Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

University and Stasis: Four Rival Ideas of a University

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

University and Stasis: Four Rival Ideas of a University

Article excerpt

This article maintains that the modern university is in a condition of stasis', a perpetual discord and disunity, which, while not enough to destroy the institution, significantly impairs its ability to function, and generates widespread discontent in its members. It argues that this condition may be attributed to the contention of four very different ideas of what a university is and should be, none of which is able to govern or provide the institutional unity the university needs, for different reasons. It analyzes each of the contending ideas and assesses the prospects of each for overcoming the stasis of the modern university.

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There is a pervasive sense of discontent in the modern university, felt more strongly in some quarters, but to some degree in all. This discontent arises from the fact that the modern university is, in a certain way, sick, and it has been sick for some time. (1) The university has never been without concerned observers, and the last few years have shown a renewed interest in the question of the institution's health. (2) I hope to contribute to this discussion by means of an examination of some basic philosophical concepts, some ancient and some modern, that I think will throw some light on the roots of the problem. I will suggest that the discontent of the modern university may be traced back to a kind of institutional sickness which essentially consists of an ongoing struggle within the university among different ideas of the university, each with its own historical provenance and justification, and each ultimately rooted in a specific philosophical understanding of the nature of knowledge, the meaning and purpose of education, and the nature of human beings. I will argue that the modern university is characterized by four such basic contending ideas, and that this contention necessarily generates faction and disunity within the university, which prevents its functioning as a healthy institution. Finally, I will argue that not every one of the four contending ideas is structurally capable of providing the university with the unity it requires, and that, paradoxically, the strongest of the ideas is one of the least capable of doing what is needed, which, in turn, prolongs the malaise.

The modern university is not in a state of crisis, for a crisis is a state of extremity in which nothing can remain for very long. The university is instead in a state best described by the Greek word stasis. Stasis can be translated in various ways. Most familiarly, stasis is the opposite of kinesis, motion, and so means resting, being at rest, standing still, staying, not going forward, being unable to move, or paralysis. Less familiarly, but common to the Greeks, stasis means faction, discord, sedition, opposition, dissent, or division. It names a particular kind of division, that of a thing's being divided against itself. As such, stasis is one of the key terms of Greek political thought, denoting the state of a political community which should be one but is, in fact, a mutually hostile many.

Political communities go to war with one another; they fall into stasis with themselves. Such self-division can range from relatively mild civil disagreements to the bitter opposition of political parties and factions, to civil war, the greatest stasis. The two senses of stasis are related: an entity divided against itself will be subject to contrary movements, and will thus be unable to move in its characteristic or proper motion. A condition of stasis in the second sense (internal discord, faction) leads to stasis in the first sense (inhibition of motion, paralysis). The greatest historical example of stasis for the Greeks was the Peloponnesian War, which Thucydides also called "the greatest motion [kinesis] yet known in history"; it was indeed a great motion, but it was a self-destructive motion which pitted Greek against Greek to the ruin of all Greece; first and foremost, it was stasis. …

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