Reading these books, I am reminded of Francisco Goya’s much discussed series of
aquatint etchings Los Caprichos (The Caprices), published in 1799. The series was
a critique, emphasized by sardonic captions, of contemporary Spanish society. In
particular, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, No. 43 of 80, has been seen as
a personal statement of Goya’s support for the values of the 18th century
Enlightenment, and a symbolic warning of the dangers of human irrationality with
its prejudice, ignorance, folly, readiness to intimidate and use violence in following its
impulses. By contrast, the university, at least in its modern form, has been considered
a bastion of scholarship, an incubator of intellectual discovery, guided by human
reason, leading to universal human flourishing. Yet, the university, and education
generally, when under the control of the state or other potentially total institutions,
have also been used ideologically, given its influence on the young, and scope for
propaganda and indoctrination. There are many examples in modern histories, such as
Nazi Germany, the Stalinist Soviet Union, and Maoist China. The concepts of academic
freedom and university autonomy have always been and continue to be contested.
These two books are warnings of the comparative dangers of neo-nationalism in
higher education and politics and society generally. The full epigraph for Los
Caprichos, No. 43, says: “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters:
united with her she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels”. This
suggests that the imagination is still fundamental to human flourishing and that we
should beware of the coldly logical which may also produce monsters. Zygmunt
Bauman, whose own early career in Poland was as a Stalinist, commented on this in
Modernity and the Holocaust (1989).