Ever since the dawn of the modern university, the university itself has been seen as the key to mastering one’s own destiny and making one’s own history. It fostered, through the contemplative action of the mind, the ability to shape one’s life. The university institutionally embodies the concept that we have agency in the world primarily through the contemplative mind. And the curriculum is the essence of the university. As George Grant says in Technology and Empire, “The curriculum is itself chiefly determined by what the dominant classes of the society consider important to be known.” The university employs an understanding of the human individual that is modeled in alignment with technical efficiency: individuals within the university are to be programmed in the most efficient way. As George Grant says in Technology and Empire (p.113), “The curriculum is itself chiefly determined by what the dominant classes of the society consider important to be known.”
Grant further asserts that the dynamism of technology in service of Mass Society is the main purpose of both Canadian and American society. The dynamism of technology is exemplified by the increasing totality of methods that employ instrumental (means-end) rationality to maximize efficiency in every field of human activity. Technological dynamism, Grant argues, has gradually become the dominant purpose in the West because its most influential persons have believed the following: Mastery of chance is still believed to be the most feasible hope of perfecting human life. It seems as if this belief is unites people, no matter their particular socio-cultural differences. They all have such a faith in mastery that it feels as if it is synonymous with authentic agency.
More than a heartfelt desire in individuals, the axiom of the pursuit of mastery is a social program. Universities thus facilitate the production of personnel necessary for that type of society. The chief job of the universities within technological societies is the cultivation of those sciences that truck with the agenda of the mastery of human and non-human nature. Beyond the old divisions of “natural” and “social” sciences, multi-disciplinary programs such as “health sciences” and psychology’s relatively recent questioning into the physiology of the human brain must mean that modern psychology and medicine are as much social science as they ever were. These multi-disciplinary approaches are not so much a deeper epistemic investigative program as they are a deeper commitment to mastery. In other words, the university, even in its new directions, is still more strongly focused on mastery than on knowledge, and in so doing, has made wonder and the desire to know subservient to the motive of power. We have long understood that the so-called natural and social sciences as interdependent on prevailing power. But the tradition of the humanities demonstrates what is significant for our considerations.
In philosophy, Socrates thought that the purpose of education was to search freely for what constituted the best life for persons. Religion later supplanted the free search with divine revelation. But both were directed at what were the highest goals for human beings.
Popularly, there have been two justifications for the humanities. First, the humanities have been understood as having the ability to teach us whether we will use our increasing technical power for good or evil. This, of course, assumed that by having more leisure, individuals would share in the unnamed riches of culture. Second, there was the alignment that a person properly educated with her share of the humanities would contribute to democratic self-rule in a way that transcended mere technique. Problematically, many people studying the humanities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are uncertain about what constitutes the good life, and whether this was even a real question. Instead, they have increasingly shied away from the evaluation of good and evil, and of higher ends of individuals that contribute to their authentic self-rule. English literature can place two theories of sexuality beside each other, that of Leo Tolstoy or the Marquis de Sade, but the most important question won’t be raised, i.e. whether de Sade or Tolstoy leads us to higher sexuality that contributes to a good life. But is the abdication of questions of higher forms of life our necessary condition?
If we are to undertake the modern university as free persons, we need to again demand that the curriculum is based on what we think human life ought to be, i.e. what activities serve human fulfillment and how higher education ought to encourage the realization of these activities. When Grant writes, “The political aspect of the liberal criticism of human excellence was the belief that unfettered by ‘dogmatic’ and ‘a priori’ ideas of excellence [individuals] would be free to make the world according to their own values and each would be able to fulfill [their] individuality” (p.128), he is doubly insightful. First, he rightly focuses on politics, and second, he turns from aspirations of excellence to aspirations of fulfillment. Critiquing the external measuring stick of “excellence” does not destroy excellence per se, but only its “external” quality. Conceptually re-framing higher modes of life from external excellence to inner authentic fulfillment gives us reason to believe we can ground a meaningful resistance to Mass Society. Authenticity, as Charles Taylor intimates, has a voice within.
The original Socratic conception of the unity between a person’s interior life with an external political reality that houses her, rather than having an external guarantee, carries the unity within the anthropology of the individual herself. This, then, says much about the university curriculum. For if Grant is correct that education in service to Mass Society must either empty the content out of education or shape it to serve the technological dynamism of a liberal society, then the original content of university education was always a tool for social ends.
So we return to Plato’s insight that self-knowledge necessarily furthers conscious alignment with one’s roles in society. If it infects the university curriculum, then the moral anthropology of our individual lives is the anchoring content of our education. We must ‘know ourselves’ if anything like excellence is to become a virtue, i.e. as an embodied reality that is not technologically manipulated.
In other words, rather than being in control or mastering chance, to be educated is to become more authentically who you are.