Review of Paul Gooch, Course Correction

January 2020

Paul W. Gooch, Course Correction: A Map for the Distracted University, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019, 291 pages.

The past few decades have borne witness to a radical alteration in how we think about the university. There are, of course, multiple complex reasons for this transformation. In this commendable volume, Paul W. Gooch lays out the genesis of many of our present discontents and guides us through the conundrums facing higher education and the modern Canadian university. As he writes in the preface, “… we need to understand again what the university is – what it’s for, how it works, and why it works the way it does” (xiii).

Paul Gooch is president emeritus and professor of philosophy at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Unlike some critics who despair of repairing the current model of university education or actively urge its demise, Dr. Gooch is a reformer. For him, the university is an indispensable institution, but one which requires constant tending and care, particularly in an age that has been so radically altered by technology. He is quick to point out that while our current age has produced unprecedented challenges, we can still call on ancient principles to guide us.

The last forty years or so have precipitated a sea-change in our views about the university. Before proceeding to the substance of Professor Gooch’s book, it is important to grasp how dramatic the changes have been to the university, to how we think about higher education, and to what society expects from its scholars. Let me draw on an analogy from intellectual history to emphasize just how profound these changes have been.

When I was an undergraduate, there was a fashionable view that held that philosophy should properly be seen as a “handmaiden” to the sciences. Henceforward, all serious questions would be scientific ones. After a couple of millennia of fruitless enquiry, we could now safely consign those musty old philosophy books (along with their teachers) to the dustbin. What was demanded was scientific expertise rather than philosophical nous. Philosophers could still play along, but their role was secondary: it was to lend the scientist a hand in clarifying some of the conceptual muddle attendant on research, or perhaps help with some of the vexing technical questions having to do, say, with induction or verification. The philosophical task had been re-thought, and a new, more “useful” and practical philosophy had emerged. Or so went the tale.

At about the same time, something similar was happening to how we thought about the university. For a thousand years or more, universities were institutions designed for learning and teaching about the highest things. Scholars, gathered together in the collegium, were provided with the quiet and leisure to pursue perennial questions about the human condition: What constitutes the good life? How best can we live with our fellow creatures? How do we reconcile our human nature with the social world? What is justice?

These and similar questions were at the heart of the university’s mission. They were iterated over time in different voices and across the various branches of learning. Of course, the answers to these questions varied dramatically, and there was never a consensus. But it was these seemingly impractical questions – not the answers – that formed a coherent, common thread and allowed scholars from across the disciplines and through the centuries to converse with one another. Charles Darwin neatly captures the ancient mission of the university:

“The presence of a body of well-instructed men, who have not to labour for their daily bread, is important to a degree which cannot be overestimated, as all high intellectual work is carried on by them, and on such work, material progress of all kinds depends, not to mention other and higher advantages.” (Descent of Man, second edition, pp. 207-208.)

Zhuang Zi, a Daoist philosopher of the third century B.C., memorably captures the function of higher learning in a famous paradox: “People all know the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not know the usefulness of the useless.” Until recent years, it was broadly understood that the superior utility of the university rested not on the teaching of skills and abilities the world considered “useful,” but on the utility of those understandings the world condemned as “useless.”

Around 1980, and in stark contrast to views such as Darwin’s and Zi’s, we started to hear that the irrelevant and “useless” knowledge produced by the university had no place in a progressive, egalitarian, democratic age. The university, like the rest of us, needed to live and thrive in the real world, and not retreat to some escapist, elitist, ivory-tower la-la land which had little or nothing to do with the business of the world, or more accurately, the world of business. Gooch neatly captures this move to the new commercialism:

“Having disowned their identity as places removed from the distractions of quotidian life, universities now seek to emphasize their accessibility and relevance. That means a new vocabulary, the more succinct, the better. Hence the current watchword: engagement. It turns out to be linked to the current watchword of society and government in particular: employability” (43).

In a word, the university became a servant of business and industry. Universities had always faced pressures from commercial interests – the long-noted tensions between “town and gown” – but had historically resisted the siren call. Sometime in the latter part of the last century, however, universities began to capitulate, and the corruption started to settle in.

That the university is so transformed cannot be doubted. Today, to speak of universities in any but pragmatic and utilitarian terms is to court derision as a wild-eyed romantic, or worse, perhaps, as the sort of philosopher who descends from the clouds, like the comical and unworldly Socrates portrayed by Aristophanes. In the brave new university, the economic imperative dominates, so that the vocational and educational missions of the university are hopelessly confused. “The one thing needful” (as Dickens might have put it), are professors who can make their students job-ready on graduation.

Professor Gooch is clear-eyed, and it is with this modern iteration of the university that he contends. Over a career of almost fifty years, he has witnessed this transformation first-hand, and he wants universities to remember that which is central to their enterprise and, indeed, to their very existence. He writes, “What’s been happening to the university over the past four or five decades has sometimes clouded that focus, so I want to recall the university to its fundamental vocation” (xii). His central task is that of recalling rather than of innovating. He tells us that, “Those looking for brand-new ideas about universities will be disappointed…” (xiii).

The apt subtitle of the book is “a map for the distracted university.” Amongst the distractions are those occasioned by technology. As I write this, my laptop pings with the arrival of a new email. My iPhone buzzes, announcing a new message. Do I interrupt my writing to check my mail or answer my messages? Everyone, including professors and their students, must now contend with these sorts of diversions, and it is one of the merits of this book that the author engages so directly with the unprecedented issues wrought by technology.

One of the recurring themes in the book is that the method of teaching in universities should be what Gooch calls “interrogative conversation,” a deeply personal method that recognizes the embodied student in time and place. The author notes that “the internet … is indifferent to human embodiment, oblivious to the frailties of the flesh” (213). In the age of two-way connectivity, human bodies are irrelevant, and you “might as well be nothing more than a brain in a vat” (214).

Professor Gooch is advocating an education that recognizes the physicality of learning and the anodyne (if frequently neglected) fact that human minds exist in bodies. He argues for what a friend calls “full-frontal learning” and against the notion of a “placeless” virtual education that can happen anywhere with the Internet and a screen: “a well-placed university should embrace embodied education, using technology only in its service. Embodied education respects place and somatic presence, rejecting the mentality of info-technocracy” (215, emphasis in original).

Technology and its products are, of course, only one among some distracting voices the university must contend with. Additionally, one might cite the distracting voices of government, and industry, both of which want different things from universities. In the book’s early pages, we are told, “What follows… takes on these distractions, not case by case, but by recalling the institution to its central purposes” (9).

What then are the central purposes of the university? Gooch argues that the university should inculcate “the fundamental habits of mind… that mark what Northrop Frye called the ‘educated imagination,’” and this task can only be achieved through the passing on of knowledge, hence “the university’s raison-d’etre is knowledge” (13).

What knowledge we should teach undergraduates is the oldest question of the academy. Gooch wisely avoids the partisan wars in this debate and instead argues for learning “that takes account of what it is to be fully human” (7). His educational ideal echoes the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus, who defined the essence of the humanist endeavour: Homo fit, non nascitur – one is not born a man, one becomes it.

Professor Gooch elaborates on undergraduate education in Chapter Seven, “What Knowledge Should Undergraduates Gain?” He argues for liberal education modelled on Plato’s Socrates. Just as Socrates constantly questioned the citizens of Athens about their beliefs, Professor Gooch maintains that “there’s an academic form of life characterized by dissatisfaction with the current state of knowledge claims, and driven by intellectual curiosity. Its mindset manifests epistemic restlessness” (173).

Rather than setting out a series of specific curricular recommendations, Gooch instead presents a series of seven Socratic-inspired propositions which should be woven into undergraduate education. These propositions stress the defeasibility of knowledge claims, the need for scholars to remain humble, warnings against inflated epistemic confidence (which leads to hubris), and the quest for a properly constructed and flourishing human life. These are “foundational convictions on which to construct an understanding of the types of knowledge that undergraduates in the twenty-first century should gain” (174). These seven propositions provide an answer to the “epistemic restlessness,” which Gooch claims is the hallmark of the scholar and the line of demarcation between genuine education and vocational training. What liberal learning most needs to instil in undergraduates is this sense of dissatisfaction, a refusal to accept what Orwell called the “smelly little orthodoxies.”

Central to the idea of a liberal education is the freedom to make public our convictions. If, as Gooch argues, a liberal education is an appropriate education for free and democratic citizens, then the “overarching aim of a university education is the honing and responsible exercise of freedoms fundamental to human flourishing” (175). In an era of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and de-platforming, academic freedom needs to be vigorously asserted and defended. In the author’s view, academic freedom is not merely just another feature of academic life, but is constitutive of the university: “A university that doesn’t safeguard its faculty’s freedom to discover, teach and publish is not a proper university” (175).

Professor Gooch tackles the thorny issues surrounding academic freedom in the aptly-titled Chapter Four, “Academic Freedom is Necessary and Messy.” He notes that while “No one seriously believes that academic freedom gives licence to irresponsible behaviour” (86), universities must nonetheless provide space for airing disturbing or unpopular ideas:

“… the university is just the sort of place where ideas and beliefs need to find expression in order to be assessed. Even if there’s a firm conviction in one group that the ideas in question are unworthy of consideration, others will disagree, wanting to hear the case for themselves” (96, emphasis in the original).

On the fraught question regarding the tension between academic freedom and freedom of conscience and religion, Gooch is admirably succinct: “Where there is academic freedom, however, there can be no reigning orthodoxy dictating the consciences, ideas, and expression of faculty members. How could there be?” (97).

Professor Gooch has drawn on a lifetime of experience as a university teacher and administrator, and there is much to recommend this volume. He writes knowingly about university governance, the autonomy of the university, the authority of peers, student life, the distinction between research and scholarship, and many other topics. One is hard-pressed to think of an aspect of university life that has escaped his attention.

On the matter of style, Professor Gooch expresses himself in prose that is simple and direct, the clarity of his writing ensuring that his ideas are accessible to a wide audience. This is commendable, for the state of the university is a topic that should be of interest to the broad public and not just academics.

But what impresses most is that in an age of culture wars, offence-taking and ideological posturing, the good doctor approaches his subject with an even temper and good humour, the sure mark of genuine humility. His analysis of the contemporary university is accompanied by the Socratic understanding that while the truth is obtainable, our human grasp of it is tenuous and liable to misconstruction. Professor Gooch is a most congenial guide, whose book exemplifies the underlying values, commitments and principles which are the sine qua non of university life.