[This is the third and final por­tion of this lec­ture. The sec­ond can be found here.]

George Steiner: What then shall we do? Some reforms are not dif­fi­cult to envis­age. We must purge our vocab­u­lary, we must clean up our lan­guage to say what we mean. 

What is a true uni­ver­si­ty? It’s libraries; it is a cus­to­di­an, and engage­ment with the liv­ing past. It strives to advance knowl­edge and clar­i­fy crit­i­cal­ly the process­es of thought. A true uni­ver­si­ty serves nei­ther polit­i­cal pur­pose nor social pro­grams, nec­es­sar­i­ly par­ti­san and tran­si­to­ry. Above all, it rebukes cen­sor­ship and cor­rect­ness of any kind. What we have done through polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. The lies we are teach­ing, or hav­ing to accept. The ques­tions we are not allowed to ask. Not even to ask. No ques­tion of answer­ing. Political cor­rect­ness makes impos­si­ble great fields of com­par­a­tive study. 

A uni­ver­si­ty should house and it should hon­or anar­chic provo­ca­tion and the pas­sion of use­less­ness. What is the most won­der­ful pas­sion in the world? Uselessness. If some­one comes to me and says, I’m going to give my life to the study of Tang Dynasty bronzes,” [motions as if tip­ping his hat] I say, You’re a very lucky per­son. You’re going to be a very hap­py and hun­gry per­son, but you lead a blessed life.” The notion that the use­less is the high­est form of human activity.


First and fore­most we must insist on recap­tur­ing some of the ground the human­i­ties have yield­ed to the sci­ences. Is a 21st century-educated man or woman lit­er­ate when in total igno­rance of ele­men­tary math­e­mat­ics, of the con­cept of numer­a­cy, which orga­nize and deter­mine the world around us? When she or he can­not grasp such a notion as a mean aver­age, an irra­tional? Notions instru­men­tal to our socioe­co­nom­ic exis­tence, indis­pen­si­ble to cur­rent debates on genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, euthana­sia, and law. The fre­quent assign­ment to the least gift­ed, to the most dis­il­lu­sioned, of the teach­ing of math­e­mat­ics in our schools is a sui­ci­dal scan­dal. How does it go in the uni­ver­si­ty of Newton, and Crick? If you get a first in math­e­mat­ics, you can go on to research. If you get a good sec­ond, you will enter hedge funds and bank­ing, which are very sophis­ti­cat­ed in their math­e­mat­ics. If you are a third—the worst—you will go teach math­e­mat­ics. [audi­ence laughs] You real­ize, the self-fulfilling luna­cy of such a sys­tem. Overnight, Stalin decid­ed that school­teach­ers of math­e­mat­ics would be paid as much as uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors, and hon­ored through­out soci­ety. And he brought on the great rev­o­lu­tion in Soviet and then in Russian math­e­mat­i­cal lit­er­a­cy. It can be done. It can be done, it’s not impossible.


It is nev­er too late. A core cur­ricu­lum should, I’m per­suad­ed, contain—and now I hope you will bear with me. This is my one very prac­ti­cal reform. At the cen­ter of our cur­ricu­lum should be archi­tec­ture. Why? It draws on mathematics—very rich­ly, of course; geol­o­gy; what I call in English the mate­r­i­al sci­ences: steel, iron, wood. It draws on envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­tics at every lev­el. It embod­ies ances­try and futu­ri­ty. In archi­tec­ture the noto­ri­ous gap between the two cul­tures is whol­ly abol­ished. Archimedes joins Michelangelo. Together they teach us, and the tech­ni­cal phrase is so beau­ti­ful, how to read a build­ing.” How to read a build­ing, that is the phrase they teach you. There is no aspect of law, soci­ol­o­gy, envi­ron­men­tal eco­nom­ics, but also urban pol­i­tics, which archi­tec­ture does not involve in our dai­ly lives. How to read. How to read a build­ing. How to read? Which is the cen­ter of my remarks this morning. 


We are learn­ing to read togeth­er. No sec­ondary text, please. No crit­i­cism. No com­ments on com­ments on com­ments. Complete loss of truth. You learn to read togeth­er. And what do you do at the end—and this is the end of my too-long remarks this morn­ing. The clos­ing or rather open­ing motion is that of mem­o­riza­tion. We learn by heart, par cœur. Not by brain. We learn by heart. The poem or piece of rel­e­vant prose to mem­o­rize is to thank for what the text has giv­en us. It’s the only effec­tive way of say­ing mer­ci, thank you, danke. For the inex­haustible lib­er­al­i­ty of mean­ing, for the mir­a­cle of sense. What we know by heart can­not be tak­en from us. Never for­get that.


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