What Makes a University Great? Audacious Irreverence, That's What!

06/20/2013 10:46 am ET | Updated Aug 20, 2013

1. What Makes a University Great?
It is very easy to give banal or trite answers -that a so-called "Great University" provides an environment where "people can grow," or can be "exposed to other cultures," or, "can live up to her or his greatest potential." Instead of offering such boring, predictable, and palliative answers, I would argue that a really Great University is characterized by the degree to which it fosters, permits, and encourages argument among its members. The Huffington Post readers are, of course, welcome to disagree with me if they would like!

2. "Audacious Irreverence" and other Desiderata
Great Universities have students and faculty who are willing to engage one another as well as institutional and community contexts to facilitate such meetings - namely buildings, bookstores, coffee shops, an excess of eateries, laboratories, libraries with books in abundance, and so on. Great Universities play a significant role in permitting and developing informal places for intellectual trysts, ménage a trois, and orgies both on and off campus.

In addition to satisfying these material requirements, the members of Great University need to satisfy or aspire to satisfy dispositional desiderata. Students, faculty, and staff alike must be willing to acknowledge, question, and defend their presuppositions. These presuppositions concern what exists, how purportedly existent things interact, how we know, what does or does not happen after we "die," and what is right and wrong. The members of a Great University, who are humanities professors, social scientists, and students of the hard sciences, do not take any presuppositions for granted. A hermeneutic of suspicion governs all. In fact, it is the intellectual disposition of greatest importance. If this temperament were not to dominate, a Great University can very quickly disintegrate into a Great Trade School.

A Great University is thus one where its members are ready, willing, and able to question any and all assumptions. It is a place where no belief is "sacred," "an undeniable law of the universe," or even a "law of nature" other than the one that argument and reflection is desirable and beneficial. A Great University is a place where one may enter having set beliefs, ethics, and so on, and, if and when one leaves, one has been forced to confront the coherence and viability of those beliefs. One may leave even more certain about ones beliefs than before yet be now aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and those of one's intellectual opponents and interlocutors. Either way, as Socrates described in the "Meno", students and teachers must be stung alike.

Instructors are thus essential in this process as their job is to create self-contained environments for debate, namely classrooms, and intellectual practices, namely reading and writing assignments, conducive to fostering such debate, wherein participants can pursue lines of questioning with "audacious irreverence."

The only exception is, of course, ones that permit such argument to occur at all, ones which follows shared rules of academic inquiry, namely that one person can speak at a time, that statements must be defended through the use of evidence, and so on. These rules of rhetoric are themselves debatable. Lest their be an infinite regress of sorts, (that is, how do we argue about how we argue?) they ought to be upheld stipulatively.

Textual studies in history classes, in English classes, and in religion classes ought to be taught using a hermeneutic of suspicion. Theories taught in an anthropology class or in a biology class ought to as well. Even experiments in psychology classes, chemistry classes, and engineering classes ought to be founded on this principle. Nothing should be off limits.

As Socrates said to Meno:

"It isn't that, knowing the answers myself, I perplex other people. The truth is that I infect them with the perplexity I feel myself. So with virtue now. I don't know what it is. You may have known before you came into contact with me, but now you look as you don't. Nevertheless, I am ready to carry out, together with you, a joint inquiry into what it is." (Meno 363, 80c.)

3. Models
Reed College and the University of Chicago are places where this skepticism, bordering on a sexy and dangerous nihilism, is par for the course. At these institutions there are no questions that could not be asked. Members of the communities are ready to argue about points learned in class or read in the newspaper, or even about the very nature of what makes an academic environment great. Ernest L. Boyer, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and former U.S. Commissioner of Education said Reed had: "a climate of audacious irreverence with the stretching toward excellence that has been recognized both nationally and internationally."

4. Life after the life of the mind
Some may worry that such an immersion in the life of the mind is wasteful and has a telos that is not economically productive and produces students who are unable (or do not want) to negotiate the complexities and challenges of the so-called real world. Some may say "while this intellectual masturbation was orgasmic during my time as a student, I graduated having not an iota of knowledge about how to get a job, and, for all intents and purposes, I am economically impotent." And then they may feel remorse for having not learned a trade and been a productive, rather than a flaccid, member of society.

But surely the audacious irreverence that one had towards course materials can and should be applied to all teleologies, cultural, religious, economic, and otherwise. So there is no life after living and loving the life of the mind. Rather, there are only degrees to which one can (not ought) to participate in the dubious dominant paradigm. And if one should choose to do so, then the only obligation is to inspire audacious irreverence in others...

And, if my answer is banal or trite, then I invite you to argue with me about it!