Oakeshott’s definition of the university

Oaskeshott, M. J. 1967. The Definition of a University. The Journal of Educational Thought / Revue de la Pensée Éducative, 1 (3), pp. 129-142

Writing four years after the publication of the Robbins report, Oakeshott responds here to a ‘confusion about the nature of a university and the character of a university education’. We could call it confusion. We could also call it ‘diversification’, or simply ‘change’.

I need to remind myself what benefit(s) Robbins had in mind when he decided that such a significant increase in the proportion of the population would benefit from a university education. Did he imagine that the influence would work both ways? That the university would indeed have an effect on this broader population of students, but the students would have an effect of equal significance on the university? Students are not the only agents in the system; students’ families, and those who employ their skills post-graduation, also push back on the structure of the university.

Unlike before, I found myself irritated by Oakeshott’s prose. For some reason, today, I seem to have projected a pompous tone onto it. The idea of a university as ‘resisting attempts to define it’ is irksome; the university is surely more a structure of our own construction than an actor in itself. He makes unsupported assumptions that students come with mixed or uncertain expectations. I have little sympathy for his discomfiting ontological doubt – I’m sure he would rather his own position was more stable. Wouldn’t we all. Welcome to supercomplexity, Michael – I imagine you still retired with a decent pension and a spare bedroom.

Oakeshott acknowledges the impact of the students – where they have come from, where they are going – on the university. (p134). He argues in favour of its place following on from compulsory schooling; ‘the most impressionable years’, where interests and relationships are formed for life, and momentous decisions are made. He is of the opinion that a university is a more ‘favourable’ context for these happenings to occur (this would be an interesting argument to interrogate). He does, however, describe these happenings as ‘chance opportunities’ rather than the ‘gifts it intentionally affords’, drawing on the rather dubious simile of a railway station as shelter from the rain.

I think what he goes on to say on p135 exposes the blurred boundary between the two; a boundary that Newman – writing 100 years earlier – did not attempt to draw.

Oakeshott describes a university education as a specialisation; the acquisition of a single skill, incorporating a body of ‘strictly limited’ information. The aim as he sees it is for man to fill a specific place in his society and to satisfy a current demand; to sustain a current manner of living. This vision is wholly conservative. Even his ‘different and complementary way’ of regarding the ‘inheritance of human achievement’  is concerned with understanding, explaining and sustaining our existing condition, rather than imagining and creating any future condition.

And then, out of nowhere, he describes these as ‘the skills we need for transforming the world’. Where did that come from? He also acknowledges that studying history or science, for example, when one is not oneself going to become an historian or a scientist, may be a defensible course of action, as the world needs those who can recognise and appreciate great works without necessarily participating in (creating?) them. So I’m left doubting the certainty of his position.

I like this bit…

“not being comparable to a light-industry (having no product, in the strict sense), nor to a store (having no sales-list of items for disposal), a university is apt to confound the accountants. Profit and loss, cost and return on capital are not easily calculable; indeed, there is something inappropriate in making the calculations. It illustrates the truth that there is nothing great in the world that does not involve waste, and that the human propensity to avoid waste (which has itself been erected into a science) is, perhaps, one of our greatest intellectual vanities.” (p139)

…and what really illuminates how much has changed since Oakeshott’s time is his recollection of his own experience at university, which as I am finding through my own conversations is a crucial factor in our individual understandings of the university as a concept: ‘…the feeling of being emancipated from the pressures of immediate achievement… the opportunity to make mistakes without having to pay heavily for them.’ (p140-141).

Here, Oakeshott repeats his claim that the university was the way it was because of his own wants and expectations, and those of his companions. He feels that if these had been different, the university as it was would have dissolved. He focuses in particular on the perception of a university degree as a ‘passport to social prestige, to power and to emolument’ (now, that’s a lovely word!). He observes that – even in 1967! – we have gone too far in this direction, and says that ‘we are wrong to confine our admiration to these [qualities]’ – again, a statement that is ripe for unpacking.

“The time may come when, in the face of the vulgarity of a single-minded devotion of the exploitation of the world and of the barbarism of instant affluence, learning will have to hide its head, and universities will survive only by the exercise of the courage of their calling and by becoming retreats devoted to keeping alive, in hostile circumstances, the great disinterested enquiries of mankind. But that time is not yet.” (p.142)

Is that time now, or is it too late? Did we already sell ourselves down the river?

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