sense with the unity of knowledge.

I think we can dismiss from our minds the hope that any sort of integration of University life and thought can be brought about as quickly and easily as one might call spirits from the vasty deep. More deliberately, I think we should dismiss from our minds the notion of an authoritarian University, held together by rigid bonds of doctrine. The unity we seek must be first of all a unity of purpose—based on the pursuit and organisation of knowledge, the re-examination of accepted ideas (and of discarded ideas), and the consciousness of impending bankruptcy. There is no need for us to assume that knowledge can ever be fully organised. Of course it can't, humanly speaking. The very notion is suspect, and smells of the inquisition chamber. No doubt there will be certain fundamental beliefs held in common by all those concerned; and these beliefs should be examined and clarified, along with others, as part of the task of the University. But the mould of the University should always be that of liberalism. Belief should emerge, and not be imposed.

page 60

Liberalism is, one might say, the specific climate of the University. Even an authoritarian society might help to preserve its health by insisting on its Universities being maintained on a liberal basis. (By 'liberal' I mean this: that whatever beliefs may be acted upon—action being unavoidable—every question must be regarded formally as an 'open' one, and therefore subject to debate. If I am told that this implies the dogma of scepticism, I can only reply that I am prescribing a function for a particular institution, not for all institutions, or for society as a whole.)

It is not the duty of the University to save the soul of society. But society (speaking in terms of analogy) must save its soul somehow or other; and in doing so it must make use of its institutions. The University can assist by first recognising the need for belief, and then by helping belief to emerge. It is clear that in a 'closed' society it would necessarily become in some sense an underground movement if it was to fulfil its functions to any extent at all.

The closed society, if it comes into being, may in theory take either a religious or a secular form. The sort of society toward which we are drifting will, I fear, be pseudo-religious in character: at all events, while it is consolidating itself —for power, while it is 'on the make', finds hypocrisy indispensable. Its 'sales talk' and its ideological shop-front will perhaps recall the positivist State of Comte. (Most current schemes for world political reform or revolution convey strong echoes of Comte; but of course they are much less dewy-eyed.) The reality of the 'closed' society will be less agreeable than the prospectus will lead us to believe, for it will be based on an intense concentration of power.

There never has been, and of course there never can be, a society that is completely 'open', where reason is fully effective. But the belief in 'openness', established at the Renaissance, is something we cannot afford to sacrifice lightly, however deep our despair of human reason. We know that society is ruled by taboo as much as by reason, and if we are wise we accept that rule gracefully. To relax the tension between reason and taboo, and to relapse into page 61authoritarian 'certainty' of any kind, would at this stage be disastrous. Our problem is to make reason effective within human limitations, and within the sphere of an institutional society, without falling either into 'rationalism' (I give it inverted commas), or into a rechauffe 'order', the chief warrant of which would be our own despair. And in this business of sustaining tension the University has a more important role to perform than has any other institution. It is therefore essential that it shall not compromise itself. It is also essential that it shall not deceive itself into thinking the spoon it sups with is longer than it really is.

Perhaps the implications of all this may be conveyed most clearly by imagining a dialogue as going on constantly, in a loose and unformulated way, between State and University, and condensing it in some such fashion as this:


'We hold that our proper functions are the development and teaching of knowledge, and the custodianship of ideas and of certain human values. Since practice depends upon theory, we must be free to concentrate as much of our effort as may be necessary on pure research and on disinterested study. And we must be free to interpret our role in the life of society according to the traditions of our own institution rather than in the light of any day-to-day instructions we may receive from you.'


'Wait. You forget one thing. You forget that I am the paymaster. The greater part of your income is money that I pass on to you from the people, who have entrusted it to me. It is they who are paying you. And they are entitled to get the particular services they ask for. I merely interpret their wishes.'


'Is that all you do? How very odd.'


'They need the services of technicians, and they want them trained—book-keepers, mechanics, radio repairers, journalists, pig breeders, and all the rest. So I'm afraid you'll have to become a little more practical-minded if you don't want your income to drop off.'


'We don't object to teaching certain practical subjects, when they are closely connected with theoretical study. In page 62fact, we think it is our duty to do so. Others we think might be better taught by institutes of technology. The point we're concerned with is a rather different one; and it's not to be settled satisfactorily by saying that it's merely a question of emphasis. We want to be free to develop knowledge (and that involves the study, not only of facts, but of values, by the way). We must be free to "follow the argument whither-soever it leads". We simply can't have you, or the people, using us for any practical purpose you think fit. You might use a grand piano to play dance tunes on, but you wouldn't use it to chop wood on.'


'There is no telling what the people might do if they felt in the mood. And, I repeat, they are supreme.'


'But suppose the people are making a mistake? They may be unaware of the proper function of the University. That function is a dual one. The University trains men and women for the professions. It also embodies and sustains certain social ideals and traditions of thought, belief and feeling. This latter function is, I can assure you, an entirely necessary one; and it must be exercised in freedom if it is not to become a terrible danger to society rather than an aid to health and sanity. The University acts in a sense, as one might say, as the "brain" of society—or let us be modest and say as one of the lobes. If this is atrophied, or paralysed, society will be endangered. Is it worth risking?'


'That is for the people to say. They, after all, are the Supreme Authority in this as in all other matters. You must be prepared, if necessary, to change your whole nature and to serve a different function from that which you say is traditionally yours. That is the meaning of Democracy But let me try to reassure you. Is it Culture you are anxious about? I am arranging (with the approval of the people, of course) for a vast extension of Adult Education services, with lectures on art appreciation and all that sort of thing. I see no reason why the service rendered by Broadcasting in bringing Culture to every home should not be supplemented by Adult Education on a much wider scale. Don't tell me that this is mere entertainment, and that adults are in the main ineducable, for that is heresy.'

page 63 U:

'Listen to me for a moment. You say that you merely represent the people and interpret their wishes. But in the circumstances you must have considerable power over them, in helping them to think and to make up their minds. (Perhaps you sometimes make up their minds for them. Possibly at some future time you may instruct us to install a Department of Propaganda in the University to train experts who can help you in making up the people's minds for them.) Now, if you have any sort of influence over the people, I implore you to tell them what are the proper functions of a University.'

S (blandly):

'Well, I don't mind doing that. I'll do what I can, with pleasure. But I must ask you for a small favour in return. I am worried about the slow pace of our atomic research, and the way we're lagging generally in scientific defence measures. I want you to turn the whole of your Science Faculty loose on the problem, and help me out. It's all in the interests of the nation, you know—and finally in the interests of international brotherhood, if one takes a right view of it'…

At this point the University either yields gracefully; or goes on to argue the point, proving without much trouble that twentieth-century man has enjoyed spectacular successes in dealing with the means of living (or dying) on this planet, but has become a little hazy about ends; that the University has taken a leading part in the achievement of these triumphs, and might now be granted the opportunity to adjust the balance by cultivating the humanities and restoring philosophy to its throne in the mind of man.

I shall leave it to my readers to decide (a) what ought to happen next, and (b) what probably does happen when the discussion reaches that point.