At some point in my gen. ed. class on the Enlightenment, we read Kant's famous essay, written towards the end of the period the course covers, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" There's a lot of relevant stuff in the essay to talk about, but what I increasingly fixate on is Kant's distinction between the public and private use of reason. Enlightenment, Kant argues, depends on the freedom to reason publicly, by which he means NOT "reasoning out loud" or "having a wide audience" but reasoning without reference to any "private" concerns or motivations. "Public reasoning" is the reasoning you do, not to earn an income or fulfill a duty or perform a job (those are all examples of "private reasoning"). "Public reasoning" is the pursuit of Truth (you can hear the capital "T" even in English translation) for its own sake, and it's "public" (even if the only audience for your ideas is a handful of others scholars working in isolation) by virtue of the lack of private interest sustaining it.
This public/private distinction used to be a sidebar to the main points we needed to get to in the essay (Kant's understanding of religious truth, his paradoxical representation of the relationship between intellectual freedom and monarchy, his relationship to Frederick II of Prussia, his passing reference to women). I'd bring it up and get students to articulate the difference by asking them, "What are we doing right now, in this class? Are you guys reasoning privately or publicly?"
Students used to see the issue as finely balanced. Some would argue that the whole point of education is to learn things and to get better at seeing all sides of an issue in order to understand it accurately, that classroom discussion gave people space to try out ideas and argue for them and that the point was to do it well, not to come to a particular conclusion. Others would argue that any class presents a fairly limited range of acceptable views and that an instructor's implicit preferences and power to evaluate their work made the reasoning that went on necessarily "private." Lively discussion would ensue, which I'd have to rein in for the sake of covering more material.
In recent semesters, it's gotten harder to get that conversation going. The idea that the work of a college class could contribute to "public reason" is a distinctly minority viewpoint. Most students who speak up don't even see a question in play. They are there to get three credits towards college graduation, the instructor has the power to grant or withhold those credits, it's to their benefit to complete the course with a good grade: ergo, they will reason precisely as the instructor wants them to reason. What's to discuss?
Only by a Kabuki-like performance of professorial dismay can I get them to articulate any other way of understanding why they are there. "But this is dreadful!" I say. "You all so sound so cynical! And here I am, your dictator, whom, however benevolent, you must appease by trying to read my mind! This makes college sound so grim!" They laugh, and grudgingly start to talk about other ways of possibly understanding what they are doing. But really, they point out--that's very nice, but who has time?
So now I find myself foregrounding in other readings, the notion of the dispassionate intellectual. We talk about how Diderot and Alembert cast it in quasi-religious terms in their preface to the Encyclopedie and we look at how the Addison and Steele's Spectator pokes fun at the class associations that go along with it. We look at some Proceedings of the Royal Society and we look at Margaret Cavendish's ill-informed but on-point depiction of the Royal Society as a boys' club engaged in trivial pursuits. Swift's ambivalence about the expansion of knowledge purveyors comes into play, and so do the students' own Whiggish intuitions about more information being always, always better.
When people talk about the "corporatization of the university," Kant's distinction is precisely what they mean: the dwindling of the space where open-ended inquiry can take place, serving no masters but itself. I have argued elsewhere on this blog that students need to perceive the meaningful connections between the work they do in class and the things they hope to achieve after graduating. I still think that's necessary if the humanities, as a set of academic disciplines, are to survive. I'm also finding it increasingly necessary to articulate for them what I used to assume would be taken for granted: that the needs of shadowy future employers are not the only goods worth pursuing.