The Role of the University at a time of Intellectual Crisis

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The Role of the University at a time of Intellectual Crisis  (2012) 
by Michael D. Higgins

Address by the President of Ireland on receipt of a Doctorate of Laws (Honoris Causa) from the National University of Ireland on Wednesday, 25 January 2012 at Dublin Castle in Ireland.

A Chancellor, Chomluadar na hOllscoile

Cuireann sé áthas orm bheith anseo libh inniu agus táim thar a bheith buíoch daoibh as an chuireadh a thug sibh dom chun an onóir seo a ghlacadh.

I wish to thank the National University of Ireland, you Chancellor and your colleagues for your conferring of an Honorary Doctorate of Laws on me as Uachtarán na hÉireann and I thank Professor Jim Browne, Vice-Chancellor and President of NUIG for his warm and generous remarks.

I have the warmest feelings towards Ollscoil Náisúnta na hÉireann — the National University of Ireland — and of course National University Galway, formerly UCG. It has been a core part of my life as student and as a university teacher.

At the age of 19 while I was working in the ESB in Galway I walked past its walls and I remember how some of us, then in different occupations, agitated for an evening degree course at what was then UCG now NUIG.

Some years later the walls came down and in so many of the constituent parts of the National University other barriers, too, have been removed. Great credit has been earned by those who have facilitated access.

The UCG of the 1960s was a fairly intimate experience. The relatively small numbers meant that it was possible to know and socialize with, not only those with whom one shared subjects, but with students from other faculties. The warmth of the university experience was as important as its formal purpose agus gach ball de Chomhairle Teachta na MacLeinn bhí aithne pearsanta againn ni h-amhain ar a chéile ach ar lion mhór daltai de na cumainn agus na clubainní spóirt.

Later as a university teacher I saw, too, the challenge that university life away from home presented to some. Within the vortex of success and failure, the expectations of self and parents lay, however, the beauty of knowledge and discovery formally or serendipitously encountered.

There was a commitment to teaching in UCG and, within the limits of resources, to patient and demanding research. When I look back I have come to value, too, even that small component of eccentricity that comes from prolonged concentration on a topic or a text.

The life of the university societies, too, was vigorous, be it in debating in Irish and English, drama, theatre, music or sport. It emphasises for me the importance of universities as communities of learning, teaching, disputation and personal and social development. Is it not as important to experience the development of the self and one's connection to citizenship and history as it is to become a useful unit in a consuming culture? Universities function within a culture and how they negotiate that relationship defines their atmosphere, their ethos.

That warmth of a community of learning has been, I feel at times, put under threat from the underestimated aggression that comes with a surrounding culture of extreme individualism.

It was a privilege to have been a university teacher at UCG. To recall the atmosphere of the late sixties, when many of us began, is a source for me of the greatest pleasure. I value the friendship of surviving colleagues and I miss the companionship of those who have passed on. I salute those who taught in Irish and English, who made a university that resonated of an ancient language and yet had an international reputation.

Universities are inextricably linked to their location and their times. Dá bhárr san mar a dhúirt mé bhí cúram ar leith i dtaoibh an Gaeilge lárnach i saoil UCG. Regionalism was becoming a topic of public debate and I remember the debate we had in UCG at the end of the sixties about extramural studies, initially about the very concept of universities being involved in general adult education and then, when this had been resolved, the excitement of our trips as young teachers that got us south as far as Shannon, north to Letterkenny, eastwards to Athlone.

In all of this we, as university teachers, were conscious of having something to share, a commitment to learning that might make us as university teachers useful in, among other things, debunking some of the bogus expertise directed at, what was assumed to be, uncomprehending citizens, in the early days of the emergence of a technocratic society.

I instance this not out of nostalgia but as a part of a necessary reflection on what our universities might be in the future as sources of original, creative, and emancipatory scholarship in the humanities and science.

The National University of Ireland finds itself, at the moment, in the most challenging of times. It is obviously a time of crisis in the economic world, a crisis that is not abstract in its form or its consequences—as expectations are shattered, exclusions from real citizenship created through poverty, unemployment, and all of the insecurity that flows from fear of losing one's home, loss of loved ones to unanticipated emigration, and a bewildering confusion as to self-worth.

The crisis is, however, also an intellectual one. Decades of Keynesianism have given way to decades influenced by the theories of such as Friedrich Von Hayek, to unrestrained market dominance. A new dominant, largely uncontested paradigm has emerged. That paradigm has consequences for all institutions including universities. It is a paradigm that makes assumptions and demands as to the connection between scholarship, politics, economy, and society. It has fed off and encouraged, I suggest, an individualism without responsibility. It not only asserts a rationality for markets but, in policy terms, has delivered markets without regulation.

As a consequence, the public world is now a space of contestation. It is a space that sets what is democratic in tension with what is unaccountable.

Much ground has been lost in terms of the public space, the public world, the shared essential space of an independent people free to participate and change their circumstances, to imagine their future, be it in Ireland, Europe, or at global level.

Intellectuals are challenged, I believe now, to a moral choice—to drift into, be part of, a consensus that accepts a failed paradigm of life and economy—or to offer, or seek to recover, the possibility of alternative futures. And were universities not special places—the citizens of the future may ask—for the generation of alternatives in science, culture, and philosophy?

The universities have a great challenge in the questions that are posed now—questions that are beyond ones of a narrow utility.

Are the universities to be allowed and will they seek the space, the capacity, the community of scholarship, the quiet moments of reflection necessary to challenge, for example, paradigms of the connection between economy and society, ethics and morality, democratic discourse and authoritarian imposition that have failed, and drawing on their rich university tradition—at its best moments of disputation and discourse—offer alternatives that offer a stable present and a democratic, liberating and sustainable future?

There is now I believe an intellectual crisis that is far more serious than the economic one which fills the papers, dominates the programmes in our media. Such a crisis has arisen before at times of great or impending change.

When Max Weber, the great 19th century social theorist, responded to the events of his time in the second half of the 19th century, it was a time of change in forms of empire, creating transitions, the response to which would be dominated by technocratic thinking. Weber proposed a commitment to rationality as the key building block of the future. He sought to save as much as possible of the rationalist heritage of a previous century but at the same time introduce something new, but beyond logic, intuition, and religious sentiment. He critiqued the excesses of both positivism and idealism. Yet even then, Weber saw the dangers of the potential abuse of that which would be claimed to be rational. He spoke of the threat of a spring that would not beckon with its promise of new life, but would deliver instead the threat of a winter of icy cold. He prophesied an iron cage of bureaucracy within which conformity would be demanded to that which no longer recognised its original moral or reasonable purpose.

He was writing at a time when technocratic rationality had succeeded reason as the central concept in the political writings. A century earlier, reason had been central in Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". Weber could not have envisaged the consequences of the journey intellectual thought would make from reason to rationality, but then on to calculable rationality, and finally, in our own time, to the speculative gambling that is at the heart of so much global misery, with its view of those humans who share our fragile planet—not as citizens—but as rational choice maximizing consumers.

We are in such a winter as Weber foretold. For example, we have arrived at quite widespread acceptance by policy makers of a proposition rejected by the majority of serious economic historians—that markets are rational. This, on occasion, leads to the suggestion that it is people who are irrational, the markets rational. That public, for whom, Friedrich Von Hayek wrote that economics are too complex, it is suggested, require something other than the direction of elected governments. They must be forced to compliance with technocratic demands, for which there is frequently scant scholarly support and, needless to say, no mandate. This represents a challenge to democracy itself, I suggest, and to the scholarship that supports it. The mediating institutions are losing authority and the prospect of raw conflict increases all over the world as language, words without emancipatory force, give ground to what is unaccountable but global.

Neither is the intellectual crisis of our times simply a problem for Irish universities. When one of Europe's foremost public intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas, writes of the fragility of the European Union, I feel he is referring to the contest in Europe that is now there for the public world. Social Europe was born as a concept in response to the legacy of war and social misery. It was connected to a democratic discourse.

As social Europe as a project is undermined by the commodification of ever more aspects of social life, as European social capital, the strongest in the world, is monetized—it is clear we have arrived at such a crisis now as great, or greater than, that faced by the previous generation, or political and social theorists at the end of the 19th century. It is a challenge for all of us to craft a response. I believe that an Irish university response that is critically open to originality in theory and research, committed to humanistic values in teaching, has a great opportunity to make a European, even global, contribution of substance; that Ireland can be the hub of original, critical thought and a promoter of its application through new models of connection between science, technology, administration, and society; that our best contribution might be to issue an invitation to come and think with us, be original, in Ireland.

Independent thought, from home and abroad, and scholarly engagement with our current circumstances are crucial.

A paradigm drawn from the fiction of rational markets, I humbly suggest, needs not only to be let go—it needs to be replaced by a scholarship that is genuinely emancipatory, centred on originality rather than imitation—one that, for example, restores the unity between the sciences and culture in their common human curiosity, discovery, and celebration of the life of the mind.

Following Ernst Bloch, I believe of course that utopian alternatives must be accompanied by a praxis that is envisaged and I suggest one that is applicable within, and in the context of, institutions. I do not claim a space for abstract grand theory at the cost of middle range theories or policies that have immediate or short term application.

Dear colleagues, it is in the winter we can see the bare trunks of trees, the encroachments of that which threatens the growth of our spring. We need to use a sharp gaze in our intellectual winter to prepare for our spring—a spring that I remain certain is possible for us and for those with whom we share a vulnerable world.

In recent times, we have paid a heavy price for unfettered speculative accumulation, for light regulation for the global consequences of what followed acceptance of amendments to the Glass–Steagall Act in the U.S., an act that had its origins in responding to the crash of 1929, that sought to ensure it would never happen again. The amendments released a flood of virtual financial products across the world. To that, many countries, including our own, added their own speculative bubble.

The architects of these developments frequently invoked, and found, intellectuals willing to support them—intellectuals who frequently drew on the prestige of a university for authority.

When I look back now at those subjects which I taught at NUIG and abroad—political science and sociology—subjects which, in so many ways, emerged from the late 19th century of Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Croce and others, I am struck by the urgency in the approach of such theorists, in their day, to the social change of their times, and the effect their writings had. As H. Stuart Hughes 40 years ago wrote, it was a time of rejection of positivism, an attempt to incorporate consciousness in social theory but, above all, theorists responded to the urgency of the charges that were unfolding.

In response to two World Wars that followed the reconstruction of 19th century Europe, its new relations with a world it had previously dominated within the model of empire, led to the application of Keyensian strategies to address unemployment and poverty, to the recognition of the importance of health and education. There was an intellectual debate, one that offered and contested democratic options.

The mid-20th century constituted an atmosphere where social capital emerged and social democracy mediated conflict. The 20th century saw, too, a public debate about the role of the State, the rights of the individual and social policy, of the balance between these areas.

In succeeding decades, political philosophy and social theory gave way to issues of administration, and more and more pressure came on universities and scholars to prove their relevance within a hegemony version of the connection between society and economy, one that demanded a consensus on, not merely the desirability of economic growth, but of singular limited versions of economy. Analysis of the role of the State faded and gave way to applied studies, in an administrative sense, of the State's actions. The values based on solidarity, interdependency, shared vulnerability, community, gave way to a discourse of lifestyle and individual consumption.

I find Weber's nightmare of a rationality—that in time would counter the original purposes of institutions, that would morph into an irrational form, incapable of adjustment to change internally or externally—difficult to reject as an account of the modern period. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor put it—we are drifting to unfreedom.

Internationally, too, the context for universities has been changing. As parliaments weakened at home, an ever more volatile, global, financial world was emerging, one that was unaccountable, at best amoral, in its demands and consequences.

The new technology meant that speculative capital could move in real time. At international level, while for a brief moment, such as at the birth of the United Nations, it seemed that international monetary and economic matters might be handled in an accountable way. Such a moment quickly disappeared, never to return. Yet the need for such remains, is urgent, and requires rearticulation.

For those of us, then, who have had the privilege of being university teachers, those who remain, the university is, and remains I suggest, a space from which new futures have always emerged and must do so again. The ethos of independent scholarship is what delivers a previous scholarship's achievements into the present and challenges that scholarship for renewal and replacement.

I admire the singular dedication of researchers, the sacrifice they make, but I also value the importance of the teams that are necessary for co-operative achievements in the sciences, and the time fundamental research takes. At the same time, I believe that the division of culture and the sciences is an unnecessary price that has been paid for the hegemony of a particular moment in the history of European scholarship, a moment of hubris that divided culture and science.

It is time to recover the unities of scholarship, to strike out for originality, seek as comparative standards the great moments of intellectual work from around the world, from the Library of Alexandria to the present. That, I suggest, might be our most valuable European contribution, one that will be valued by future generations.

As subjects are re-cast, unities can be restored, and we should consider Edward Said's suggestion that it is in the interstices between subjects that the most exciting intellectual work happens.

There is not, for example, any better future for economics as a subject and discipline than as political economy within a system of culture.

To you Chancellor, colleagues and distinguished guests, I suggest that the universities and those who labour within them are crucial in the struggle for the recovery of the public world, for the emergence of truly emancipatory paradigms of policy and research. It is not merely a case of connecting the currency, the economy and, the people; it is about recovering the right to pose such important questions as Immanuel Kant did in his time—what might we know, what should we do, what may we hope?

As the newly elected President of our country, I am very conscious that for the first time in many years young people now graduating from college are faced with very uncertain futures.

I indicated at my inauguration that I plan to hold a number of Presidency seminars which will hopefully throw light on how our country has made choices spiritually, morally, ethically since the turn of the century and, in the course of these seminars, I hope to explore ways which might help our country find new paths once again. It is my intention that the first of these seminars will focus on our young people and will explore relevant issues such as education, as well as focusing on issues of participation, employment, emigration, and mental health. I would hope that the second seminar will deal with the importance of ethics in every aspect of our social lives. It is with humility I suggested that I wanted the ninth presidency to be, above all else, a presidency of ideas.

The seminar on ethics will review the sources of ethics in different cultures and contexts. It will seek to challenge the fatalism of bogus inevitabilities and the drift to an unfreedom that is so evident.

To weather the storm currently assailing our country, we will need to have confidence in our capacity as a nation, in our Irish people wherever they may be, to overcome the current problems and to begin again with a vision of the potential that can be realised if we can draw on our strengths, 'na féidireachtaí gan teorainn' as I called them in my inaugural speech. To navigate successfully through today's troubled, uncertain, and probably uncharted, waters—now, more than ever before—we need vision, foresight, and bold strategies. Now, more than ever, an original and confident education system is needed, to help us to achieve our social and economic objectives and to place us on a sustainable footing.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to be standing here before you today to receive this Doctorate in Laws from the National University of Ireland, a body which I know shares my belief in the true value of education and its capacity to deliver a creative consciousness and a participatory citizenship in a real republic.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.


1. 'The Role of the University at a time of Intellectual Crisis' Áras an Uachtaráin, 2012-01-25.

2. Full text of President's speech Irish Times, 2012-01-25.

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