The Possibility of an island, a humanist university

@IE University

Miranda: O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!

The Tempest

In French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a post-humanist world The Possibility of an Island, the protagonist Daniel (a name of biblical resonance) achieves a form of immortality by making a Mephistophelian pact with technology in which memory remains intact for eternity and Marcel Proust’s sponge cake, long past its sell-by date, is forever confined to the dustbin of the obsolete. The hardware, the flesh, can be replaced, but the software, the memory, remains in place in a new body. Yet in a series of lives devoted to gratuitous pleasures of the flesh, there arises a sense of disquiet in the protagonist; a vague feeling of nostalgia for humanist values. There are rumors that in this brave new world there exists an island populated by dissidents who uphold the humanist tradition.

In the context of a post-humanist world, are there any universities left today that stand as islands of a contrarian humanist tradition? The Erasmus program in the European Union has so far survived the ravages of austerity, but does it uphold the humanist tradition of its namesake? Does there exist a call of an intellectual community which invites the truly curious mind to recall that in the glow of Platonic discovery of the answer to any question lies the shadow of another, more profound, and as yet, unformulated question?

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Mankind in the universe and the monastic condition

What do we mean by humanism? The idea goes beyond the study of humanities and the realm of Erasmus and his fellow European thinkers who used Latin as the common language of learning, who upheld and preserved the wisdom of the classics and who traveled to seek out and share their thoughts with the best minds in the continent. There are elements of humanism  in ancient Eastern philosophy and the medieval monasteries (the precursors of universities) which were beacons of light of classical knowledge in the Dark Ages. It continues into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and now to modern times.

For Miguel Larrañaga, Vice-Rector of Student Affairs at IE University, upholding the humanist tradition is an essential part of IEU’s DNA. In fact, the Dominican Order of Spain, known for its humanistic tradition, was founded in the Cueva de Santo Domingo, which is now part of the ivy-walled IEU Segovia Campus. IE University also encourages graduate students to take courses in the humanities as a means of broadening their education.

Whereas students have become accustomed to traveling as a way of exchanging ideas with the best minds, IE University brings the world to Spain. There are more than 100 nationalities represented in its student body, which exposes scholars to the challenge of reconciling different takes on this globalized world. IE University has solidified its identity as a laboratory of ideas where cross-fertilization is the order of the day.

The ethical consideration

In the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s iconoclastic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a tribe of ape-like precursors of man is displaced from its watering hole by a rival tribe. The ousted tribe discovers a mysterious megalith which one of its members touches. Brooding in an ossuary of dead animals and perhaps his own ancestors, one of the tribe hits upon the idea of leveraging the inert power of objects  to acquire a force that goes well beyond the constraints of individual strength; the idea that a bone can serve as a tool and like any tool as a weapon. He uses the bone to kill one of his rivals and drive off the enemy tribe. That bone is also used to kill animals with which, up to that point, had lived in coexistence with the apes. The flesh so provided allows the apes to become more intelligent and eventually to evolve into human beings.

As in the case of Kubrick’s bone-wielding ape, knowledge imbues the human being with power. The manner in which that power is used or abused is at the forefront. This means that in the humanist tradition, there is always an ethical component to knowledge. Think of the Manhattan Project: it brought together the finest scientific minds of the time during World War II to put an end to fascist tyranny, only to unleash the terror of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are countless examples in history of how political leaders have latched onto  noble ideas to pursue nefarious designs.

Intellectual companionship in the pool of knowledge

Basic ideas are the most invaluable of commodities. They can be traded for the common good although no market exists for them. In a famous intermittent windshield wiper system patent-infringement case that pitted US engineer Robert Kearns against Ford Motors, the Detroit automobile giant claimed that Kearns’ patent was invalid because it did not involve any new components. Kearns argued that his invention was a novel, non-evident combination of parts.

The film Flash of Genius, which dramatizes the case, has Kearns backing his argument by asking Ford’s counsel to read the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities,  which he said contained no new words but the arrangement of the established words was unique. Kearns won. The lesson to be learned here is that there is a difference between creativity and innovation.

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Curiosity and the awe of discovery

The other fundamental idea of humanism is curiosity and the ability to preserve that curiosity to one’s dying days. This sense of wonderment is expressed in William Blake’s poem “Tyger,” in  Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

To which he adds: “Did he who make the Lamb make thee?”

In the closing scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, after unplugging the talking supercomputer Hal, which begins to take on the human qualities of the men who invented it such as hubris and starts to make malicious mistakes, Dave, the last survivor of the expedition, embarks on the final leg of his odyssey. The scene is one of a homecoming through rebirth. He emerges to find himself in the suite of a futuristic luxury hotel surrounding by classical artifacts. He looks at the face of the old man before him in the mirror only to summon up the question: “I believe I might know this man. But from where and when?” The film ends with the image of a fetus, with the faint hint of a beatific smile upon its lips and bulging eyes orbiting the earth, swathed in amniotic wonderment.

In Christian mythology, man was banished from the Garden of Eden in defying God by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Could this have been part of the grand plan, in the sense that to err is divine, and to learn from our errant ways brings us only a finger’s touch away from divinity?

And so the idea emerges of the humanist university as a small island of humanity. It reclaims the domain of the universal, in which ideas are forged in the collective mill of the mind as weapons of mass illumination with the power to disrupt conventional wisdom.

Provided that there are universities of this nature, populated by ‘goodly creatures’ who wish to embark on an odyssey without fear of failure, who can put to use the tools afforded by their acquisition of knowledge to the common good and in so doing leave their mark on the world, there is room for hope.

**Written by: The Report Company