Opinion

Universities are no place to think. Here's another idea.

Can a new age of patronage restore the life of the mind?

Until a fairly recent stage of Western history, there were two basic career paths for people who hoped to earn a living from ideas. One option was to join the church, whose schools, universities, monasteries, and pulpits provided learned men with training, salaries, and a forum for dispute. The other was to find a rich person to support you while you wrote your books, probably in exchange for service as an administrative assistant or private tutor. 

Both tracks were broken up during the 19th century. Religious institutions were secularized or supplanted by rivals that lacked their commitment to a theological creed. And the slow but steady rise of political and economic equality eroded traditions of patronage, as aristocrats lost the wealth and authority they needed to sustain vast households of dependents. Some intellectuals won support from the state, which assumed responsibility for formal education. Others found that new communications technologies allowed them to earn a living as journalists while pursuing more serious interests on the side.

But now the modern alternatives to the old models are being disrupted in turn. In the grip of a moral panic, secular academia increasingly resembles its religious predecessors. Although they are couched in the terms of diversity and equity, demands that student, faculty, and administrators embrace anti-racism and social justice in every aspect of their work mirror the professions of faith still required by some denominational schools. Past developments in communications generated mass markets and corresponding incomes outside both educational institutions and personal service. But more recent developments, especially social media, have returned  "content creators" to the precarious condition of pre-broadcast men of letters, dramatized in novels like George Gissing's New Grub Street.     

Enter Nicolas Berggruen, the billionaire son of a prominent art dealer. The subject of a recent profile in The New York Times, Berggruen has devoted more than a decade and millions of dollars to studying and promoting philosophy via the Berggruen Institute. Best known for its annual prize for "advancing ideas that shape the world," the eponymous Institute is now engaged in an even more grandiose project, which Berggruen describes as a "secular monastery" for scholars to live and work in the Santa Monica mountains.

Berggruen's description may be partly ironic, but it's revealing all the same. If it comes to fruition, the "scholars' campus" will combine aspects of previous models of intellectual life. Like the monastery, it will pursue the ideal of a community of thought and service — but without the orthodoxy that sustained its ecclesiastical successors. Like the secular university, it is supposed to uphold free inquiry — but without the burdens of administration and introductory instruction that characterize traditional academia. Like the public intellectuals of 20th century, it will emphasize ideas that address real political and social problems over scholastic hairsplitting.

Ambitious as it is, this vision isn't unprecedented. The Institute of Advanced Study near Princeton and a few other institutions have tried to establish monasteries without creeds, universities without students, and think tanks without ideologies. What's different is the enormous personal wealth that Berggruen brings to the project. His aspirations could be compared to those of American plutocrats who lavishly endowed colleges, libraries, and museums (including the Getty Center, which is near the property designed for the planned community), Berggruen apparently prefers an analogy to the Medicis or other European patrons of high culture.   

That model has defects both evident and concealed. The most obvious is that we're still not comfortable with the kind of patronage Berggruen aims to revive. The cultural glories of early modern Europe depended on explicit hierarchies of class and extreme inequality of wealth. Great lords and magnates gave richly, but expected social deference and often political loyalty in return. 

Populist backlash to figures like George Soros, whom the Times profile mentions as peer to Berggruen, can take exaggerated form. But it's rooted in the accurate perception that the nation-state was intended to constrain these hierarchies and make power more accountable than in the aristocratic order. Soros and Berggruen certainly don't intend to restore the feudal nobility. But their brand of cosmopolitanism has some paradoxically similarities to the old regime.

Direct patronage can be intellectually as well as socially and politically distorting. Even when patrons take a relatively hands-off approach, their beliefs, expectations, and, perhaps, whims set the agenda for the thinkers they support. Berggruen's preference for ideas with impact is defensible in itself. But it's somewhat in tension with his professed commitment to philosophy, a practice that's skeptical of immediate relevance and whose leading practitioners aren't always famous in their own lifetimes. By honoring eminent figures near the end of their careers, the Berggruen Prize has functioned more like a lifetime achievement award than a way of recognizing new thoughts or thinkers. And some of the winners, as critics like University of Chicago professor Brian Leiter point out, haven't been "philosophers" by academic, or perhaps any, standards.

More important than its disciplinary connections, though, is the supply-side emphasis of the Berggruen Institute's activities. Its affiliates are not household names. Yet many are already employed by elite institutions and others are among the usual suspects of the center-left establishment. It's hard to believe such people or their ideas would receive insufficient support without Berggruen's assistance–or that they're not getting enough attention now. 

Meanwhile, the unglamorous schools and universities that educate the vast majority of American students are cutting instruction and instructors in philosophy, arts, and other fields that Berggruen aims to cultivate. That doesn't only restrict the current audience for big ideas, whether new or old. It also offers little support for developing and transmitting them in the future.

It's easier to find faults than to establish durable institutions — even for billionaires. Like the University of Texas at Austin (technically UATX until it receives accreditation), Berggruen's magic mountain is a flawed but honorable response to a real problem: the lowering of the intellectual horizon encouraged, in mutually reinforcing ways, by the moral derangement and bureaucratic ossification of mainstream higher education. There are plenty of reasons to doubt whether these enterprises will succeed: maybe what we're missing is neither visionary patrons or academic freedom, but the religious traditions that sustained Western Civilization until the disruptions of the 19th century. Even so, their founders and supporters deserve credit for trying until something does. 

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