The two universities

The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize that there is not one, but two universities. The two are related but still entirely different.

The first university is the formal university. It is made up of students, academics and staff, offices and administrative infrastructure, but also the entitlements associated with all this — job titles, research grants, social hierarchies. In the formal university you have a career, there is power and money to be fought over and privileges to be distributed.

The second university is the university of the spirit. This is the university in which the intellectual activity takes place. This is where you think, read, write and discuss. In the university of the spirit there is no infrastructure, no entitlements, no resources, no careers and hence nothing to fight over. This is a realm of freedom and equality. Or rather, the only thing that matters here is the better argument, the better research.

I’m strongly in favor of quotas for women in the formal university. I think titles, research grants and office space should be shared equally between women and men. Divide the power and the privileges 50/50, why not?  But I’m equally opposed to quotas being imposed on the university of the spirit. No outsiders should be able to dictate how we think, read, teach and discuss.

Ever since my cancer I’ve tried to have as little as possible to do with the formal university. I don’t want to get involved in fights over careers and job titles; I don’t want to apply for research funding and distribute patronage. These are all earthly matters and a waste of time. Time for me, for us all, is limited. All I want to do is to read and write and teach. I want to work full-time in the university of the spirit.

My grandfather, who was a vicar in the Church of Sweden, liked to quote Saint Paul: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” My grandfather was a missionary of sorts in the far north of Sweden and he cared little for the official career paths of the Church. He was also a republican. There could not have been many vicars in the Church of Sweden in the 1930s who were opposed to the idea of monarchy. Perhaps he was the only one. My grandfather did not work in the formal Church he worked only in the Church of the spirit.

How to represent a university

One should not brag. One doesn’t do that in Sweden. But I run pretty good courses, and I have for about twenty years. Student evaluations have always ranged from “very good” to “the best course I ever took at the university.” I’m happy to see that this pattern has continued since I returned to Sweden four years ago.

One reason why my courses work so well is that they are my courses. I run them the way I want, according to my own judgment, without asking for permission from anyone. I honestly thought that was the whole point. I didn’t know I was supposed to defer to someone else’s judgment and teach the material decided on by some committee. I didn’t know I was legally required to do what they said.

I always thought of myself as a representative of the university in the same way that Edmund Burke thought of himself as a representative of the electors of Bristol. After he was elected MP in 1766 Burke turned to the very people who had voted for him and insisted that a “representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Like Burke, I would betray the system I represent if I didn’t use my own judgment and instead deferred to the opinion of some committee.

The reason I have such outrageous self-confidence is that I’ve been trained. My teachers were some of the best people in the business — Robert Dahl, Charles Lindblom, James C. Scott, Steven Lukes, Susan Strange, Alessandro Pizzorno, Alexander Wendt. It would never have occurred to any of these guys that they could not teach their own courses in their own fashion, and it has until now never occurred to me either.

Isn’t this an elitist view? Of course it is, or rather a meritocratic view. It is meritocratic in the same way that all professions are meritocratic. We expect pilots to be able to land planes, bakers to be able to bake bread, and so on, and we don’t subject their decisions to democratic control. Many things in society should be subject to democratic control, but not the activities of professionals, not their activities in and of themselves.

Only someone who fails to understand that a course is an intellectual activity could ever come up with the idea that reading lists should be subject to gender quotas and made into legally binding documents.

Who should be teaching our courses? Teaching robots who follow a pre-set curriculum decided on by some committee or free-thinking intellectuals who use their own, Burkean, judgment? You know what, let’s ask our students!

Nor commit a social science

Erik, most academics are actually quite conformist and ready to defer to authority. You seem different, somehow. Why is that?

Dear student, too much Auden, too much Auden.

~ by W. H. Auden

Thou shalt not do as the Dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World Affairs,
Nor with complaince
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the choices, choose the odd.
Read The New Yorker, trust in God,
And take short views.


The alternative is tyranny

My point about reading lists and academic freedom is really about the plurality of values that exist in every society. Isaiah Berlin has written brilliantly about this, and so has my former colleague John Gray.  There are market values, democratic values, emotional values, and so on, but there are also intellectual values.

The values of a society, say Berlin, Gray and I, are distributed according to different logics and they cover different realms. The one logic cannot be reduced to the other, although, admittedly, there are certain areas of overlap between them. To reduce everything to one logic results in tyranny — the tyranny of the market, the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of emotionalism, and so on.

My job as a university teacher is to stand up for the integrity of intellectual values and to defend the university as an independent realm ruled by its own logic. This is why intellectual pursuits cannot be reduced to a question of majority decisions. But also why universities must be protected from market forces.  The alternative is tyranny.

An anarchist experiment: set your own grades

Dear students!

The point of this course is to help you think for yourself and in new ways. I want to encourage creativity and enthusiasm. I want you to understand just how much fun it is to discover new perspectives on the world. Yet these goals don’t fit very well with the disciplinary aspects of a university teacher’s job.  As a teacher you are supposed to grade, rank and fail your students. I would much rather not do any of this. My classes are about the very opposite of discipline.

What would happen if I gave you the chance to set your own grades?  Yes, that’s right, I just said: what would happen if I gave you the chance to set you own grades?  Would you stop coming to class?  Would you stop studying?  If you are at the university in order to credentialize yourself, you probably would. Well, good for you.  But even better for the rest of us. The rest of us, once the classroom has been transformed into a discipline-free zone, would finally be able to focus on what a university education is all about.

Should we try it?

Btw, my other reading lists are here.

A much better system

The problem with gender quotas on reading lists is that they have nothing whatsoever do with with intellectual pursuits. It’s pure metrics, pure tokenism. Female authors are added because they are women, not because they are smart, relevant, or even because they have a women’s perspective on anything. This stupid, brainless, system must be replaced. This has nothing to do with a university education.

Consider a better alternative. What if all teachers simply got together to discuss reading lists with the idea to help each other improve the courses? There are bound to be a lot of things that each individual teacher overlooks, literature that is not included, perspectives that need to be heard. This would include gendered views, but also all kinds of other rarely heard opinions. This would be a proper intellectual conversation. We would all learn something and our courses would be better as a result. A course can never be taught by committee to be sure, there must always be a teacher responsible, but we all have an obligation to listen to good suggestions. We must all be prepared to be convinced by good arguments.

This is what a university education is about.

Free vs. right thoughts

Above the entrance to the auditorium at University of Uppsala there is an inscription in golden letters: “Tänka fritt är stort men tänka rätt är större.” “Thinking freely is great, but thinking correctly is greater.” “The right thought is more important than the free thought.”

This view is still common at Swedish universities, although what is considered correct and right has changed. According to this view, you go to university in order to learn the truth, in order to learn what’s what. A course on right-wing thought, from this perspective, is an abomination. Universities should not teach that. Instead courses should be carefully balanced so as to include every viewpoint. As soon as a contested issue is under discussion, as soon as there are many truths, all perspectives must be represented.

This is dogmatism and it has nothing to do with intellectual pursuits. At proper universities, at least in the humanities, you don’t learn what’s what, you learn how to think for yourself. You do this as you are exposed to thoughts and worlds which you previously knew nothing about. You learn to think as you are challenged, learn to criticize and ask new questions. A course on right-wing thought works well for these purposes — and so do, obviously, courses on many other kinds of thought. This is why we read the ancient Greeks after all, although they were both pedophiles and slave-owners. Once you have learned how to think, that’s the idea, you go on to find your own truth.

Proper intellectual pursuits are free, not forced. Proper intellectuals are critical and subversive. Thinking correctly is what fascists do, and government servants. And, in Sweden, far too many university employees and students.

What Swedes don’t understand about academic freedom

A journalist from the local paper, Sydsvenskan, just contacted me. Apparently he reads my blog. Well, good for him.  He wanted to talk to me on the phone, but I don’t have a phone. I asked him to put his questions online. My answers below.


Hi back.
I would have liked to talk to you in person, if possible, but this is what I’m wondering about.
Could you send me the reading list, the link doesn’t seem to work.
Strange. The link should work. Well, it’s here: You continue by clicking on the tab called “seminarier.”
Where is the rule of thumb regarding a 40% quota for women and who decided on it?
I don’t actually know. I only know about it from what the Director of Studies of my department has told me.
Is the course still given? When did it start?
It started on October 11 and continues until November 10.
What do you generally think of the idea of quotas for male/female authors on a reading list?

I am against all interference with our teaching. Intellectual activity, such as a course, is not guided by democratic principles but by intellectual. Nothing on a reading list should be motivated by a quota but instead by intellectual criteria, that is, in term’s of the logic and goals of the course. It is the duly accredited teacher who is responsible for the logic and the goals. This is one of the fundamental aspect of academic freedom and it is taken for granted in the rest of the world, but not in Sweden. Germans call it Lernfreiheit. Unesco has taken resolutions about this, which the Swedes have signed, but obviously without understanding any of it.

I taught at one of the best universities in Great Britain for 12 years and there it was obvious that it was the teacher responsible who made decisions regarding reading lists. This is the only way to avoid interference and harassment. This is also the only way to guarantee independence and freedom of inquiry. At Lund University, academic integrity is not safeguarded, hence the problems I experienced. I had more academic freedom when I taught in China (I gave lectures on independence for Tibet and Taiwan and about those small islands in the South China Sea which probably don’t belong to China).

Fascists and gender at Lund University

In the social science faculty at Lund University there is a rule of thumb which suggests that at least 40% of the articles on the reading list of a course should be written by women. This is necessary, say the advocates of the system, in order to give female academics a more prominent voice. BS, I say. The system is a threat to the university and to academic freedom.

Let me give you an example of how it works. Take my course on the rise of right-wing ideas, and eventually fascism, at the turn of the twentieth century. What interests me is the possibility of a connection between the spread of global markets in the course of the nineteenth-century and the subsequent swing to the right. If we once again are living in a period of globalization and if fascists once again are on the march, it is difficult to conceive of a more urgent topic. Besides, it is bound to be a topic on which students have a lot to say. Excited by the idea, I submitted a proposal to the relevant course committee.

The problem was only the lack of female authors on the reading list. My course did not reach the 40% quota required. It was not even close. It was right-wing ideas I wanted to talk about and since the focus was on primary sources — authors from the turn of the twentieth-century — it was difficult to find female candidates. It seems most reactionaries of the day were men. Women, at least the ones who expressed themselves in writing, were predominantly liberal and progressive. Finally, after an extensive search, I came across one female author who was against women’s right to vote. Gratefully, I included her on the reading list.

Then the Director of Studies in my department contacted me. “Sure,” he said, “the 40% quota is only a rule of thumb, but a course with this few female authors will never be accepted.” Oh well, I thought, and continued my search for female reactionaries. In the end I decided to change the rationale of the course a bit. If I included anarchists too I would be in a much better position. Anarchists were not fascists to be sure — in fact they were, well, anti-fascist — but at least they shared the fascists’ fascination with violence. And, more importantly, there were quite a number of female authors among them.

My course passed the course committee but is was a close call. The student representative on the committee was very critical of my “lack of focus on gender issues,” and a number of other committee members agreed. After an extensive discussion, the course was approved — as long as I promised to include Judith Butler, a well-known contemporary post-structuralist feminist, among the nineteenth-century male reactionaries.

The course started last week, and already the first class was eventful. I had not gotten far into my first lecture when I was interrupted: “Could you please tell us something more about the condition of women during this period?” a student asked. “Yes, that’s right,” another chimed in. I was stumped. I was talking about Plato’s cave metaphor and the idea of enlightenment, a topic quite far removed from the status of women. Why are the students interrupting me with such an extraneous question?

Two days later I hear from the Director of Studies again. A delegation from the students on my course had come to him to complain — after only two seminars. The complaints were not very specific, but it seemed I had not taken their comments seriously and besides my course did not correspond to the reading list as it was officially approved. Of course it did not. There is not a course committee in the world which can force me to teach Judith Butler unless I want to.

The whole thing was strange — the students who interrupted me with extraneous questions, the delegation that went to the director of studies before the course had even properly begun. But finally I got it. One of the students, he revealed in an unguarded aside, had worked full-time for the student union, and besides he was a friend of the student rep on the course committee, the one who complained about the lack of a focus on gender. “As a student,” he said, “I love your course, but the student union has a number of issues with it.”

The student union at Lund University is thus busy finding “issues” with courses and proceed to harass teachers who have an insufficient focus on gender and too few female authors on the reading list. In these aims they are actively supported by some members of the course committee and passively supported by the majority of members who are too scared to take a principled stand. Since I wanted to give a course about old reactionaries, I now have a reputation as an “anti-feminist” and my course is something that needs to be investigated and scrutinized.

The basic problem is that an intellectual activity — in this case a course — has been subject to democratic criteria. But if everyone is allowed a vote, everyone will vote for their favorites, and students are in a position to veto what they don’t like. Democracy has its place, but it is not on my course and not on my reading list. The affirmative action system for female authors must stop. Intellectual activity is about thought, analysis and understanding and it is not just an occasion for people to express their political preferences. It is the course committee’s inability to grasp this point, and their failure to stand up for the integrity of the intellectual process, that has made the situation untenable.

I have after some head-scratching decided not to give the course again. I don’t want to be bullied by students and I don’t want weird rumors to spread about me. Too bad, I think, since the growth and spread of fascism is an important and timely subject.

Fascister och genus på Lunds universitet

På samhällsvetenskapliga fakulteten vid Lunds universitet finns en tumregel som säger att åtminstone 40% av författarna på en kurslista ska vara kvinnor. Böcker och artiklar skrivna av kvinnor måste kunna kvoteras in, säger förespråkarna. Men det är en katastrof för undervisningen och ett hot mot universitetet.

Låt mig ge ett exempel på hur det här kan fungera. Ta min kurs i politisk idéhistoria. Jag ville ge en kurs om hur olika högeridéer och nationalism utvecklades under tiden före första världskriget, om hur 1800-talets globalisering och öppna gränser banade vägen för den mörkblå reaktionen. Om också vi lever i en tid där gränser är öppna och fascismen är på frammarsch finns det få viktigare ämnen. Det vore roligt att tala med studenter om det här och jag har hittat en massa intressant källmaterial. Entusiastisk satte jag ihop en litteraturlista.

Problemet var bara bristen på kvinnliga författare. Min kurs nådde inte upp till de 40 procenten. Det var ju högeridéer det gällde och eftersom kursen var uppbyggd på primärkällor — författare från tiden — var det svårt att hitta många kvinnliga bidrag. Det verkar som de flesta mörkblå bakåtsträvare var män. Kvinnorna, åtminstone de som uttryckte sig i skrift, var företrädesvis liberala och progressiva. Till slut lyckades jag i alla fall hitta en kvinnlig författare som var emot kvinnlig rösträtt.

Snart hörde jag ifrån studierektorn på min institution. “Visst,” sa ha, “40% är bara en tumregel, men en kurs med så här få kvinnliga författare kommer aldrig att gå igenom.” OK, tänkte jag och fortsatte leta kvinnliga bakåtsträvare. Till slut beslöt jag mig för att töja på förutsättningarna för kursen. Om jag definierade 1800-talets anarkister som fascister kunde jag förbättra mina odds. Anarkisterna var visserligen inte fascister, men de var i all fall våldsbenägna. Och framför allt fanns det kvinnliga författare bland dem.

Kursen klarade kurslitteraturskommittén med darr på ribban. Studentkårsrepresentanten i kommittén var mycket kritisk till min “brist på fokus på genus” och flera andra kommittémedlemmar höll med. Efter en lång diskussion slank kursen igenom — så länge jag lovade att ta med Judith Butler, känd nutida poststrukturalistisk feminist, bland gardet av mörkblå 1800-talsgubbar.

Kursen började förra veckan. Men jag hade inte hunnit långt i den första föreläsningen när jag avbröts av en student: “Skulle du kunna säga mer om hur kvinnornas situation såg ut under Upplysningen?” “Just det,” fyllde en annan student i. Jag blev paff. Jag brukar inte bli paff speciellt ofta, men nu hände det. Varför avbryter studenterna mig med en fråga som gäller någonting helt annat?

Sedan hörde jag från studierektorn igen. En delegation från studenterna på min kurs hade kommit till honom för att klaga — efter bara två seminarier. Klagomålen var inte så specifika, men det verkar som om jag inte tagit studenternas kommentarer på allvar och dessutom följer kursen som jag ger den inte den officiella litteraturlistan. Naturligtvis gör den inte det. Ingen kurslitteraturskommitté i världen kan tvinga mig att undervisa på Judith Butler om jag inte vill.

Alltihopa var konstigt — studenterna som avbröt mig mitt i en mening, delegationen som gick till studierektorn innan kursen kommit igång på riktigt. Men till slut förstod jag. En av studenterna på kursen avslöjade sig som förtroendevald i studentkåren och dessutom som vän till studentrepresentanten på kurslitteraturkommittén, hon som slagit larm om bristen på genus fokus. “Som student,” sa han, “älskar jag kursen, men studentkåren har hittat en lång rad problem med den.”

Studentkåren på Lunds universitet sysslar alltså med att leta “problem” i kurser och trakasserar sedan lärare som inte har tillräckligt mycket fokus på genus och inte tillräckligt många kvinnliga författare på litteraturlistan. I denna ambition får de aktivt stöd av medlemmar av institutionens kurslitteraturkommitté och passivt stöd av majoriteten som inte vågar ta strid om principer. Eftersom jag vill ge en kurs om gamla mörkermän har jag nu fått rykte som “anti-feminist” och min kurs har blivit någonting som ska pekas ut och avslöjas.

Grundproblemet är att intellektuell verksamhet — i detta fall en kurs — görs till en fråga om demokratiska beslut. Om alla kan vara med och rösta kommer alla att rösta på sina favoriter, och studenterna kommer att lägga veto om de inte får som de vill. Demokrati har sin självklara plats, men den platsen är inte min kurs och inte min litteraturlista. Genuskvoteringen av kurslitteraturen måste genast upphöra om vi vill fortsätta att tänka, analysera och förstå istället för att bara uttrycka våra preferenser. Det är i sista hand kurslitteraturkommitténs brist på ryggrad som gjort situationen ohållbar.

Jag har efter moget övervägande beslutat att inte ge kursen igen. Jag vill inte bli mobbad av studenter och jag vill inte att märkliga rykten ska spridas om mig bland kollegor. Synd, tycker jag, eftersom fascismens framväxt är ett viktigt ämne, inte minst just nu.

Litteraturlistan finns här.