Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Academe, and what it’s for - Fr Andrew Davison

This book review by the Fr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Christian Doctrine, appeared in the Church Times :

The State of the University: Academic knowledges and the knowledge of God by Stanley Hauerwas

“Write about what you know,” is standard advice given to would-be authors. It seems also to apply to seasoned academic writers, for whom the university itself is a favourite subject.

This contribution to the genre from Stanley Hauerwas is a collection of occasional papers and lectures, as are many of his books. Its coherence is not structural, the kind possessed by a book written in one go, but that of a mind with a single intent. It is a report from a period of the author’s life in which one question was foremost: how should the Christian view the contemporary university?

Common to all these papers is a tension: we are to love and serve the earthly community while at the same time knowing that here we have no abiding city. For Hauerwas, university is where this sense of dislocation is most acute. It is the institution in which he is most profoundly at home, and yet he finds it inextricably bound up with the secular state, which he excori-ates at every turn for its violence.

The title of the book is, therefore, a pun (a weak one): Hauerwas in-vestigates the “state of the university”, and finds it to be a “state”, or, at least, an arm of the state. The book is as much a reflection on resistance to violence and on the contemporary political situation as it is on education, narrowly understood.

Hauerwas will not allow the university to set the agenda as to her strengths and weaknesses. Nor is he enthusiastic about the perspective of students: too often they go to university aiming to earn higher salaries afterwards rather than aiming to “educate their aims”. Instead, he poses questions that have theological roots: “What is the university for?” and “Whom does it serve?”

Reflecting on the American scene, he argues for goals that are both more transcendent and more mundane than those the university currently allows for herself. The university needs to find more profound causes to serve than freedom (freedom for what, he asks) or critical thinking (which is conveniently critical of everything but the status quo). Christians would wish her also to serve the poor, and put down roots in her locality.

The book does not always make for cheerful reading. The intriguing antidote for these woes may well be an emphasis on the university as a place of friendship, for all that this theme is not brought to the surface explicitly. A number of these papers were offered in homage to particular friends in higher education. We get the sense that it is in such friendships, and in the bonds of community that they forge, that we begin to resist violence.

This collection is sometimes frustrating — it is a little uneven highly opinionated, and it raises more questions than it answers.

Yet it ought to be read widely, and received as a gift to both the Church and the university. For anyone involved in the work of teaching, this book is a perfect invitation to think through questions of what we are doing and why. Hauerwas has an infectious sense that “it is hard to make God boring, or have little significance to the way we live and think.”