Karl Jaspers: universities, love and leadership

Wyatt, J.F. 1982. Karl Jaspers’ The Idea of the University: An existentialist argument for an institution concerned with freedom. Studies in Higher Education 7 (1), pp21-34.

I’m still playing around with Newman’s Idea of the University and have been delving into other ‘Ideas’ to lend my reading of it more depth. I’ve also been trying out a few of my thoughts about Newman’s Idea on my research participants. Transcribing these bits has been, well, interesting. I do have a tendency to go off on one when I’m talking about something I’m really into.

I came across this piece on Karl Jaspers the other day. It was one of those serendipitous right-hand-column discoveries you make when browsing Taylor & Francis journal articles. It’s almost as old as I am, but – like me – still fresh as a daisy 😉

Karl Jaspers wrote the first version of The Idea of the University shortly after the first world war, and published an extensively revised version at the end of WW2. It was translated into English in 1960 during the period of intense public debate on higher education that preceded the Robbins report. In his Idea, Jaspers – an existentialist – presents the search for truth as paramount and equates it to the human search for wholeness. Like Newman, he identifies the ultimate end of this search for truth as ‘human development & advancement’, while maintaining a decidedly conservative view of how this is to be achieved. He emphasises the transmission of culture – a complex concept, but primarily disciplinary culture – in addition to, and as distinct from, the other two objectives of the university – research and the transmission of knowledge. Distinct, but inseparable; these three activities join forces to ‘direct the individual to the frontiers’.

Jaspers identifies three modes of learning that take place in universities; schooling, apprenticeship and Socratic dialogue. He places particular emphasis on the latter. Jaspers’ ideal university is a ‘community of thinking’ that seeks wholeness and truth through a Socratic system. For him, this is ideal because it is formative, not isolated, and moves its participants towards ‘meaningful freedom’; a phrase also used often by his pupil Hannah Arendt. ‘Freedom of the intellect’ – academic freedom –  is for Jaspers the archetypal feature of the university.

In this respect, Jaspers is thought to differ somewhat from Von Humbolt, and more so from Heidegger (I’ve been reading a recent piece by Mark Sinclair on these two). Von Humbolt was all in favour of the unencumbered pursuit of Wissenschaft (rough translation – broad science), but specified it as a communal endeavour, in the service of Bildung and bound to Geist. If there is anything about the Humboltian ideal that Jaspers was explicitly rejecting, I suspect it would have been these slippery notions and their susceptibility to appropriation (they may seem more slippery to me because I am only 25% German). Indeed, Heidegger – during his brief period as the National Socialist rector of Freiburg University in the 1930s – was said to have radicalised Von Humbolt’s position, criticising Lehrfreiheit and arguing for a Gemeinschaft – a genuine community – as opposed to a fully autonomous Gesellschaft (yet again I am struck by how the Germans really have got the better language for discussing these matters!).

Jaspers classified knowledge into two different types; the ‘universal’, and the ‘individual’ or ‘unique’. It sounds like this division corresponds pretty well to what we might call the sciences (including e.g. sociology) and the arts, but Jaspers’ labelling is interesting; it highlights that ‘universal’ knowledge is about identifying rules – laws of nature. This led me to consider whether the other kind of knowledge  – I think ‘particular’ is a better term – is concerned with exceptions. I’m still wondering about that.

Jaspers was of the mind that the quality of an institution was not determined by what it taught, so much as the methods of teaching and the quality of those who teach. He writes about the courage to educate – an idea echoed by inspirational writers like Paulo Freire and Parker Palmer – claiming that teaching requires us to trust in the dormant possibilities of human nature. For Freire, ‘education is an act of love, and thus an act of courage’, and I propose the two are saying (roughly) the same thing. In loving, we give something of ourselves that we may not get back. We make ourselves vulnerable; we invest with no guarantee of return. This may sound less like trusting in the possibilities of human nature than gambling on it, but if the giving – the work we do – is rewarding in itself, then it is not a gamble. Many wise people feel that way about love as well – that to love without need or expectation is, paradoxically, the most rewarding way to love.

Wyatt calls attention to the problem of an existentialist arguing for the maintenance of an antiquated institution such as a university, and explains how Jaspers reconciles this, particularly given the particularly rigid departmental structures of German universities in the interwar period. Jaspers was writing about what the university should become rather than what it was, and his ideal was focused on the human possibilities of becoming whole. Key to his Idea is that tension between the individual and the world is a necessary condition of existence; it leads to self-knowledge and a true life. We can never truly know another’s experience, but we become more whole by encountering the boundaries. This resonates with Richard’s recent 3:am interview with Alexander Nehamas on Nietzsche and friendship, in which Nehamas explains that, while morality depends on similarity, friendship depends on and encourages difference. Friendship is essential to our becoming a person in that it enables us to try different ways of being; different approaches to life. I like that interview a lot – it certainly encapsulates why I’m friends with Richard 😉

Jaspers joins Newman, Heidegger and Von Hombolt in their call for unified universities, arguing that specialist institutions break up the opportunity for communication between the forms of knowledge. He argues for ‘a form of [collective] thinking which constantly strives to connect the various modes to form a totality’; to make possible the shared pursuit of truth. There are genuine basic differences between forms of knowledge, and communication gives us an awareness of these differences. Such conversations should aim to be productive and educative, not necessarily reconciling. This is a crucial point, and worth underscoring given my earlier attempts at titling my thesis. Am I hoping to reconcile different imaginations of the university? Is this possible? Advisable? Possibly not.

While Newman is clear on the kind of (responsible) character a university education produces (providing a list of specifics to rival Darcy’s ‘accomplished woman’), Jaspers argues that this should be considered a by-product rather than a conscious aim. He claims that it is not a university’s task to produce leaders of the people; the qualities of a good leader and a good scholar are not the same.

I might accuse Jaspers of contradicting himself here, but that’s because we disagree about what makes a good leader! Jaspers would cite willpower, resoluteness and pragmatism, while I – echoing Carl Rogers (1961) – would emphasise authenticity, acceptance and understanding. Rogers attests that these qualities are applicable to all human relationships, and I would add that looking at leadership from a relational perspective explains why we lead more effectively in some contexts than others. For example, I am good at my job because I am at ease among academics and teachers, have developed a warm regard for those I work with, and have come to understand their frustrations. Conversely, volunteering for Crisis at Christmas, where I felt unsure of myself, and the guests’ hardship was beyond my understanding, I was barely fit for guarding the janitor’s cupboard. At the time, my incompetence surprised and upset me. This is the problem with assuming that effective leadership is comprised of fixed personal traits like determination and pragmatism; it does not prepare us for the re-learning that is required – the relational work that needs to be done – when we find ourselves in a completely different situation.

Life has many facets and we may all in some way be leaders, but according to Jaspers and Newman we are not all scholars – nor should we be. Jaspers is clear that higher education *should* be preserved for the few; an ‘intellectual aristocracy’ that represents the possibility of mankind. I was not wholly convinced by Newman’s argument on this, and Jaspers’ view – as Wyatt observes – also comes across as elitist and paternalistic. Collini’s (2012) argument for reversing expansion is persuasive on practical grounds, but philosophically I find it jarring. I like to imagine a world where we are all engaged in the pursuit of truth, but not by sending increasing numbers of 18 year olds to university… something more universal, more inclusive than that. Not sure what yet.

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