Oxford’s $188 Million Humanities Center Reminds Us What Universities Are For

Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of Blackstone, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2019. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
In the words of John Henry Newman, they are an ‘assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot … a place of teaching universal knowledge.’

Just over a week ago, it was announced that Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of the investment firm Blackstone, and a formidable philanthropist, had further cemented his reputation as a modern-day Andrew Carnegie through a donation of £150 million ($188 million) to the University of Oxford. While the announcement of another elite university receiving another vast sum of money from another ultra-billionaire might induce a deluge of eye-rolls (in 2015, Schwarzman granted a comparable sum to his own alma mater, Yale, for the construction of a new campus center), Oxford’s freshly filled purse is on course toward noble ends.

The donation, which marks the largest single donation to the university since the Renaissance (adjusted for inflation, of course), will serve to create the inconspicuously named Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities (not to be confused with Yale’s up-and-coming Stephen A. Schwarzman Center).

The centre will be a village of sorts, an eclectic collection of faculty offices, libraries, work spaces, and performing-arts venues. It is set to house Oxford’s programs in English, history, linguistics, philology and phonetics, medieval and modern languages, music, philosophy, theology, and religion in a space (cue the administrative jargon) “designed to encourage experiential learning and bold experimentation through cross-disciplinary and collaborative study.”

The centre also will house Oxford’s newly formed Institute for Ethics in AI — a collection of scholars dedicated to an ethical investigation of the frontiers of artificial intelligence and other computing technologies (although the institute will have to compete with MIT’s freshly endowed Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing on that front). In short, it will be a watering hole for scholars from across the university to gather and participate in the tradition of humanities scholarship at Oxford that has, in Schwarzman’s words, “been core to western civilisation and scholarship . . . for nearly 1,000 years.”

Several critics and commentators have raved about the development of the place, asserting that it will usher in a new era of cross-disciplinary discussion never before seen in a university. The project has received oodles of media coverage and has been dubbed “one of the most exciting ideas for a long time” to take shape in the realm of higher education.

Amidst such celebration, however, there is a simple question that needs to be asked — mainly, why is it that a £150 million centre needs to be built in the first place? While it is an undeniably good thing that multiple disciplines will be gathered into one collaborative company, is it not the mission of the university to gather all disciplines together in cooperation?

The proposal of the Schwarzman Centre at Oxford touches on a greater crisis that has become entrenched across most institutions of higher education: the dispersal of departments and the dissolution of the university as a coherent whole. For the mission of the centre is nothing new or ground-breaking, but instead, a righteous return to the basic mission of a university. The reason for the centre — to function as a central place dedicated to the exchange of ideas across disciplines — is the very reason universities exist at all.

The inherent purpose of a university is to provide a synthesis of different kinds of knowledge — a university exists to bring all faculties of learning under one metaphorical roof. The word “university” itself comes from the Latin “universus,” which means “combined into one; whole.” The university’s mission is to continually combine all realms of knowledge into one ever-growing whole, operating on the premise that truth is and must be consistent across all fields of inquiry.

While Oxford’s up-and-coming Schwarzman Centre may seem a step toward the future, it is, substantially, a step back into tradition, into the very idea of the university. Prominent Catholic priest, scholar, and author the Blessed John Henry Newman, who was himself an Oxford don (although at a time when students could still be expelled for renouncing the tenets of the Anglican Articles of Religion), expounds upon the purpose of a university in his hugely popular essay “The Idea of the University.”

He aptly describes the university in its most basic form as an “assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot; — from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all?”

As universities continue to bloat, all of the different departments become less and less able to converge upon “one spot.” Various departments of massive research universities have grown into their own institutions, thereby losing touch with the findings and happenings of other departments.

And, while facilities such as the new Schwarzman Centre at Oxford will assuredly prove a helpful way of keeping the humanities in conversation with each other into the 21st century, they will not be sufficient in providing a solution to the estrangement of the humanities from STEM that has slowly defined most major universities. Due to the sheer geographical magnitude of the world’s leading research universities, with the facilities specializing in science, technology, engineering, and math often miles away from the center of campus, there is an aggressively tangible separation between different fields of inquiry. Alongside the geographical separation, the pressure to specialize early and intensively in one’s own field has all but obliterated the “Renaissance Man” notion of a scholar — the thinker who is an expert in a range of distinct disciplines.

In these times of enabled isolation, projects such as the proposed Institute for Ethics in AI are doubly crucial, for they begin to bridge the humanities–STEM gap by bringing philosophy of mind and moral philosophy to the frontiers of AI technology and cognitive science. Perhaps this task-specific model of humanities–STEM integration will be a new way forward of weaving together a coherent fabric out of the great piles of departmentalized thread made available by the university.

As Newman argued, the university “is a place of teaching universal knowledge. . . . It is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students.” While many universities are (naturally) focused on the advancement of knowledge, the diffusion and extension of knowledge must take roles of an even greater priority. By assembling together, by talking to one another, by inhaling the diffusion of knowledge, perhaps we can remind ourselves what the university is truly for.

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