a great public debate about British universities is now in full swing. Since the immediate post-war crush, the expansion of student numbers has gone ahead steadily, and even further growth is now required. The Government has accepted from the UGC a target figure of 170,000 places by the late 1970s. The Young Conservatives, not to be out-done, call for 250,000 places. From all sides—the professions, business, and industry in particular—there is a great demand for more graduates, particularly in the sciences.
In face of this pressure, the universities will find it hard to resist rapid growth. In addition to the expansion of those already in existence, several new universities will appear within the next few years, to join Keele in proving that the urge for reform can combine with the urge for growth. Yet there are many misgivings about the pace and character of this growth, most bluntly and crudely summed up in Kingsley Amis’ formula, “More means worse”. One need not accept his pessimism, while yet requiring answers to such questions as: Can the teachers be found? Will the additional number of students benefit from the traditional forms of university teaching? What will happen to research? Will the demand for scientists upset the humanities? and so on.
A recently translated book by the German philosopher and teacher Karl Jaspers helps to relate these problems to each other by offering a coherent series of answers to the question: What is a university for? Jaspers’ answer, basically, is the traditional one of three-fold purpose—Research, Education and Instruction. He sets this against the background of the Intellectual Life. Most of his views about universities depend upon the picture he draws of the search for knowledge, and what he has to say about this leads him to define the objectives of the university in similar terms—the assumption of truthfulness; the unity of knowledge; the value of knowledge for its own sake.
Most of this is unexceptionable (if a little vague at times); we can be grateful for the insistence on the unity of the universe of knowledge, while slightly alarmed by his tendency to ignore the effect of utter dissimilarities in procedure adopted by the different sciences. For the urgent need is to probe the assumptions within each science before eluding to those held in common. The slogan of “Knowledge for its own sake” conceals the pressures acting upon the university from without, which lead it to develop research in particular directions (and not others).
Jasper points to the multiplication of technical institutes outside the university as evidence that the framework is no longer adequate. Nevertheless, in spite of their natural tendency to expand into universities, within these, “even the presence of outstanding scholars in the humanities has not been able to produce anything more than an empty educational routine bereft of the vitality and strength which comes only with creative scholarship”. Jasper’s solution to this problem is the inclusion of technology as a field of basic study within the university.
This may seem to be a plea directed to the original German audience, to which British readers need pay little heed. Technology in various forms has already taken its place within the framework of British universities. But from the more restricted area of German university life, Jaspers is looking directly at the problem we have come to call that of the Two Cultures. He suggests tentatively that, “perhaps the best interests of the intellectual life, as well as of technology, are served by making the university their mutual meeting-place”. He says, finely, “The university’s main task would be to create a truly comprehensive awareness of our age in terms of the sum totals of knowledge and practical skills of which the integration of the technical faculty is only one aspect”.
When he turns to consider the university as an institution, Jaspers indicates the ways in which he thinks it has failed to live up to his previously defined Idea. He admits at the outset that, “The very translation of thought into teachable form tends to impoverish its intellectual vitality”. What he is concerned about is the tendency of scholars to institutionalise knowledge and thereby divide it up into “subjects”. He knows that “an excellent scholar may not be able to find a place for himself within the established departmental divisions” (a good art historian, for example, will have the greatest difficulty in finding a job in Great Britain). He also gives a fairly complete list of the various types of log-rolling to be found inside universities, noting shrewdly that unlimited freedom of research often tends to enclose the specialist in his field instead of encouraging him to communicate “The conduct of faculty members has been compared with that of monkeys on the palm trees of the holy grove at Benares: on every palm tree sits a monkey, all seem to be very peaceful and minding their own business. But the moment one monkey tries to climb up the plam tree of another monkey he runs into a heavy barrage of coconuts”. Jaspers pins down the debilitating aspect of overspecialisation when he says, “Communication, which ought to be an intellectual battle for clarity and substance, becomes a purely outward relationship”. Nevertheless, he insists, the university as a community of scholars ensures that the work of the individual scholar will not be wasted. Hence his praise for “the idea of the university”. But, “in many cases, what is