On Method (Part One): The College of the Proletariat / The Counterfeit University / The Invisible College

The Invisible College

I quite enjoyed Nina’s string of posts on the idea of a proletarian university. It reminded me of this great post over at BLDGBLOG (consistently one of the best blogs, more on this later) where a “counterfeit university” was formed in order to plan and develop an event on the concept of ‘quarantine.’ I love this idea, this model. As Geoff Manaugh put it:

But you need nothing more than a structure, a common topic, a place to meet up, a backpack full of the most basic office supplies, perhaps a bottle opener, and the will-power to see it through; with any luck, in other words, more “counterfeit universities” will be popping up here and there, their research published independently on blogs, their meetings hosted in apartments, offices, restaurants, bars, and other spaces in their after-hours, bringing more and more people into productive conversation.

As some of you know I sat in on a reading course with someone doing their PhD on the history of magic. We read some texts from the Corpus Hermetica and some historical texts concerned with people like Marsilo Ficino, Giordano Bruno, Cornelius Agrippa, and Pico della Mirandola. It was three of us going over the same texts for different reasons and bringing different elements to the table. It was great getting to read such things in an academic setting and we’ve decided to carry the idea further.

We already have a group called the Jockey Club that gets together on Friday evenings at a pub downtown to talk philosophy. Basically what happens is every week a text is assigned and introduced by someone and we get together to talk about it. In theory this is open to anyone and everyone in the city. What ends up happening most of the time however is the same people bring up the same issues and it can be tiring. There are certain people who really just want to show off how smart they are or how clever they can be and they really aren’t there to understand the text or learn anything from it.

In contrast to the Jockey Club, we’re going to try a different model. This will be an invitation-only affair, to exclude those who don’t actually have an interest in such topics but would only come to “score points.” We’ll be reading largely esoteric texts after all, and I’m sure many of the natural science minded individuals would love to come and kick some dead horses. We’re not going to meet on campus either (the MUN campus is not a great place for casual meetings at all).

I have proposed that we call the group the Invisible College. There is something very interesting about the exchange of ideas that occurred in the original Invisible College and I think it lies in the methodology. It seems that much of the discussion around Nina’s blog concerns essentially the same methodology as the standard university: experts lecture and students learn, showing their acquisition of knowledge somehow (receiving some sort of degree). There is something else going on in the methodology of the Invisible College; members would exchange books and communicate by writing in the margins of the texts. The education would happen within the text. This strikes me as an incredible hermeneutic model of education. Those of us involved also have a broad understanding of what ‘hermeneutics’ means (link will open a PDF). I think this “learning within the text” is exactly what we are striving for, albeit not in a secretive way as was necessary for the Invisible College. What we are planning is closer to something like Bible Study than a typical academic setting and maybe that’s fitting. After all, no one will be there because that have to be there, whether it’s for needing the credits, needing it on their transcript, or because it was the only thing that fit in their schedule. This is entirely extracurricular, also perhaps significant.

Part Two soon.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “On Method (Part One): The College of the Proletariat / The Counterfeit University / The Invisible College

  1. Oh man, this all sounds exciting. I wish I were in proximity so I could weasel my way into some meetings.

  2. This will be an invitation-only affair, to exclude those who don’t actually have an interest in such topics but would only come to “score points.”

    Isn’t this against the very idea of an open university and a kind of discussion without structural (institutional) agenda? Sounds like a great idea but why not just call it what it is, that is, a private (probably gentlemen’s) club? Exclusive gathering for the chosen? A secret society of philosophers/poets? In all these conversations about those who are “show offs” and who want to “score points” I find one thing lacking discussion: who decides whether a conversation partner is trying to show off or score points? who designates others as “toxic people”? isn’t it just a projection of personal issues – I don’t like a certain type, therefore I designate that type as a “show off” or “humorless prick” or “inferior thinker”? I totally get the point about annoying people in conversations, but that’s the ultimate risk you always run when you open it up to strangers/others, otherwise it’s just a circle of friends shooting the shit, it’s not really an alternative to the closed/elitist university culture of academic conversation, is it?

  3. Mikhail,

    I think you’ve misunderstood. I’m not in any way claiming the model I discuss is an entirely “open” university, but is simply an alternative form of education compared to the standard model of the contemporary university. I have no problem excluding people from a group if their intentions are not to learn but to appear smarter than others. Also, the criteria I use is common sense. There are those who go to things like the Jockey Club mentioned or public lectures out of interest and there are those who are clearly there to raise arguments that have been dormant for years or because they have some grudge against the author being discussed. I don’t see anything wrong with excluding them whether or not it is elitist. I want this group small and focused so it will remain invitation only.

  4. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with excluding people based on some subjective criteria, I’m simply saying that this sort of “private club” meeting is not a) anything different from traditional university model, b) seems to have little to do with Nina’s (and others) discussion of the possible new educational models.

    I don’t see anything wrong with being exclusive (as long as criteria for exclusion are not explicitly discriminatory like racism or sexism etc), I do see a problem, however, with claims that elitist models are claimed to be non-elitist. When you’re talking “invitation-only” club, you’re talking about an exclusion-based club, just call it what it is then, that’s my point.

    As for “common sense” criteria, that’s just plain weak, especially in a philosophical context – at some point (and still for some), it was commonsensical to exclude women from voting or non-whites from owning property or having freedom. One person’s “common sense” is another person’s discriminatory structure: if I don’t like a certain type of people, I exclude them because I don’t like them, I don’t need a theory to do so; when I claim that my exclusion is objective and based on some commonsensical theory of toxicity of the excluded, I move way beyond personal idiosyncrasies into a dangerous realm of discrimination.

    Just thinking aloud here, not really accusing you of anything, feel free to ignore these observations. I just think that if your post/reflections were somehow related to Nina’s posts, then I fail to see the explicit connection between “invisible college” idea and “proletarian university” idea.

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