ON INSTITUTIONS

BY TAMSON PIETSCH

 

I LOVE INSTITUTIONS.

It is not a very fashionable thing to admit, I know. In our age of individual freedoms, mobile and flexible work, and myriad commercial opportunities for self-fashioning, institutions seem to invoke a world of constraint and bureaucracy with which many people would like to do away. And worse, from the banking crisis and parliamentary expenses scandals to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, institutions have been shown to have perpetrated crimes and damaged individuals in ways that involve fundamental abuses of trust. Institutions do not get very good press and, in many ways, nor should they.

But institutions hold us in time and they connect us to each other. This is why I love them and this is why they are part of explaining what has gone wrong, and central to working out what we might do to make it right.

The institution I know best is the university. Universities still work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections or even of individual careers. For all their problems, they are still places that recognise the messy, uncertain and often troubling aspects of human life. Universities are founded on an acknowledgement that we are meaning-making creatures, that so much about life is uncertain, and that expertise takes years to develop. Their power lies in their relational character: it is not monetised exchange and short-term benefit that underpins their mission, but rather an encounter with ideas and with each other. With their buildings, books and bequests they draw us into a form of time that stretches out beyond the life of any one of us; and with their bars and playing fields and classrooms they bring us into an engagement with one another. In doing so they equip us with thick forms of connection: knowledge, ethics of participation and relationships that give us ways to live and to flourish in the fractured and fluid world of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘liquid modernity’.

[read the rest of this piece on the Griffith Review website.]

Read the rest of this entry »