Academic Culture

Traditions and the Present Days

by Zbigniew Drozdowicz (Author)
Monographs 186 Pages

Table Of Content

←6 | 7→From the Author

In these deliberations, I adopt the broad notion of culture advanced in 1871 by Edward B. Tylor, approaching it as a “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” The above is in fact drawn upon by numerous dictionary definitions of culture, such as the one provided in the Cambridge English Dictionary, which states that culture is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time” (Cambridge English Dictionary 2015). Naturally, it is not my intention to discuss each and every way of human life or all the customs and beliefs that may come into play but to focus solely on those which have been in evidence in the academic community, which in itself invariably demonstrates tremendous cultural diversity. It is only in certain respects that the diversity overlaps with the discrepancies between the Western and the Eastern cultures. The latter encompasses Polish culture, including Polish academic culture, to which I devote relatively much attention here. However, it is so singular with regard to many other traits that its equivalents in other social communities can hardly be found.

Persons who are not members of the academic community often find it difficult to comprehend and accept the way of life and beliefs that scholars embrace. What is more, some scholars find it equally problematic to accept what their fellow scholars believe and assert in their views. This is fairly easy in the case of beliefs and notions of scholars from different periods, or even those who live in the same period of time but function in distinct academic milieus. This is because academic culture has witnessed a great number of crucial changes over the course of many centuries. Some changes were evolutionary and required a fairly long time to come to pass. Others occurred in the manner of a revolution. Admittedly, they were not as prompt as political revolutions, for instance, but their aftermath was no less important than with political upheavals, to name only the Copernican revolution, which turned the concept of the solar system upside down, or the Darwinian revolution, which invalidated any previous ideas of the origin of species. The current situation in science is such that various evolutions ←7 | 8→and revolutions take place virtually before our eyes. However, the chief difficulty is—for one thing—that evolutions and revolutions within science are hardly distinguishable. Also, it is no easy task to determine which of those are actual and which only ostensible, and whether it is still science one is dealing with or pseudo-science already. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that scholars (incidentally considered members of the social elite), not infrequently combine convictions which are subject to the rules of scientific verification with the convictions which do not differ greatly from colloquial notions; yet they are adopted because they are comfortable and convenient, or else facilitate communication and understanding with those who for various reasons are not and cannot be an elite.

I draw attention to those difficulties not so much to justify the selectiveness of my view of academic culture (though it does apply indeed), but to explain why my deliberations set out with distinguishing two of its types, namely the corporate and the temple culture. Such a typology has its advantages and drawbacks. The former include a certain ease of navigating that extremely diverse territory of varied beliefs, notions, forms of academic activity and collaboration with the social environment, as well as the ability to identify those forces which provided some scholars with an impetus to engage in that activity, while others found them a safeguard against external and internal threat, or a challenge and a problem to be solved. The principal disadvantage lies in the considerable simplification of the picture of that cultural reality, which displays so many colours and hues that they cannot be inscribed into any typological framework.

In the second part of these deliberations, I address the issue I consider fundamental, namely the faith of scholars. There can be little doubt that it has been and continues to be the that driving force of their academic life and co-existence with the social environment. After all, everyone believes in something, and as long as they believe, they live with the hope for a better tomorrow or at least for retaining their status quo; this is also true in science, which not only lives its past but also its future. However, in the commonplace understanding, scholars are a social group which does not live the same beliefs as other groups. In particular, they have always been perceived as those who voice various “buts” or even “againsts” with respect to the religious beliefs shared by their social surroundings. This generalizing notion is not altogether unfounded, but in order to established how correct ←8 | 9→it is, one has to refer to the results of studies into the faith of scholars and to the views held by scholars themselves. In this part, I take advantage of both the former and the latter. If, at this juncture, I were to offer a possibly brief answer to the question “what about the faith of scholars?”, I would say that a proportion do not share the religious beliefs professed by their social environment. Nevertheless, their positions have not been uniform across various periods and places, nor have they been consistent across the scientific fields and disciplines. Both those who accept religious beliefs and those who express various reservations constitute markedly dissimilar groups. In order to show how they diverge, I adopt a fairly simple division into theists, deists, agnostics, and atheists, though again, significantly different versions can be determined within each of those factions. I attempt to show them by quoting the views on faith from a number of the more eminent scholars. For obvious reasons, their arguments are presented in a selective fashion.

To an uninvolved observer, the matter of evaluation of scientific achievement discussed in the third part may seem marginal or at least not that relevant for academic life as scientific research. Perhaps it is not as important as the inquiry, yet it is not a negligible part of that life, while it does happen to pose an issue which requires to be urgently resolved. I am convinced that the opinion would be endorsed by quite a few of the beginner scholars who still have the successive rungs of the academic career to scale, as well as by a number of the experienced scholars who have done the climb and do not have to struggle to reach the academic peaks (and the honours that go with it) with such reviewers who are either unfavourably disposed for some reason or lack the competence to assess and appreciate their scientific accomplishments objectively. I believe that the evaluation is a focal point of the various but mutually complementary components of academic culture such as the scholar’s capacity for: 1. criticism and self-criticism; 2. rising above individual and collective stereotypes; 3. treating the so-called good practice of a scholar or their ethical principles as something they do not have to be reminded of or explained as if they were freshmen in the “school” of academic good manners. Naturally, learning those and other academic skills comes easily to some, whereas others find it more difficult. However, much depends not only on their capacity and willingness to learn, but also on the customs observed in their academic milieu, particularly by ←9 | 10→those who are considered masters and teachers of the academic mores (the matter is discussed as a postscript to the first part of my deliberations). This is especially palpable when one compares the customs of the “old” universities with the much younger ones. In Poland, it is only the Jagiellonian University which qualifies in the former category, but even in its heyday (in the sixteenth century) it was not counted among the foremost European universities, while the profound crisis it experienced later reduced it from a university to the Academy of Krakow. Poles had to and have to learn from someone after all.

The question of that learning is explored in the part entitled The Constitution for Science which, let me add, concerns science practiced in Poland by scholars who carry out their professional duties at Polish universities. It is rather beyond dispute that much is to be improved there before their quality matches their Western counterparts. Numerous scholars have had no doubt on that score, including the co-authors of the regulations adopted in 2018, referred to as the Law 2.0 for the sake of conciseness. On the other hand, doubts have been expressed by those scholars who do not believe in the agency of such enactments, or at least consider some of the provisions to be at odds with the actual needs and capacities of Polish science. If I were to briefly outline my own reservations with respect to the Law 2.0, I would say that it is informed by the spirit of the same or very similar corporatism which had emerged at European universities in the Middle Ages and subsequently grew into maturity and consolidated its position through e.g. alliances with politicians and politics, as well as by aligning itself with those who held a substantial capital and multiplied it by investing in the economy and scientific innovations it could profitably exploit. A distinctive trait of the regulation is that rectors are granted such broad powers as to arouse fears that they may become university dictators. Regrettably, the short question “what is wrong with that?” cannot be answered with equal brevity. Nonetheless a part of the response may be found in my remarks concerning the Law 2.0.←10 | 11→

Chapter One: The Corporate and Temple Types of Academic Culture

In this part of my inquiry, I will attempt to identify those component elements of academic culture which not only gave rise to the distinction between its corporate and temple variety, but also continue to sustain that division. Their determination and description involve a major difficulty, since not infrequently both were concurrently in evidence at the same universities, vying for ascendancy, while those who have participated in the confrontations were not always fully aware of the stakes and true ends of that contest, whether past or present. Naturally, attempts have been made to distinguish still other types of that culture (e.g. the distinction into corporate and institutional culture to which I refer further on). However, a correctly developed typology of that culture is required to state its relevant elements as well as indicate such components which correspond with one of the distinguished types but do not particularly dovetail with the competing type (the competitive distinction I mention does meet the former requirement, but I find it does not satisfy the latter).

Corporate Culture

The term corporation (Lat. corporatio – association, union) denotes such organizations whose agency and social standing stems from the skills and activities of its members. Their traditions date back further than the traditions of universities, namely to that period of the Middle Ages when the guilds of craftsmen and merchants rose to social significance in the then urban centres. According to Jacques Le Goff, the first universities not only grew out of the traditions of those professional corporations, but also functioned adhering to their paradigm, duplicating e.g. the division into masters, journeymen and apprentices. In the university community, students were not only the most numerous but also the most diversified group, both in terms of their country of origin (initially, universities were not divided into faculties but into nations) and their social and financial status. Goliards were a particularly colourful and important element of the ←11 | 12→student community. Le Goff observes for instance that the university of Paris had its a “strange group of intellectuals” called the goliards:

Some received the condemnations of the councils and synods and of certain ecclesiastical writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These goliardic or wandering clerks were called vagabonds, ribalds, jongleurs, and buffoons. … Those poor students who had no fixed home, who had no prebend, no stipend, thus set out on an intellectual adventure, following the master who pleased them at the moment, hastening toward the one currently in fashion, going from city to city to glean the teachings being offered at the moment. … They contributed to giving it [the century] its adventurous, impulsive, bold appearance (Le Goff 1997, p. 40 ff).

George M. Trevelyan also refers to the unruly and rowdy natures of medieval students in his English Social History; they were “jealous for the ‘liberties’ of their University,” “herd[ed] in the squalid lodging houses of Oxford,” but

when occasion called, poured forth to threaten the life of the Bishop’s messenger, to hoot the King’s officials, or to bludgeon and stab the mob that maintained the Mayor against the Chancellor. … In 1355 the townsmen made a regular massacre of clerks and students: the survivors fled in terror from Oxford, and the University dosed down until the King intervened to protect and avenge the scholars (Trevelyan 1961, p. 53 ff).

In his characterization of the corporate type of academic culture, Le Goff points to its links with urban and intellectual culture. It was associated with the former by virtue of the immigrant mobility from the countryside; “city-dweller was more often than not a recent immigrant, yesterday’s peasant.” and had to acquire “mercantile mentality” (Le Goff, 2000, p. 18). Still, contemporary intellectualism was a migrant phenomenon as well, even in a twofold sense, having originated with the declining cathedral schools and municipal schools which had been deprived of their privileges.

When discussing academic culture, it may be interesting to note for instance that such an outstanding fourteenth-century intellectual as William Ockham never obtained a master’s degree (magister). Another major intellectual of that century—John Wycliffe—was indeed a professor of logic and theology at Oxford, but following his dissension with the Church and later conflict with the secular authorities, he was denied the right to teach there. This was a presage of the parting of ways between independent scholars and the academic corporation tied to secular or ecclesiastical power, but ←12 | 13→it also foreshadowed the rise of those of its members who gave priority to their religious faith over scientific knowledge. This went even further in the fifteenth century.

However, sixteenth-century England witnessed developments which its historian calls “anti-clerical revolution” (Trevelyan, 1961, p. 94 ff). It was initiated by Henry VIII, student of such teachers as Erasmus of Rotterdam and adherent of such of his teachings which induced him to reject the authority of the pope, establish a national Church that was independent of Rome, and subordinate the clergy to secular power. It may be remembered that one of major allies in the king’s undertakings was Thomas Cranmer, a graduate of Cambridge and its professor (MacCulloch, 1996). The support benefited not only Cranmer himself (who was appointed Bishop of Canterbury in 1533), but also his university (among other things, the king founded the Trinity College). In any case, both English higher schools took advantage of the royal favour, especially during the reign of queen Elisabeth I (1558–1603). She was well aware of the need for university education and undertook action to promote development of scientific research there and improve the quality of teaching. In mid-seventeenth century both universities began to show first symptoms of a crisis and went into a dramatic decline in the following century.

In the nineteenth century, the Western world witnessed a genuine social revolution, which transformed the economies and modes of management in the main, as the feudal paradigms of production and distribution were replaced with the capitalist ones. The manufacturers and traders of the traditional corporations were ousted from the market and supplanted by corporations of a new type, which functioned under the names of industrial societies and commercial companies. The revolution also had a substantial impact on the changes taking place at the time in the life of university corporations. In France, this meant greater social approval of a distinct division between the secular and the sacred. Thus, the clergy lost its prerogative to superintend teaching staff, not only at the academies but also at elementary and secondary schools (Duby, Mandrou, 1967, p. 500). In England, which became Great Britain following the union with Scotland in 1707, those profound changes ensued in the latter half of the Victorian era (1865–1901), manifesting e.g. in Oxford and Cambridge (in 1871) opening its doors to everyone, regardless of their professed faith.←13 | 14→

As the twentieth century dawned, the Western societies opened up to new possibilities and opportunities (e.g. in economy and management), but they also had to confront new threats and difficulties of daily life and co-existence. One of such persevering hindrances was bureaucracy. It was analyzed in detail and discussed by M. Weber in his seminal work entitled Economy and Society. Although it does play not the starring role (which belongs to the Western societies that strive to streamline their economy and institutions), but its significance is by no means marginal. After all, it contributed to the streamlining as well as sustained some of the less-than-optimal solutions or created new ones. Among the foremost traits of bureaucracy, Weber listed: 1. hierarchical system of power; 2. division of powers and duties according to strictly formulated provisions and rigid adherence to such regulations; 3. assessment of qualifications in accordance with the rules applicable to such a bureaucratized community rather than based on individual aptitude. This not only could lead but not infrequently did lead to restricting the freedom of individuals and the soullessness that Weber vividly described as “the polar night of icy darkness” (Weber 2015, p. 73 ff). Negative aspects of bureaucracy were also stressed by the American sociologist Robert M. Merton, who observed in Social Theory and Social Structure that it involved “trained incapacity” and the proclivity of the bureaucrats to give preference to formal procedures over actual interpersonal relation (Merton 1957, p. 197 ff).

Much has changed in social life since the aforementioned researchers published their brilliant analyses of bureaucracy, but no fundamental change for the better appears to have taken place in the academic domain. At quite a few Western universities the real power is held not so much by chancellors or deans, but by officials without whose benevolence one can indeed live, but what a miserable life it is. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, the American universities have been in the lead. They outperform others in terms of the results achieved by their researchers, offer superior variety and diversity of forms of education, but also excel with respect to bureaucratization and powers exercised by various officials. This had already been noted by Weber in the previously cited Munich lecture. The current functioning of bureaucracy at American universities is discussed by e.g. Krystian Szadkowski in Uniwersytet jako dobro wspólne (Szadkowski 2015). Naturally, European schools naturally have their ←14 | 15→own traditions associated with their clerical administration. More than one readily implements the ideas conceived by those Brussels bureaucrats whose academic experience is limited to the period they spent studying (not always at the foremost universities); still, they believe they know best what is good for the academic life. Obviously, one can attempt to make light of their ideas or disregard them. In such a case, however, one has reckon with waking up one day without funds to conduct research whose quality is recognized by the world, as well as without the prestige afforded by participation in the international academic life and engaging in research projects whose dizzying budgets would stun many a national planner.

Needless to say, in the countries of the European Union, domestic bureaucracy has a lot of say, even at much lower tiers than the competent ministry. We do live in times of various globalizations and centralizations, but they do not reach as far as to prevent the bureaucracy of particular universities to pursue their own “policies” of persisting and surviving behind the office desk. Over several decades of academic life, I have gathered a substantial body of observations in that respect. Some of those overlap with the fairly widespread conviction that any power can corrupt, while the great power of the bureaucrats can corrupt even more (and professorial titles are no special safeguard against it). It can corrupt, but it does not have to. In my academic life and “co-existence” with various rectors, deans, and directors, I have dealt with persons who let power go to their heads so much that in many respects they seemed an incarnation of the “director-dictator” to whom Weber referred in his Munich lecture. On the other hand, I have also encountered those who may have been unable to go out of their way to please everyone, but at least they sought to live in peace with everybody. Still, any such authority may be expected not to elevate itself above other members of the university community, or at least that it will not create a “retinue” of sycophants around itself. This is not always the case, however, and I do not think that I am alone in my sentiments. There are quite a few universities whose bureaucrats behaved or behave in a manner suggesting that the school, the faculty, or the institute is theirs, in fact. At the same time, I am convinced that such an approach has never been particularly beneficial for the university concerned.

It may seem normal that an authority is domineering, even when it has been appointed and conferred by the academic community. I do not deny ←15 | 16→that authority (from the topmost to the lower rungs) the right to control the professional fates of its subordinates, even to demonstrate certain imperiousness (though within reason). The problem arises when the authority begins to think and act as if it received its powers by virtue of the will of those who would otherwise be utterly incapable of solving their professional and probably life issues. Naturally, not only does it know how to solve them, but also does not really have to take into account and respect the opinions of those who have a different view on the matter. It sfunctioning may assume various forms at particular universities and at different times. In the so-called rightly bygone period (which is assumed to have ended in Poland in 1989), the authority would take some heed of how it was appraised by the no less overbearing political authority. However, it sometimes feels so liberated in free Poland that not only is it inclined to dismiss the opinion of such superiors, but even disregard common sense. Multiple examples can be readily cited.

The conduct of imperious rectors, deans, or heads of various units at the university is but one of the problems associated with the academic bureaucracy. Another issue—perhaps felt even more acutely in the daily functioning of the university community—is that of the so-called administrative rank and file. Far be it from me to disparage their role in the academic life, even when it does not go beyond reviewing a document and applying (or not) their official stamp to it. After all, that ordinary official knows, or at least should know how the document should be made and when it must be submitted. However, they become true bureaucrats only when they find that knowledge to be sufficient grounds to treat applicants (regardless of whether they are full professors or not) as if they were so dim-witted that various legal regulations elude their comprehension. Exceptions in that respect include (though not necessarily) persons who hold some important university positions and are treated accordingly. The bureaucrat has their instinct for self-preservation and is roughly aware whom to look down on, and whom to show respect; if that instinct fails, one may have to start looking for another desk to occupy (as a former dean, I could say much in that matter).

From time to time, novel ideas are advanced on how to tackle the nuisances of bureaucracy. As an example, one could cite the suggestions in A. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where democratization of social life ←16 | 17→is argued to be an antidote to its shortcomings (Tocqueville 1996). However, I do not think that those recommendations are universal enough to offer a solution to each difficult social issue, including those related to bureaucracy and bureaucrats. I am rather inclined to believe that Tocqueville’s alternative of “either democracy or bureaucracy” is fairly limited in its applicability. After all, it would be all too easy to find instances in which democracy enhances bureaucracy, while bureaucracy reinforces democracy (present-day functioning of the EU organizational structures is merely one of such examples). At universities, that alliance of democracy and bureaucracy has its particular traits, not only owing to their default hierarchical structure but also due to the presence of such specialities which preclude researchers from performing particular jobs to the professional standard that university administration is capable of (which naturally creates a dependence of the former on the latter).

Certain general suggestions in that respect can nevertheless be formulated (without any assurance of their being effective). The first boils down to stating that if bureaucracy is inevitable, then at least one should attempt to keep not so much the peace of mind (which proves exceedingly difficult at times), but nurture some understanding when faced with the trained and non-trained incapacity of the university clerks, even helplessness of those who should have seen properly and successfully to our affair but failed and little can be done about it. The essence of the second suggestion is this: if we wish to have something done promptly and effectively, we need to do it ourselves; if we find ourselves short of time or willingness, we have chiefly ourselves to blame, instead of being surprised that the bureaucrat approaches us as a person with “special needs” (if this does happen, as one may be treated much worse). Finally, attempts should be made to transform the trained incapacity of the bureaucrat into trained professional resourcefulness. Admittedly, it might seem like a utopian design, but there are countries in Europe which can boast substantial success in the field (I have had the opportunity to experience this first-hand while staying in a number of such countries). Regrettably, Poland is not among them.←17 | 18→

Temple culture

It might appear that speaking of the temple culture within an academic milieu in times of such an advanced secularization is tantamount to invoking that spirit from distant past which once enjoyed much recognition but is no more than a vague memory today. I do not share this view, not only because there still exist religious universities where it is openly cultivated, but also because prominent elements of that culture are observed at those secular schools which repeatedly struggle to make education of students and scientific research independent from the Church. The elements in question manifest themselves at ceremonies during which persons with scientific merit are awarded the honoris causa doctoris degree. For the sake of illustration, I am going to draw on a lecture by Professor Kazimierz Twardowski (philosopher, founder of the Lvov-Warsaw School), entitled On the Dignity of the University; it was delivered in 1932, when Twardowski received the academic honour from the University of Poznań. According to the scholar, that dignity “derives not only from the venerable history and glorious traditions of the school,” but also from pursuing a mission which consists in “discovering scientific truths and probabilities as well as nurturing the skill of arriving at those” (Twardowski, 2007). If any of those listening to the lecture had any doubt whether it has anything in common with the duties of the temple which one had spoken of for centuries in the Church, it should have been dispelled by Twardowski’s assertion that “it is only for striving to attain that truth and disseminate it that there is place in such a temple of knowledge as the University,” to which he added: “to be called to labour in that temple of knowledge is a great joy.” I am convinced that many a clergyman may think and speak much the same about their work in the church, while the New Testament promise of “truth will set you free” is both a call to true faith and true knowledge. Naturally, I do not ignore the differences between the temples that Christian churches have been and the kind that contemporary universities are. The crux of the matter is that the differences developed gradually and became more profound in the course of many centuries, but they did not wholly eliminate the earlier elements of the temple culture from academic life. It may be worthwhile to take a look how that battle proceeded, very briefly though it may be.←18 | 19→

It is described for instance by Jacques Le Goff in the aforementioned monograph entitled Intellectuals in the Middle Ages. In the introduction, the author refers to an early attempt at a separate treatment of the corporate and temple cultures at medieval universities, evinced in the avoidance of the term cleric/clerk (clericus) and replacing it with philosopher (philosophus). The attempt was unsuccessful because at that time quite a few of the eminent theologians could not only pass for a philosopher but were indeed “philosophers par excellence.” Also, Le Goff extensively discussed the conflict which took place over a hundred years earlier at the university of Paris, in which the defender of sanctity Bernard of Clairvaux (whose sainthood is recognized in the Catholic as well as Anglican and Evangelical churches) clashed with Pierre Abelard (Le Goff, 1997, p. 49 ff). The latter is called “the glory of the Parisian milieu,” “the first great modern intellectual figure—within the limits of the term “modernity” in the twelfth century”). However, he had no chance of joining the circle of saints of the Church as he declared an intellectual war against its contemporary authorities. The position of such university professors as Abelard or Siger was also seriously threatened by those lecturers who originated from ascetic orders and propagated that type of culture in the academic milieus.

The culture of the Christian saints deserves some attention here. Some remarks on that score are made in the already cited Medieval World…. The lives of saints have invariably been associated with various forms of dedicated worship. The earliest of those are rooted not only in Christian traditions but also derive from those pagan traditions that many a saint fought against, laying their life in the process. Such events produced both martyr saints as well as their patrons (e.g. St. Ambrose of Milan). Ascetics, such as the hermits of the Egyptian desert or the stylites of Syria were yet another group of saints. Then there were saints whose merit lay in defending the people and founding churches (e.g. St. Leo in Rome). These and other ways to achieve sainthood in the late eleventh and early twelfth century suffered a singular cultural crisis, while some (such as the traditional lifestyle of the Benedictine monks) became the object of severe criticism. At that point in history, spiritual life of Christian Europe witnessed the appearance of such figures as the aforementioned professor of the Paris university, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In his analysis of the historical process of evolution of sainthood in Christian religion, André Vauchez draws attention to the ←19 | 20→brilliant preachers who arrived on the scene in the late fourteenth century and later (“preachers generally spoke on the great truths necessary for salvation, usually more from a moral than a dogmatic point of view”), as well as the often encountered discrepancy between the papally endorsed veneration of saints (“papacy tended to reserve the glory of the altar to a restricted number of saints, who were subjected to close scrutiny”), and the popular worship (Vauchez, 1987, p. 391 ff).

One could ask: does it relate in any way to scholars and schools? The thing is that it does, to a considerable extent at that. In order to find out, it suffices to become acquainted with the biographies of those great scholars who not so much lived from science but on science, and despite numerous adversities accomplished that which elevated them to the “altars” of scientific knowledge. If such biographies do not convince one that we are dealing with a peculiar kind of saints (without quotation marks) and their martyrdom (without quotation marks either), they should refer once again to the Munich lecture by M. Weber, in particular to those fragments in which he spoke of “inner devotion to the task” and of the scholar who, pursuing the vocation,

put[s]‌ on blinders, so to speak, and [comes up] to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript.

Still, it must be explicitly stated that idealizations of the kind are by default simplified and selective in their nature or—which amounts to the same—do not reflect the diversity and multiplicity of social life, including its singular sanctities.

The Future of Academic Culture

Much has been said on that score, both by various officials (at EU and national level) and those scholars who have already experienced more than one “earthquake” in science or academic teaching and would prefer not to go through another. One of those was the emergence of bibliometrics and bibliometricians in science, as well as the spread of the Hirsch index to measure the value of scholarly achievement. I discuss the matter more comprehensively in elsewhere in my deliberations on academic culture. At this juncture, I would merely like to highlight a problem referred to ←20 | 21→in Poland as punktoza (lit. pointosis). In a critical article addressing this affliction, Tomasz Borecki recalls that “already in 2012, during the convention of the American Society of Cell Biology in San Francisco a declaration was adopted, aiming to ‘stop the epidemic spreading in many countries’,” while “China, a current scientific superpower, announced in 2015 that they would no longer use bibliometrics to evaluate research findings” (Borecki, 2019, p. 26). However, Polish bibliometricians are well entrenched for the moment and—no less importantly—enjoy the support of the ministry decision-makers regarding what is good for Polish science. One way or another, pointosis dovetails relatively well with the corporate culture, including its inner conviction that scientific value may be found primarily in things that can be accurately measured and represented as a number. Such an approach inevitable bears on how one thinks about the future of scholars and science, and about that academic culture which, though still in its young years, may in a not-so-distant future grow above the heads of those scholars who today oppose its endeavours to establish the standards of scientific professionalism.

These generational differences are discussed for instance in Marek Kwiek’s Uniwersytet w dobie przemian in which, based on the studies of the transformations within the Polish academic milieu, the author concludes that there exists a “profound intergenerational gap between the younger and the older staff” (Kwiek, 2015, p. 36 ff). Added to this perception of the academic milieu, one also observes a competition between the younger and the older faculty for primacy in science. However, the future belongs to the former and their notions of science, where it is construed as a “research production.” This term is only one of the categories that Kwiek employs to speak of the transformations at universities. In his opinion, they are not only a manifestation of the modern times, but also reflect the striving to catch up with the global changes in the developed Western societies or—which amounts to much the same—the “welfare states.” What does it mean for the academic culture? If one follows Kwiek’s reasoning, it means that the list of priorities needs to include the following: 1. financing issues (relating both to the payer, i.e. the state, and the payees, i.e. the universities); 2. economic issues (effective production and sale of the outcomes of scientific production on the consumer market); 3.employment issues (recruitment of individuals for the purposes of production and dismissal ←21 | 22→of those who have proved ineffective); 4. promotion issues (awards and bonuses for the most productive staff and providing incentive to those who for various reasons do not perform equally well); and 5. management issues (preparation of what the economists call a “business plan’ and scientists a “research project,” followed by implementation management and quality assessment of the “research production”). Here, I may have simplified Kwiek’s vision of the university of the future, but I do not think I have distorted it in any way. Should anyone have reservations of the kind, they need to devote their attention to Chapter 6 of that book (Questions Concerning Production of Knowledge and Economic Competitiveness) or Chapter 10 (Internationalization of Scientific Research: Impact on Research Productivity). At any rate, I have no doubt that the book outlines a vision of universities where corporationism is the norm, while speaking of such relics of the past as sainthood and temple-like nature will be a future object of interest to historians only. Such notions of the future of universities are by no means rare today, in Poland as well. I cannot be but convinced of it, given the Western authorities that Kwiek cites (Maassen, Olsen, 2007), as well as the observations of the domestic researchers who study the issues that past and present universities have faced.

As an example, one may quote the opinions formulated by Dominik Antonowicz in Uniwersytet przyszłości, whose final parts explore the title problem, namely a university of the future. Among other things, the author draws attention to a “market turn in the academic sphere, which is strictly associated with the process of commercialization of knowledge” (Antonowicz, 205, p. 164 ff). His peculiar approach and depiction of the transformations of the academic life consist in its being analyzed also in the light of associations with state administration. His general proposition is that since their emergence until the present day, universities have undergone a profound change as they

lost the characteristics of a corporation and became an institution which is deeply linked with the patterns of organization that have developed within state administration, in particular in the departments of education and science.

The assertion is disputable, not only because the processes which transformed university culture differed from country to country, and there is no shortage of schools where corporationism prevails (such as Harvard ←22 | 23→University cited by the author of the book), but also because corporationism can also be treated as a particular form of institutionalization encountered as part of the social process of creating objective reality (Berger, Luckmann, 1983, p. 97 ff). Although to Antonowicz university corporationism is chiefly evinced in the presence of an “autonomous scientific corporation” which e.g. resists being dependent on the state or the Church, but in subsequent concretizations he associates it with a notion according to which university is a special institution that

has been entrusted the greatly responsible task of maintaining continuity and passing on culture, a mission which cannot be successfully carried out without faith in that culture and certainty that it is worthy of being preserved.

Given the adopted distinction of academic cultures, the concept of mission and faith is characteristic of the temple as opposed to the corporate type of academic culture. Much the same applies to the university models cited by Antonowicz: the “Newman model” (an “idea of the university as a public institution dedicated to education, formally separate, but in practice strongly linked to the Church”), and the Humboldtian model (the author even admits that the “Humboldt university—despite its secularity—greatly resembled a monastery”).

Philanthropy, to which the author refers in the final parts of the book, may be an interesting aspect bearing on the discussion concerning corporate and temple-like nature of academic culture, being “one of the major non-budgetary sources of financing universities in the Anglo-Saxon culture.” (Antonowicz, 2005, p. 169 ff). Drawing on the opinion of Western authors, Antonowicz states the “the culture of donating funds to religious purposes does not have to translate into inclination to support academic institutions.” Indeed, it does not have to. However, those are not only the goals of philanthropy that matter, but also the behaviours (not infrequently moulded by the traditions of multiple generations) manifesting in our readiness to give without expecting anything in return for oneself which already can have much in common with sainthood and the temple-like nature. At any rate, I find Antonowicz’s deliberations to be a confirmation that there are some significant ambiguities with respect to the components of the corporate and temple academic culture, but there is also a need to articulate them with a fair degree of clarity.←23 | 24→

Two more points need to be considered at this point by way of supplement. The first is concerned with the principal creators of academic culture distinguished by Antonowicz. One of those has been the state, while its competitor and centuries-long adversary is the university community, which the author qualifies as a corporation. The thing is that not only can the university corporation and the state be institutional entities, but also either of those can rely and in general do rely on dissimilar bureaucratic models. The standpoint adopted by Antonowicz is that in the bureaucratic model a higher education institution is treated as a “separate establishment of state administration whose scope of autonomy is regulated by law.” This can actually be the case and not infrequently is, especially in those countries where the state has taken over the role of the principal decision-maker in social life, and exercises full control over the enforcement of its decisions. However, this does not happen in the countries where there are multiple decision-makers and where they are compelled to compete on the market of goods and services they offer. The latter are highly diversified after all, both in terms of quality, quantity and price. In such instances, Antonowicz speaks of a “pluralist model in the domain of financing academic schools.” At this point of the disquisition, one very clearly sees the effect of the author’s excessively simplified perception and depiction of the past and future of universities. In the case of such institutions as universities the sources of financing have been, are and most likely will be important in the future. Still, if they are to retain their cultural identity and remain true to the principles referred e.g. in the Magna Charta Universitatum Europaeum, then funding is not the only crucial element, not to mention its being the most important one (Drozdowicz, 1995, p. 8). As for bureaucracy, I share the view expressed by Weber, who asserted that bureaucracy can be “exercised in a wide variety of different forms” (including both state and corporate “administrative staff”), while those subordinated to the apparatus must be subject to “authority only with respect to their impersonal official obligations” as well as “strict and systematic discipline and control in the conduct of the office.”

The second supplementary remark is related to cultural models associated with the life of saints and the temple life. In the Western culture, the former and the latter pattern were moulded by Christianity. The problem is that neither in the past nor currently did religion constitute a community of ←24 | 25→saints alone; moreover, those who were eventually included in that exclusive circles reached their sainthood in various ways, while their biographies did not lack events which hardly have anything to do with sanctity. The temple, to which Christianity refers as the Church, is no different. Admittedly, when one considers it as a community of believers (the essential meaning of the term), it turns out that a number of its members have been and are not all too committed to cultivating that religious faith and striving for the superior goal of their lives (which, if one believes Christian authorities, consists in reconciliation with God and attaining salvation). Quite a few of such persons (including ecclesiastical hierarchs) can be said—without fear of contradiction—to have been interested chiefly in acquiring earthly goods and satisfying their prosaic corporal needs. From time to time, this provoked vehement opposition from persons sharing in the Christian faith. Luther’s backlash against selling indulgences by the popes offers an eloquent example. This was a major rebellion against commercialization of what should have never become a tradable commodity. In any case, such conduct—whether in the early or later periods—led to serious crises within the church, as well as caused believers to turn away from that largely bureaucratized institution, particularly those whose have expected from it much more than efficient management of its material assets and their flock.

For those persons who are inclined to cultivate temple culture in the academic milieu the situation is twice as difficult. Not only are they compelled to make critical assessments of those religious models which have proved a failure for one reason or another, but also correctly choose those components of the temple culture which have survived the various vicissitudes of history and can be called timeless or universal; only called, though, because each had its proper time and place. The greatness of those scholars who happened to write the most significant pages in the history of science stems from the fact that they were not only willing to make but also succeeded in such evaluations and choices, as well as—equally importantly—put them into practice in their professional lives. Weber called it a vocation to engage in science and saw it as a trait of each scholar who was ready to tremendous sacrifices in order to establish, find, or discover something important in science. However, I would not go as far in my perception of scientists. After all, one can have both the vocation and the capacity for sacrifice, but when an individual lacks what tends to be called ←25 | 26→the “divine spark,” or sometimes simply talent and diligence, any major scholarly success is rather unlikely.

A Postscript: The Masters and Leaders in Science

One of the more interesting viewpoints which offers insights into the historical contest between the temple and the corporate type of academic culture focuses on how the functioning of masters and leaders in science changed. However, the presence of such figures in the domain of study and research has a much longer cultural tradition than any detailed science. The origins should be sought in those religions which preceded Christianity and produced prophets whose precepts were followed by the respective believers. One of such religions was ancient Judaism (its prophet Moses is referred to not only by Christians but by Muslims as well). At any rate, when Christianity emerged, masters and leaders had already acquired cultural legitimacy. The religion not only drew on the Judaic traditions, but also modified them in response to the changing needs and possibilities of social impact, which did not always proceed without conflict.

This also applies to the creation of masters and leaders within Christianity. Although in the Middle Ages the greatest eminence as masters and teachers was accorded to those theologians who went down in history as Fathers of the Church, the title was vied for by those Christians whose life and sacrifice was a testimony to their profound faith (some of them were recognized as saints). This group comprises both various ascetics as well as individuals who gave their life for faith. The question of leadership in that religious community led to tensions and conflicts of equal intensity. It is known in history as the fight for the primacy of the bishop of Rome over the remaining heads of the apostolic Churches (there were as many as the apostles, i.e. 12), during which one invoked both biblical accounts and the apostolic activity of St. Paul and St. Peter. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it was officially acknowledged for the first time that the primacy is due to the bishop of Rome (office held at the time by Leo I), who thus adopted the title of the pope. In the centuries that followed, he would gain further titles (current titulature includes 8 honorifics) as well as challengers to the leadership of Christianity, which in the ninth century culminated in the East-West Schism.←26 | 27→

An interesting example to be considered in terms of combining the dignity of a master with the powers of a leader in Christianity is the figure of Eckhart von Hochheim (1260–1327/28), German theologian and philosopher, also known as Meister Eckhart. That thoroughly educated Dominican had quite a career in the Church (rising to e.g. provincial superior of his order in Saxony and later in Naples). However, his writings and sermons delivered in the final years of his life aroused some serious concerns among a number of Christian monks (chiefly Franciscans, who competed with the Dominicans for influence). Their reservations were submitted to pope John XXII, who referred the 150 general theses propounded by Eckhart to be reviewed by the judges of the inquisition tribunal. Based on their findings, the pope issued a bull (In agro dominico) in which he stated that 28 of the theses constitute heresy or are suspected of heresy (Clark 1957). In later centuries, not only did a number of Christians draw on the theses, but also the authorities of the Catholic church sought to mitigate the earlier condemnation (allegedly, pope John Paul II was even ready to have Meister Eckhart fully rehabilitated). However one looks at it, it remains indisputable that there is one leader in that Church, and that at least nominally that person is the pope. Nominally, because history of the Church saw such popes who were nowhere near theological mastery and such leadership of the religious community which did not raise major objections, unless we will recognize a peculiar kind of mastery in how they attained their ecclesiastic dignities and then defended their privileged position in the Church, making light of the opinions about their lifestyle voiced by the unfavourably disposed circles (Drozdowicz 2019, p. 3 ff).

What about the masters and leaders in those sciences which liberated themselves from the supervision of the Church and went their own ways? The picture is not as confused as in the case of the same figures in religious communities, but neither is it as uncomplicated that one could unequivocally state who was or is who there. Here, I am going to cite several examples of such scholars who may confidently be said to have played significant roles in science, but whether they may be considered both masters and scientific leaders is a debatable matter.

I shall start with the question of masters in science. Naming those has been a relatively easy task for philosophers, not only because they have had many, but also due to the fact that the kind of relationship which ←27 | 28→has invariably developed between the master and the disciples was largely created by ancient philosophers. One of such philosophical masters was Socrates (469–399 BCE). Admittedly, all information about his views and achievements originates from second-hand accounts, but if one believes his direct student Plato (ca. 428–347 BCE), he was both a great philosopher and a master who wanted and was able to share his wisdom with anyone, even those he met accidentally in the streets of Athens. Socrates’ mastery was doubted by some of his contemporaries, including those Athenians who brought him to court and succeeded in having him sentenced to death (alleging depravation of youth through unbelief in the existence of multiple gods and their influence on human life). Plato’s opinion prevailed in later years, because for one thing it was much better documented and, which was equally important, his writings survived. Another reason was that Plato himself became the master and teacher of numerous generations of philosophers, while the philosophical school he established in the grove of Academe provided a model for many a later school and the name for academies. Recalling those philosophical traditions is by all means relevant here, as they shaped the notions of masters and leaders in science for long centuries.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century and in the early seventeenth century those traditions brought forth such scholars who did not deny Christian masters and teachers the right to speak in public and recruit further students, but they recognized their authority solely or chiefly in the sphere of faith as opposed to knowledge. One of those scholars was Galileo (Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei, 1564–1634), whose renown owed both to scientific and engineering achievement (such as constructing a telescope or improving the compass), and the protracted trial before the inquisition court (cf. Reston 2000), where he defended Copernicus’ heliocentric concept. Although he was aware that it contradicted the teachings of the ecclesiastic authorities (represented during the trial by cardinal Robert Bellarmine), he found it stood to his reason, and the reason of those scholars who, like Copernicus or Tycho Brahe, were conversant with mathematics. It followed from their calculations that it is the Earth which revolves around the Sun, not the reverse. Already in 1616 the inquisition tribunal pronounced the view to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy” and, from the standpoint of religion, “formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts ←28 | 29→in many places the sense of Holy Scripture,” therefore it is “at least erroneous in faith” (cf. Finocchiaro 1989). Galileo obstinately stood his ground, revealing at the same time that he approached the matters of knowledge and faith separately. The ordeal ended (in February 1633) with Galileo suffering little harm indeed, because instead of being burnt at the stake by the inquisition, he was merely enjoined to “abjure, curse, and detest” the Copernican theory and pledge never to promote it, as well as denounce its adherents to the inquisition. The scholar accepted that “offer one does not refuse.” Later on, he did not comply strictly with the injunction (even happened to call his opponents ignoramuses) and went down in history as a master of eluding and deceiving his ecclesiastical adversaries, but one can hardly argue that he was the only master in cosmology (after all, Tycho Brahe entertained similar views concerning the solar system but did not face an inquisition trial because of that). It is also indisputable that he was not the sole leader in any discipline in which he was involved (both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler competed with him for the palm in cosmology, while the invention of the telescope is also credited to Hans Lippershey). Naturally, this does not make the brilliant scholar any less great, nor did it prevent later scientists from calling him the “father of modern science” (Einstein 1954, p. 271).

In later centuries, further epoch-making discoveries were made and more innovative theories were formulated, for instance in such disciplines as evolutionary biology. The latter are mainly associated with Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Darwin belonged to the type of scholars whose greatest achievements were slow in the making (not to say arduously laboured). His flagship treatise, On the Origin of the Species, was published after many years of deliberation and observation (e.g. during the voyage to South America aboard the Beagle) in 1858 and in certain respects required major supplements (introduced in the subsequent editions). The work was not thoroughly innovative (Darwin admitted in his Autobiography that he took advantage of the findings of the eighteenth-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus), while the author’s theory of evolution competed with the concepts advanced by such scholars as Alfred Russell Wallace. His leadership in contemporary biology is also questionable due to the fact that Darwin was not the kind of scientist who felt at home in the atmosphere ←29 | 30→of academic dispute and sought validation of his standing from the professorial circles (after completing his studies he did not apply for any university position and avoided contact with the professoriate). He left the defence of the theory of evolution to his disciples and adherents; one of those was Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), who even called himself “Darwin’s bulldog” (cf. Huxley 1893–94). The problem was that at the time Huxley became the mouthpiece and the “device” of the theory, erroneously presented some of its aspects and failed to fully comprehend its scientific corollaries, whereas certain assertions he based on it (claiming e.g. that the human is descended from apes) had either never been made in On the Origins or at least had been formulated in more hypothetical terms. This does not change the fact that Huxley considered its author to be his master, while Darwin’s name does not connote well among the defenders of the Christian tenet according to which the human was created by God.

A number of scholarly figures in Polish science could also compete for the master title with international scientists. They can be found in Copernicus’ times and in much more recent periods, to name only Maria Curie-Skłodowska. Whatever one may say about them, however, there have not been as many as may be inferred from the obituaries of late professors or eulogies delivered by their disciples and associates. Naturally, one should not belittle the significance of such speeches. Nonetheless, I will not attempt to enumerate those Polish scholars who deserve to be called masters (while the content of such a list is sure to be disputed by many). Instead, I would like to say a few words about a master whose authority was cited not only by his direct students but also by a considerable number of those who wish to underline the sanctity of such institutions as universities have been and continue to be. The master in question is the previously mentioned Kazimierz Twardowski. His disciples and continuators of the Lvov-Warsaw School remember him as a master of great stature, who “trained such a group of outstanding experts that could be the envy of everyone” (Hinc-Wirkus, p. 21 ff). The author of these words not only provides a long list of major names in Polish science, but also quotes the opinions of some concerning their master. For instance, Tadeusz Kotarbiński (a thinker whose eminent status in Polish philosophy is beyond any question) wrote that Twardowski

←30 | 31→radiated inner power, an abundant—to the point of being dangerous—masculinity. He exuded potential terror. And that imperious man, who intimidated the crowd around him, became caring like a mother, kindly and warmly intimate older friend to those who desired to join the circle of his immediate students and willingly agreed to be under his leadership.

Archaeologist Kazimierz Michałowski remembered his as a professor of the University of Lvov whose lectures drew crowds of students, while

Twardowski’s lectures were probably the best he had heard in his life. He had that curious gift for introducing the most difficult of problems in a straightforward and obvious manner, so that every attentive listener had the impression of listening to something easy.

Experts on the achievements of the school largely concur that it included more significant philosophers than K. Twardowski, or at least thinkers—such as Alfred Tarski, Jan Łukasiewicz, or Stanisław Leśniewski—who deserve higher merit in the eyes of philosophers today (cf. Coniglione, Poli, Woleński 1993). One can at least agree that an individual can be an outstanding master and teacher in science, but this is not always tantamount to being a scientific leader.

Today, being simultaneously a master and a leader appears to be even harder to achieve than in the past. On the one hand, the number of people involved in scientific research is much higher, while on the other significant success is increasingly more difficult when working alone, in a team lacking high-class scientists or without cooperation with major research centres. Naturally, work in large research teams and exchange of scientific experience requires substantial expenses. For a proportion of scientists this is an obstacle they can hardly overcome, which is why they have to rely on the assistance of such persons who may not have the qualifications enabling them to achieve impressive results in research but have the skill helpful in organizing specific investigations and raising the necessary funds. In short, they are good managers. Such individuals may of course aspire to the role of leaders, even have the adequate “legitimacy” to do so, but only in the category of persons who support scholars actually engaged in scientific research. A problem arises when they fail to see the difference between themselves and the scientists whom their managerial aptitude is supposed to serve, and push themselves to the forefront, not only where various financial honours and awards are concerned, but also in those ←31 | 32→publications which present the outcomes of the team’s collective effort. It is not my intention to complain of the decline of good mores in science, so I will just state briefly: in those leading international research centres which publish multi-author papers (a standard in the natural sciences), the persons mentioned in the first place are those who have contributed the most to the obtained results. As for the potential “what about us?” asked by the participating managers, one can answer politely but firmly: they are and most likely will be irreplaceable in the future, but their role is and will be an ancillary one. This is easier to say than apply in practice, or even explain to an otherwise acclaimed professor that their organizational experience, sometimes the very name, was, is, and may still be useful in procuring funds for research and international networking. However, his or hers period of peak scientific activity is already over. On the other hand, attributing the achievement of another to oneself is, or at least should be approached as reprehensible.

There are several more general remarks and suggestions to be made with respect to masters and leaders in science. If I said that—whether in the past or today—their lives were not and are not as easy as to be readily imitated, no one would be greatly indignant or surprised. Naturally, many would like to achieve similar scientific success, and even more to enjoy the same recognition and the funds they are given to conduct their studies. However, this is no difficult task to appreciate how much is needed to become a master or, failing that, a leader even on a national level if not in international science. Were I to say briefly what is required, I would list the following: relevant and adequate skills and qualifications, persistent and effective work, as well as the good fortune thanks to which one happens to function in a friendly or favourably disposed environment, or at least one where one’s scientific achievement is not treated as personal affront or threat to someone’s academic standing. Allegedly, the skills are something one is born with, but even they can and should be honed. The longer and more committed the effort, the greater the chance of becoming a leader in science. Still, it must be said that it necessitates considerable patience, both from the master and leader candidates as well as from their immediate and more remote surroundings. This is not easy, neither for the former nor for the latter. Although it is perfectly normal that some are more talented, hard-working and brilliant than others, is it not annoying ←32 | 33→that masters and leaders are so much better that various stragglers look like “poor relatives?” Even worse, the former frequently do not intend to conceal that they have far surpassed their colleagues and associates, flaunting the fact on various occasions. Obviously, no one’s life is any easier because of that.←33 | 34→←34 | 35→

Chapter Two: The Faith of Scholars

Scholars belong to a group of people who are inclined to ask the so-called boundary questions and seek answers which either meet the criteria of being scientific or at least offer compelling rationale why they fail to satisfy such criteria. The differences between them arise when there appears a necessity to determine the boundary between what one can know and prove, and what one can indeed believe but hardly prove. For quite a few scientists the latter includes the question of proving the existence of God, creator of the world. However, there are also such scholars who hold that the question may be resolved with as incontrovertible evidence as in the sciences. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) may be considered a precursor of such an approach, while neo-Thomists in lecturer positions at Catholic universities are his present-day continuators. Were it not enough, still other scholars are of the opinion that the matter requires resorting to a different kind of learnedness than the mindset applicable in the sciences and natural inquiry. Such notions were in evidence already in the patristic period of Christianity, and one of their most eminent representatives was Aurelius Augustinus, (later saint, 354–430). Some of his precepts continue to be a lodestar for the followers of the religion, such as—for the sake of example—the adage “if you can’t understand it, believe it,” or the superiority of wisdom (sapientia) one can attain through faith over the knowing one reaches solely through human reason and other cognitive faculties that are inherent to man. For numerous centuries these two options competed, gaining both adherents and opponents.

In general terms, however, one could say that in the past centuries a considerable proportion of scholars made the attempts to tie their scientific convictions with religious faith rather than opt for a confrontation between them. Naturally, this assumed various forms among the scientists concerned, as illustrated by the disclosures cited by Nancy K. Frankenberry in The Faith of Scientists. The author chose particular figures based on: 1. their significant contribution to the development of natural or mathematical sciences since the scientific revolution (which she dated to the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century) to the present; 2. their historical ←35 | 36→or intellectual importance in public life, and 3. availability of documented statements of those individuals concerning religion (Frankenberry 2008, VII). The scholars she quoted followed their peculiar paths either towards embracing religion or departure from it, though in each case it remained related to their respective disciplines, the circumstances of their lives and the interaction with their social environment. The latter aspect was nevertheless devoted little attention by the author (which is only to be regretted, as a more thorough analysis would shed more light on the views of the scholars). However, the publication offers many valuable insights (especially in its documentary part), and I am going to draw on it when discussing the faith of scholars.

In the twentieth century, the scholars who set the findings of secular science against the claims of the theological sciences were all too few to speak about the definite parting of the ways between scientific knowledge and religious faith. Still, there were more than there had been in the previous centuries, especially in those countries which—such as the United States—are numerously represented in the lists of the most important schools in the world. They are also in the lead of studies into the beliefs of the scholars. This kind of inquiry began in 1914 with John Leuba (1868–1946) who, although Swiss-born, was a Clark University lecturer in the United States of America. Among the 1000 American scholars he asked about their faith in God, as many as 58 % professed atheism (Leuba 1916). Similar research was conducted in 2005–2008 by Elaine Howard Ecklund on a sample of 1620 scientists employed at several American universities, including such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Duke, or Princeton, and communicated the results in the book entitled Science vs. Religion. What Scientists Really Think. Admittedly, the author advances a general thesis that science has gradually departed from the mission that propagating faith had been to transition to nurturing a vision of the autonomous human reason, as well as states that approximately 64 % of those scientists declared unbelief, but a tabulated summary she provided demonstrates that only a minority, i.e. 34 % was certain that God does not exist. On the other hand, 30 % conceded that there was no possibility of settling the matter conclusively (Ecklund 2010, p. 16).

It may be worthwhile to cite excerpts from those respondents who represented the voice of faith. In general, they asserted not seeing any ←36 | 37→conflict between religion and science, while 94 % claimed that the theory of evolution, invoked by various staunch atheists and agnostics, offers the best explanation of the life on Earth (ibid., p. 30 ff). As for justification of their faith, a number maintained that religion had an advantageous influence on their relations with the students and colleagues, as well as on the research problems they addressed in their work. Many admitted that in their youth they had gone through a singular struggle pitting religion against science. However, one often sees substantial differences in the way faith is attained. For instance, Ecklund quotes physicist Francis Collins, to whom “religion is important now but was not an important part of childhood.” Economist James Tobin may have been brought up in a Roman Catholic family, but later he left the confession and made the attempt to find out how far one can go in science relying only on human reason. The attempt led him back to the Church and the recognition that Catholicism is particularly suited when one seeks to reconcile faith with reason. Asked by Ecklund which specific Catholic doctrines he considered the most important, Tobin said it was the belief in Jesus Christ, which he called a “core” one. Such concrete details are found throughout the book, yet it fails to show the connection between the voice of faith with particular scholarly disciplines. However, the question had been discussed the 2007 paper by Ecklund and Christopher, Scheitle, namely Religion Among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics. They established that among the representatives of the social sciences who declared their faith (professors at American universities), 30 % were involved in political sciences, 25.2 % in economics, 23.7 % in psychology and 20.8 % in sociology. As for natural sciences, 29.1 % believers worked in the field of chemistry, 19 % in physics and 17.4 % in biology (Ecklund, Scheitle, 2007).

The results of the studies carried out in 2009 by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons also represent an interesting contribution to the discussion concerning the faith of scholars, as over half of their respondents (51 %) declared that they believed in God. The most numerous group (exceeding 70 %) comprised representatives of accounting and early education (Gross, Simmons, 2009). In contrast, in the 1999 surveys conducted by Pew Research Center among the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, chemists were the most substantial group of believers (with 41 % of the respondents declaring religious belief). ←37 | 38→Biologist were only a little fewer (32 %), followed by those in the medical field (Masci, 1999). In Poland, studies of the kind were undertaken in 1997–1998 by Maria Libiszowska-Żółtkowska on a random sample of 447 respondents, 72.3 % of whom declared themselves to be believers (Libiszowska-Żółtkowska 2000, p. 52 ff). Their answers to more detailed questions reveal that the spectrum of that faith is quite extensive, from persons with profound faith (25.3 %), through those who believe despite certain degree of doubt, to those who do not believe in the personified God in accordance with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church but do believe in a supernatural causal power. That picture of the Polish scholars who combine their scientific knowledge with religious faith not only differs in a number of respects from its American counterpart, but also diverges from the interpretation of faith which is promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church

The Marriage of Scientific Knowledge and Theism

In this part, I am going to discuss the examples of scholars who do manage to combine scholarly knowledge with theism. Naturally, the list of such scientists is not exhaustive, as they are not even fully representative of those academic milieus with which they were or are associated. Nevertheless, their views demonstrate that the range of ways to unite or at least reconcile science with theism can be and in fact is very broad.

* * *

The first of those scholars is John Polkinghorne (born 1930), for whom theism is not only an integral component of his worldview, but also a core element of his life and professional choices. In 1982, he gave up a physics chair at Cambridge and became an Anglican priest (performing his duties as a vicar in south Bristol and then in Blean, Kent). The year 1986 saw him return to the university, first at Trinity College, Cambridge, while from 1994 to 2005 Polkinghorne was a canon theologian at Liverpool University. This biographical and professional turn towards theology was also manifested in his publications, while in 2002 his scholarly and popularizing achievement won him the prestigious Templeton Prize, which is awarded for “outstanding contributions in affirming life’s ←38 | 39→spiritual dimension” (Knight 2012). In physics, his notable accomplishment included creating mathematical models to compute the paths of quantum particles.

Polkinghorne brings the question of association between scientific knowledge and religious faith to the fore in many of his publications, such as the 1983 book entitled The Way the World Is, where the author both gives testimony to his Christian belief (stating in the very first sentence: “I believe that Christianity affords a coherent insight into the strange way the world is” as well as the unbelief that sciences (such as theoretical physics, for instance) can offer a relatively comprehensive and cohesive answer, not only to the fundamental questions concerning the existence of the world, but also to a number of questions which philosophers and scholars had been asking for centuries (Polkinghorne 1988, 5). In chapter one of the treatise, he critically appraises his activities as a physicist (“It was a very enjoyable life,” however, “theoretical elementary particle physics, like most mathematically based subjects, is very much a young man’s game”) and discusses the circumstances which motivated him to turn to theology and theism (“Part of my reason for being a Christian is that I believe that a Christian understanding offers us such a coherent framework, adequate to the perplexing way the world is”).

In the subsequent parts of the book, Polkinghorne formulates a broader justification of his conversion and attempts to convince the reader that it is worthwhile to follow his path to find answers to the most essential questions regarding the human and the world around them. Chapter two, entitled The Scientific View of the World includes—among other things—a polemic with the Big Bang Theory which, in the opinion of certain scholars, accounts for the creation of the world and its heat death in the future. He finds it astonishing that

men have been able to peer so far into the past and to form so coherent a picture of the processes by which the present diversity of the world has come about.

The problem is that the former is merely a description and an explanation of the macro-world, not its comprehension, and secondly, “the processes of the world seem to depend for their fruitfulness upon an interplay between chance and necessity” (where “this apparent role of chance is a sign of the emptiness and pointlessness of the world” to many).

←39 | 40→Scientists are aware of a number of critical considerations of this type which, taken together, produce a fairly tightknit series of constraints on the way the world must be in order that we are here to observe it. They call the collection of these constraints the anthropic principle. It is not easy to assess the significance of the anthropic principle. Discussing it is rather like the old philosophical debate about whether the existence of the cosmos is itself significant and calls for an explanation (traditionally the Creator), or whether it is just one of those irreducible facts from which you have to start.

For Polkinghorne, this is not only a point of departure but also means the necessity to acknowledge the existence of an external observer of the properties and laws of the universe. Recapitulating his votum separatum with respect to exclusive adherence to the scientific worldview, the author asks “where does wonder find its lodgement in the world as described by science?”, only to assert that

it is missing, as are our experiences of goodness, beauty and obligation. Yet these experiences are quite as important and quite as fundamental as anything that can be measured in a laboratory or seen through a telescope. I do not believe that these personal experiences are a sort of transient epiphenomenal ripple on the surface of a mechanically unfolding world (ibid., 25 ff).

For the sake of clarity, it should be added that the anthropic principle cited by Polkinghorne had been formulated in 1973 by Brandon Carter (in its light, the global initial properties of the universe are such that the existence of the observer is indispensable) and gave rise to the weak and strong versions; the latter was advocated by e.g. John D. Barrow and Frank Tipler in their 1986 book entitled The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, who supplemented it with a teleological premise that one of those properties was the capacity of the universe to support permanent life (cf. Davies 2006). Polkinghorne is in favour of the strong anthropic principle and, to justify his position, he attempts to demonstrate that, on the one hand, those properties of the universe require divine agency, and on the other that the grandeur and values important to the human—such as the aforementioned beauty or sense of moral obligation—”slip through the scientist’s net.” Consequently, one cannot but resort to the theistic vision of the world; “A theistic understanding of the world sees God as the common ground of these aspects of his creation,” not only for the ordinary people, but also those scholars for whom the “paradigm problem is the hoary one of the relationship between mind and brain,” and those who inquire about the structure of the world ←40 | 41→and distinguish its various levels (“The real test of a theory of levels would be that it afforded insight into how the different descriptions related to each other”). Although for some scholars (e.g. A. Einstein) “questing agnosticism may be the best that we can manage about the answers to many of the issues,” it is even better to acknowledge that “there is a religious dimension which must be taken seriously.” It entails

the sense that there is an Other and Transcendent Power with whom we have to deal. In the long history of man that Power has been called God, and worship has been the proper response to him (ibid., 38).

Further on in the book, the author states quite explicitly that it is not the Transcendent Power elucidated by philosophers (to name I. Kant or G.W. Hegel, for instance) but a power that the great Christian theologians had spoken of (such as St. Augustine or St. Francis), a power that has been invariably referred to by Christian priests in their teachings and efforts to foster that religious faith. The final parts of the book are in any case suggestive of a Christian catechism rather than scientific treatise, as the author attempts to defend the message of the New Testament and the Christian dogmas of Jesus, the Son of God, the Holy Trinity, or the Resurrection. In his conclusions, Polkinghorne observes: “Faith cannot be proved, but it is not unmotivated.”

Both that general assertion, the fact of having cited the dogmas and having presented them in a manner which differs little from how the narratives employed by the priests to speak to their congregations, gave rise to various objections in the scientific milieu. This is corroborated in a sense by the debate which took place in April 1999 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, focusing on Intelligent Design, a theory which had functioned in the academic circles for quite some time. J. Polkinghorne spoke in its defence, while Steven Weinberg (theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner for the contribution to the study of elementary particles). Numerous arguments for and against the theory were invoked in the course of the polemic (cf. Frankenberry 2008, p. 353 ff). For instance, it was asserted that theoretical physics has sufficient capacity to be able to explain the emergence and the functioning of the physical world. Polkinghorne agreed that “when we enter the realm of metaphysical enquiry, we are in a domain where no one has access to absolute rational ←41 | 42→certainty.” Still, we can expect to find answers to the question relating to human suffering for example, and those concerning moral principles which should be respected by all. Weinberg concurred with the latter assertion, but argued that “with or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” On the other hand, Polkinghorne admitted that “good people [do] bad things, but we should also recognize that religious conversion has often led to bad people becoming able to do good things.” In response to the arguments, Weinberg stated the following: “I have to admit that, even when physicists will have gone as far as they can go, when we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world, because we will still be left with the question ‘why?’ Why this theory, rather than some other theory? For example, why is the world described by quantum mechanics? Quantum mechanics is the one part of our present physics that is likely to survive intact in any future theory, but there is nothing logically inevitable about quantum mechanics; I can imagine a universe governed by Newtonian mechanics instead. So there seems to be an irreducible mystery that science will not eliminate. But religious theories of design have the same problem. Either you mean something definite by a God, a designer, or you don’t. If you don’t, then what are we talking about? If you do mean something definite by ‘God’ or ‘design,’ if for instance you believe in a God who is jealous, or loving, or intelligent, or whimsical, then you still must confront the question ‘why?’ A religion may assert that the universe is governed by that sort of God, rather than some other sort of God, and it may offer evidence for this belief, but it cannot explain why this should be so. In this respect, it seems to me that physics is in a better position to give us a partly satisfying explanation of the world than religion can ever be, because although physicists won’t be able to explain why the laws of nature are what they are and not something completely different, at least we may be able to explain why they are not slightly different. For instance, no one has been able to think of a logically consistent alternative to quantum mechanics that is only slightly different. Once you start trying to make small changes in quantum mechanics, you get into theories with negative probabilities or other logical absurdities. When you combine quantum mechanics with relativity you increase its logical fragility” (Weinberg 1999, p. 322 ff).←42 | 43→

* * *

Another scholar to combine scientific knowledge with theism is Rev. Prof. Michał Heller (born 1936), Polish theologian, physicist, and philosopher, lecturer at e.g. the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) and the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow (PAT), participant to numerous philosophical and interdisciplinary debates. He is an outstanding figure in the circles of Polish scholars, demonstrating thorough knowledge of theoretical physics and philosophical traditions, as well as considerable autonomy of approach to the issues of faith and a somewhat distance manner of discussing matters which may constitute—and often do—a sanctity in the eyes of the believers. The attitude is evinced in many of his scientific and popular-scientific publications, though I will draw on those which not only aptly reflect his position on the association of theology, physics and philosophy, but also the characteristic turn of phrase.

I should start with a publication which reveals Heller’s view of the theology he had been introduced to during his studies in theology and philosophy. It is a record of interviews conducted in 2011 by Giulio Brotti, tellingly entitled Bóg i nauka. Moje dwie drogi do jednego celu [God and Science. My Two Ways to One Destination]. That destination is attaining the truth, just as with many scientists, but the roads leading there are dissimilar, not only those that Heller had taken and which he mentions with some humour in the first part of that peculiar “confession.” I am not fully convinced, however, whether it is merely in jest when he admits that while studying physics at the Jagiellonian University he “felt almost revulsion towards philosophy he had been thought so far,” namely the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas he learned at the seminary in Tarnow and later at the Catholic University of Lublin (Heller 2012, p. 27 ff).

One way or another, Heller shares the view of numerous experts on European culture, i.e. that the modern era saw the paths of the secular and Christian sciences diverge, but observes that both sides are actually to blame that they did. Heller then cites a lengthy list of scholars, philosophers and theologians who contributed to a lesser or greater degree to the split; the list begins with Galileo’s affair, and ends with such names as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and—at the same time—Heller’s professor of physics at the KUL, who tried to convince him that the ‘theory of relativity on which ←43 | 44→cosmology relies is exceedingly complex from the mathematical standpoint, but it serves to account for two or three empirical phenomena … It is therefore not worth engaging with.’ Several months after that conversation relict radiation was discovered, and research in the field of cosmology moved forward at an unprecedented pace (ibid., p. 182).

Heller’s notions of the philosophical tradition are elucidated for instance in his Bóg i geometria [God and Geometry]. Mentioned on its pages, there are names of the eminent and the less famous philosophers, scholars and theologians who, in various ways, were inclined to subscribe to the Platonic belief that “God geometrizes,” “God practices mathematics” or at least that “geometry is in a sense a divine knowledge” and “anyone who disinterestedly pursues philosophy, meaning that they are enamoured of Wisdom, geometrizes as God does” (Heller 2015, p. 8 ff). However, the essential problem is not to conclusively determine the meaning intended by Plato and the more or less faithful Platonists who followed their master, but consider the impact on the conduct of scientific research and its results; the impact was not a meagre one, ultimately bringing forth the Copernican concepts and the Newtonian physics, as well as those theological reflections and convictions which prompted lively debates at the councils and sparked the “revolution in theology.” Here, important factors included the endeavours to combine scholarly efforts with theological notions (as with Newton or Leibniz), as well as their distinct separation (as with Galileo or Descartes).

Heller appears to endorse the former rather than the latter attempts, Newtonian ones in particular, as his observes that “in the simplified and popular version they have become firmly established among the ‘catechismal notions.’” Still, he does not side with those without some significant reservations, since due to later discoveries and scientific theories, “the contemporary picture of the world is quickly transformed and should have long since supplanted the Newtonian interpretations.” In a situation when he sides with those who contributed to the finding of what connected and connects science, philosophy and theology, it is understandable that he “does not like the idea of straightforward neutrality” of the first and second with regard to the third: “with this theory he simply perverted the actual course of the history of science” or—which amounts to the same, in fact—it is too simple to be able to solve the problem of the centuries-long conflict. In the previously mentioned interview with Giulio Brotti, Heller ←44 | 45→stated that although Stephen Jay Gould’s “NOMA doctrine, with its fastidious separation of the paths of theology and philosophy from science, does contain a grain of truth,” the “demand to ‘jump’ unthinkingly from one to the other spells misunderstandings and conflicts with disastrous consequences” (Heller 2014, p. 127 ff)

The issue is discussed by Heller more comprehensively in Nowa fizyka i nowa teologia [New Physics and New Theology], especially in chapter five, where he sets out with a critique of the “peripheral religious apologetics,” manifesting in the conviction that religion should be “defended against ostensibly groundless, or dishonestly interpreted claims of science,” and the assertion that “it may present a serious obstacle to many on their way to religious faith.” Here, the fault lies apparently with those theologians who contributed to having heliocentrism and its advocate Galileo condemned (though “the Galileo affair was not an exception in this respect”), as well as those philosophers and scholars who first embraced positivism and subsequently neo-positivism, and even those

who had little to do with any philosophy but let themselves be talked into the conviction that experience (of the sensory kind exclusively) and understanding are two notions which, if not identical, are practically indistinguishable at any rate (Heller 2014, 108). While it is true that today “the supremacy of neo-positivism in the philosophy of science is a thing of the past,

another danger has emerged, namely

practicing philosophy on one’s own by the representatives of science who are not professional philosophers. Frequently, the philosophy is of a shabby quality, limited to ‘rediscovering’ things known to philosophy for a long time, and articulating them in a fairly primitive language. … Still, there is no need to despair. It seems that it is a price worth paying for the immense opportunity offered by the opening of “world of science

to extra-empirical domains of rationality.” What is more, “that interest of the scientific world in philosophy entails increased interest in religion and theology.” Heller expresses the view that much the same happens on the opposite side of the “barricade,” i.e. in the ecclesiastical environment (“the Second Vatican Council certainly marks the cut-off point of an era in the Catholic Church”).

In the final part of the book (entitled Pytania otwarte [Open Questions]), Heller asks questions “addressed to the evolution – evolution in its broadest ←45 | 46→sense,” formulates the proposition that “sciences explain the world evolutionarily, whereas theology explains the world by drawing on the creational act of God” and suggests developing a “theology of science.” The latter is to rely, among other things, on the anthropic principle, a “paradigm which accounts for some of the properties of the Universe through the reference to the existence of life of a sentient researcher of the Universe.” At this juncture, Heller cites e.g. Brandon Carter, “with whom the term ‘anthropic principle’ originates” and Sam Penrose, who “does not want to deny the Creator their capacity for creating” such a model of the Universe which would “impose limitations on every initial singularity.” However, he supports the weak version of the anthropic principle, observing in that part of New Physics… that

any attempt of this kind constitutes not only ex post reasoning, but also rely on our ignorance of the physical, chemical, informational etc. essence of life. Without the knowledge of the most profound mechanisms of life, we cannot state with all certainty that its existence—not to mention the existence of a sentient observer—imposes particular limitations on the possible universes. We can only advance a much weaker assertion: if the world produced us as we know ourselves, the world could not be just any: the set of its initial conditions must have been subject to some limitations which did not permit it to stray from the evolutionary path on which our birth might have happened (ibid., 139).

The way Heller thinks as well as speaks is well evident in his contributions to What Cannot Be Understood?, a discussion in which he was joined by Bartosz Brożek (philosopher and cognitive scientist, Jagiellonian University), and Jerzy Stelmach (philosopher and lawyer, Jagiellonian University). The discussants agreed that “science is practiced in order to comprehend the world,” and that it involves various kinds of understanding (the examples mentioned included understanding such two “sophisticated products of culture as works of art and mathematical theorems”). However, it was Heller who formulated the farthest reaching generalizations in the discussion, asserting that first of all “understanding is necessary for survival” and, secondly, that every living being possesses an “inherent survival instinct.” This compelled him to ask whether “there is something that cannot be comprehended? Are there any boundaries to understanding?”, which was followed by the frank admission that

Biographical notes

Zbigniew Drozdowicz (Author)

Zbigniew Drozdowicz is a philosopher and researcher of religion. He graduated in history from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Since 1973, he has worked as an academic teacher and researcher at that university. Currently, he is professor in humanities at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznañ. He specialises in contemporary philosophy and philosophy of religion.


Title: Academic Culture