News | Education Lost

A Conversation with Professor Douglas Farrow

On Thursday November 25 Douglas Farrow, McGill professor of Christian Thought and director of Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy, held a public lecture on the ‘Lost Idea of the University.’ This comes in the wake of the creation of McGill’s highly publicized ‘Initiative in the World’s Religions and Globalization’ – a recent partnership between McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

After the lecture The McGill Daily sat down with Professor Farrow at a reception held in McGill’s Newman Center for an extended conversation about this ‘lost’ idea.

The McGill Daily: Could you comment on the relationship between higher education and democratic institutions, especially in light of current austerity budget policies, which threaten to make the university more exclusive to the general voting population?

Douglas Farrow: Well, austerity issues come and go. If the current financial lows get serious enough to cause major changes in the university, as opposed to the usual round of good times and not so good times, it will no doubt affect many sectors of society, perhaps even before it affects the university. So we may find that our concerns about the university are the least, or rather one of the less pressing, of our problems. Obviously people such as myself who make a living in the university may find that this is especially problematic but we’re all sort of waiting to see how serious or large-scale these economic problems are. We don’t really know yet but frankly there are some quite worrying signs.

But to your question on the impact of austerity measures, real or imagined, on the question of access to the university: first of all, I did indicate in my paper that I think in a sense we already have a utilitarian approach to the university when we make it an institution to which there should be presumed access. Now taking that view may mark me out as dangerous or ‘elitist,’ which I don’t wish to be, but I do think that the university, even viewed as a utility for advancement in career opportunities, is not a very important institution because if everybody can get a university degree than a university degree isn’t very meaningful in selecting candidates for a job, right? If everybody’s special, nobody’s special.

What resulted is the process wherein first you just needed high school or you needed grade eight; then you needed grade twelve; then you needed a B.A.; now you need a master’s degree. Some day you may need a doctoral degree to climb to the top of the ladder in terms of pools of labour and job prospects. So I don’t think that that’s a very good way to approach the university or what its relation to people should be. I also don’t like the utilitarian dimension of that – the university as simply a stepping stone to a more successful, affluent, orsecure kind of life.

The university, I think, has a much more specialized purpose and that’s to prepare people for the kind of attentive listening and the kind of rigorous thought processes which make them useful to one another in ways that can’t be reduced to economy and marketplace…but that more centrally it has to do more with the enjoyment and appreciation of the good.

MD: In your lecture you emphasized that the courage to confront the problems you outlined will have to emanate from a new understanding of the unity of knowledge. Could you explain this and comment what this means in regards to the ‘social constructivism’ that you describe as present at McGill?

DF: The idea that knowledge can cohere, so that one part informs another and the whole informs the parts, is something that we have less confidence in today than we used to… That is to say, ours is a more sceptical age. When people become skeptical of the coherence of knowledge they are also, of course, becoming skeptical of the very notion of truth. Truth requires a measure, it requires some objective reality that is accessible to us by which our opinions…must be judged. When people become skeptical of the possibility of truth they tend to embrace the idea…that truth is, as Richard Rorty once put it, somewhat jokingly, “Whatever my colleagues will let me [get] away with.” Our relations with one another, if determined seriously and not just jokingly by that approach, become competitions, become power games and contests between my groundless construct that I am proffering to you and to anybody who will listen and your groundless construct which you are proffering, which serve your purposes. … You mentioned… the sort of social constructivist outlook that is so common today. Thankfully, it’s not taken for granted at McGill in the way it might be at some other institutions, but it is part and parcel of that game. Take for example some proponents of gay rights who are not really social constructivists, who would try to argue their point of view both in terms of sex and in terms of public policies about sex on some common basis with people who take a different approach to sex and public policies on sex, and queer theorists, who are generally social constructivists, for whom gender is what you make of it. It’s not a matter of biology; it’s really a matter of how you construe yourself for whatever reasons at a given time and in a given context. There is no underlying reality to that. It is the reality you choose to generate for yourself.

Now, if you try to make public policy on the basis of that approach, of that philosophy, you quickly find yourself in all sorts of binds – which we ought to be talking about, since we are exploring some policy changes along those lines, but we don’t talk about them very much because it’s not convenient for us to face up to those questions. We maybe have a specific goal in mind: changing a policy about marriage, or bill C-389 [legislation on gender identity and expression] right now, for example. And we might confine our discussion to the question of whether we should have a unisex washroom on every floor of the building. Which, as I pointed out to [the Administration], is also an economic question, of the economy of space and the money to put this in place – but that’s a very trivial level on which to discuss it. Behind that is a question of how would such a policy change be rooted in a common reality that we could all recognize, and on what basis could we recognize this as reality rather than just a whim. Those kinds of questions take us much deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of a movement for a right or a particular set of rights and into questions about what rights are.

Rights are related to right, to truth, to goodness, to justice. And it’s that kind of question that I want us to ask and work at and that the university should be good at asking and working at. Where does our confidence come from? Well, that is a philosophical and ultimately a theological question. If we don’t explore it at those deeper levels, what is to prevent us from simply lapsing into the view that ultimately all this…is just a play of phenomena that doesn’t really have any depth and that we can switch around any way we like?

MD: So to be clear: in your view this truth emanates from a monotheistic God and is revealed through divine illumination?

DF: It’s not an accident that science as we know it, and the university as we have known it, arose in a culture which is shaped on the one hand by Greek or Hellenistic philosophical developments that are reaching out for a monotheistic unity in the midst of this sort of chaos of not only household and city gods but the mythologies of the poets, which philosophers such as Plato tried to tame. And the Judeo-Christian heritage, which is monotheistic also but for other reasons…has engaged the philosophical reasons, embraced many of the philosophical reasons, but its origins, the roots of its monotheism are different.

… Now I started there by saying that it’s not an accident that universities and science … emerged within the context where there was at least that much consensus: reality does at least cohere, somehow, and it’s appropriate for human beings to explore the way in which it coheres. It’s appropriate for them to think and talk about God, yes, and it’s also appropriate for them to examine the coherence of the world because – and this was a particularly Christian contribution – the world is not itself God and it would not be irreverent in probing the world, even to take it apart and look at it, and try to figure out how it works. It’s worth doing because it does cohere, you will find answers. And why does it cohere? Because God made it to cohere and it’s okay to do it because when you probe behind the surface of the world you are not poking God. You are discovering the ways of God in creating the world but you are not poking Him and you are not being sacrilegious. It’s good to peer into the actual workings of things. If they weren’t good God wouldn’t have made them, and if it wasn’t good to understand them He wouldn’t have given you the kind of mind that can do that.

… [W]e have become skeptical in late modernity about that common ground the Hellenistic and Judeo-Christian heritages shared, and that has produced, as I said in my lecture, a certain kind of cynicism as we despair about truth, which is also affecting the university where people are to learn the art of conversation that makes them able participants in the search for truth. They don’t come to university to be told exactly what truth is, but they do come to be more able participants – not the only participants and not the only able participants – but more able participants in the search for truth.

If you give up believing in truth, you give up believing in the university. Then what? Well, then you try to play power games and take as much advantage as you can of whatever resources the university has. If it’s appointments, if it’s money, if it’s equipment, if it’s influence over students – you just always edge to get the best advantage you can and it becomes a kind of jungle.

MD: I want to get back to the University and bring the conversation back to McGill. In your lecture you warned of creeping bureaucratization and the decline in institutional autonomy – those are two of your criticisms of the “‘lost’ university.” Do you feel this is reflected specifically in the context of McGill? There are current policies described in Heather Munroe-Blum’s emails pointing to the new directions of the University and I was wondering if yours was a direct comment on those directions?

DF: No it was not, but do I see it affecting McGill as well as other universities, yes. I only used one, if I recollect, in the written text at any rate, specific example at McGill of a problem and it wasn’t [one of] those problems. It was an example of disciplinary inflation. And that’s when I referred to our new inter-faculty major [in Sustainability, Science and Society], which, by the way, I do think has some things to be commended for,.. In terms of bureaucratization, I remember when I first came to McGill a dozen or so years ago hearing a very senior professor holding forth in a meeting of the association of university teachers here against the dangers of this loss of collegiality in decision making and the bureaucratization that accompanied it. It’s a concern that others have had and held for some time. I know that it is shared by many. But I want to be somewhat sympathetic to the challenge faced by our administration, and that is that – in such a big institution with so many pressures on it, from the government, from the marketplace et cetera – it’s no simple thing, it’s no easy thing: you can’t call together the professoriate as a whole and say, “Well, how do we respond to the latest diktat from the Ministry of Education?” You just can’t do that.

… [N]ow, I’m not a libertarian , but I do see very much a creeping, even a galloping, statism in the bureaucratization of our society as a whole. How do we keep our space, this interval in time and space that the university ought to create for its students? How do we preserve that quasi-monastic way of life that does its particular work for the good of society? How do we preserve that autonomy against all these other pressures? Well, if we only – inside the University – mirror the authoritarianism and the bureaucratization and the death-by-paperwork effect that is “out there,” then it seems to me we’ve already lost the battle.

Is McGill worse than other places? No, it’s probably better, but is it in danger of going the same path? Yes it is. Can it be run without some centralization in the principal’s and the provost’s office? No, it probably can’t. But can it continue to be what historically it has wanted to be and has been if that centralization and its accompaniments, in terms of increasing bureaucracy – if we’re hiring more administrators then we are scholars – we’re not of course but the ratio is changing – if that trend continues will we become less of a real university? Yes, I think we will. It doesn’t mean we might not still produce spectacular advances in science, but it means we will be less of a university.

MD: I was interested by what you said about the apocalyptic premises of certain inter-disciplinary programs and disciplinary inflation you touched on in your talk. Could you elaborate on the use of these apocalyptic premises?

DF: I think a discipline assumes that the world has a certain stability; theologically, I would say a God-given stability, which makes the patient, ordered pursuit of knowledge appropriate. I don’t think we should be quick and hasty in inventing either new putative disciplines or creating inter-disciplinary programs that are premised on disaster scenarios and that promise to address these supposed disasters with academic equipment that will somehow rescue us from the disaster – I don’t think that is what the university is about. Governments may have to do it, military may have to do it, industry may have to do it, but I don’t see it as being what the university is about.

And how does that link to disciplinary inflation? Well, it links in the sense that people who are in a panic, they tend to take [whatever’s handy] – “I’ll grab a little bit of that and a little bit of that, throw it in the car and get out of here!” – right, so [I’ll] take a bit of Religious Studies, take a bit of Environmental Studies, I’ll take a bit of Ethics, and take a bit of Geography or some dimension of physical sciences, even, and I’ll throw it all together and I’ll find a solution to this problem. But they don’t know what they are doing in any of these disciplines; they’re taking a smattering of subject matter and of courses.

It’s a bit like the Israelites in the story of Exodus: taking off their earrings, their jewellery and throwing it into a big pot over a great fire and melting it and out comes the golden calf that Aaron tries to explain away when Moses comes down from the mountain – it seems to me that’s the kind of thing you do when you’ve lost sight of the goal and you’re in a panic and you need some god to lead you. You know: “You’d gone up the mountain and we weren’t sure you were coming back! We have to have something to lead us so I asked everyone to make contributions and we put it all in the pot, it melted, and when it hardened lo and behold there was a golden calf!”

People have a smattering of this and that but no clear, patient thinking that is tested by reality and is tested by counter-arguments. It’s utilitarian in the sense that it’s aimed at solving a problem – which may not be a real problem – we’re not frankly sure about some of the premises on which they are building this apocalyptic scenario. But even if we were sure of…the premises, making academic disciplines to correspond to perceived crises is not a sound procedure. To bring the resources that we discover from tried and tested academic disciplines to bear on a problem? Yes, that’s different. And I supposed that’s what they think or hope they are doing, but I am not convinced.

– compiled by Nic van Beek


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.