Everything old is new again!

Here is a post from former Provost at IU, Karen Hanson, on Innovation and the Global University.

She is responding, in 2011, to a thought-provoking question raised by Nigel Thrift’s, “Are universities optimally organized to address the fundamental ‘global challenges’ that exist, and at the pace these challenges deserve to be addressed?” Here’s what former Provost Hanson wrote then,

“Of course, as the discussion of the original question makes plain, it is really a variety of “long emergencies” that are at stake, and we might well understand many of them—unsustainable development, educational and income inequality, pandemic disease, absolute poverty, etc.—as interrelated.  Hence, insofar as our university resources are devoted to education and research in any of these areas of concern, we could thus defend our ethical standing, even though the question of organizational effectiveness would remain open.

“I would take a harder line, however, and insist that much of what we do in areas not obviously related to the identifiable long emergencies is morally justifiable, and it is not a defect of our institutions or their organization that we devote resources to these areas.  For example, education and research in the humanities cannot be robustly defended in terms of its likely contribution to solving the problem of global climate change or poverty, but that would not be a good reason to abandon it.  (Some research in the humanities does indeed have intriguing if somewhat more oblique applications to our global problems.  For example, a group of faculty in Indiana University’s departments of history and English, mainly medievalists, are embarked on a humanistic study of innovation, and their perspective will surely enrich the work of their colleagues in science, business, and policy studies.   And our faculty in area studies programs, by helping students and the broader society better understand the distinctive cultures of the parts of the world on which they focus, thus also help maintain a framework for understanding and addressing social problems in those areas.  But I would want equally to defend, e.g., the scholar of Romantic poetry, whose teaching and writing is directed simply, centrally, to better understanding of Romantic poetry.)  The humanities, with their focus on meaning and interpretation, are worth preserving in the university, even in the context of our long emergencies.”

Hanson continues by noting the utilitarianism at the heart much of the contemporary ethical charge posed to Universities. She continues,

“Answering [the call to greater global collaboration] would not, should not require jettisoning the university’s responsibilities to sustain inquiry into questions of value and meaning, to support critical and analytical study of the human condition and of the artifacts—including literature, art, music, religion—that respond to and enrich the human condition.   Will this inquiry help avert those catastrophic problems?  Probably not.  But note that there seems to be a fairly straightforward utilitarian ethics implicit in Vice-Chancellor Thrift’s metaphor of a “war footing,” and one of the standard objections to utilitarian ethics is that it may be unlivable, because it can lead to the loss of personal agency and the loss of the possibility of projects that give an individual’s life personal meaning.  There is, after all, almost alwayssomething I could be doing that would better conduce to the greatest good for the greatest number than whatever I am at the moment engaged in, in my particular life circumstances; and utilitarianism seems to demand that I turn to this, that I seek always to maximize general welfare, rather than attend to the activities and projects that are connected to my individual interests, talents, context, and aims.  But it is a serious, perhaps fatal, objection to a scheme of ethical obligations that, in making boundless demands, it would deprive a person’s life of individual meaning.

If it seems that is only from a position of contemptible privilege that one would defend supporting [another] study of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” in the context where one is acknowledging that desperate conditions of absolute poverty are darkening the short lives of other human beings on this planet, it should also be acknowledged that this juxtaposition dooms as well support for scientific inquiry that is not clearly and immediately directed to the most pressing practical ends.”

I will confess, much to my chagrin, that I found this endorsement of our work here at ISHI rather belatedly, and long after it was first posted. But as we at IHSI continue to think through these questions, ever more important in the era of “Grand Challenges,” the problems of utilitarianism—its only tentative relation to notions of particular humans and their thriving—is worth remembering.


For Hanson’s entire response, see: https://globalhighered.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/an-indianau-response/

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