Sunday, 2 December 2018

True and fake knowledge at universities

'I’ve enjoyed the increasing certainty that there is a real distinction between true and fake knowledge, between truth and ideology, between the affirmation of an inheritance and resentment at one’s inability to receive it' - Sir Roger Scruton on receiving the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom at Encounter Books' twentieth anniversary gala.

Although Oscar Wilde quipped: 'Everything that is true is inappropriate', truth in whatever form in whatever field is of crucial importance on every level. And not always easy to come by. At quite some Western universities, the last century has seen a trend to politicize the curriculum, i.e. to create a political value framework a priori to the process of transferring knowledge and understanding to next generations. The agenda behind such trend was, and still is, a 'leftish' desire to subject society - through the educational channels - to a strong dosis of social engineering, sure as it is of having the truth of civilizational values in its pockets. While there is, of course, nothing against political subjects in the curriculum, any political action - if wished - should follow at the end of the trajectory of truth finding, not at the beginning. It is known that the 'marxist' universities under Soviet rule could not possibly produce value-neutral curriculi, and it is shocking that such trend has been possible at all in the free West. The university should in its own structure be as free as possible of any political agenda, to protect the freedom of the human mind in its explorations.

Although I sometimes find that Scruton goes much too far in his opposition to contemporary mores, his objections to a politicized university curriculum are entirely justified. But when is a curriculum politicized? That depends upon how subjects are treated. For instance, London University runs a department of Development Studies where subjects like gender and the impact of religion on gender relations are explored which is very helpful for development projects in the third world. Consciousness of gender relations in the context of non-Western cultures are crucial for the success of development projects initiated by organisations in the West, and such consciousness has been born from gender and feminism studies at Western universities, condemned by Scruton. It all depends on how such subjects are explored and to which end.... no doubt that may get wrong but that does not mean the subject is wrong.

Why is it important how universities form their curriculi? Because important values which have stood the test of time may be lost if a curriculum is burdened by a political agenda. Without a political agenda it is already hard enough to explore the truthfulness in the many fields of human knowledge and understanding, but with a political agenda the door to truth is definitely closed in advance.

In my own time at Cambridge University, for instance, it was simply taboo to raise criticism of the theories of Arnold Schoenberg, as if he were the Holy Martyr Saint of music, instead of a composer. Why? Because Schoenberg fought a battle against tradition and for an entirely new idea of music, which had led in the 20th century to an entirely politicized field: you could not debate modern music without taking some sort of political position. A purely aesthetic position was impossible.

The publishing house Encounter Books wants to support Western cultural values. Therefore it is quite ironic that its founder, Roger Kimball, proudly read a letter of congratulations by president Trump to the event’s VIP attendees, this man being the least suited symbol of civilization, to put it mildly. Further reading of the article where I found out about Scruton's award raises the suspicion that this publishing house naively assumes that Western cultural values are the possession of a narrow-minded neo-conservative mindset, defined by Christian religion, while in reality those values don't need such framework at all.


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