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The Liberal University and its Enemies

Friday 03 February 2017

The Liberal University and its Enemies mb

The 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill’s inaugural lecture as Rector of the University of St Andrews will be marked by a public event this week (on Friday 3 February).

John Stuart Mill, arguably the most important British philosopher of the 19th century and principal architect of philosophical utilitarianism, was Rector of the University from 1865 to 1868 and gave his inaugural address on 1 February 1867. This address was 23,000 words long, the longest rectorial address ever delivered, and apparently lasted for three hours, even though Mill spoke quickly.

In commemoration, a public lecture will be given by Professor Helen Small of Oxford University, entitled 'The Liberal University and its Enemies', in School 3, St Salvator’s Quad, at 5pm on Friday 3 February: Professor Small does not intend to match Mill’s record.

Mill’s inaugural lecture as Rector is a classic text in the history of advocacy for the liberal university and is usually read as one of the fullest articulations of what liberal ‘breadth’ of study would ideally mean: a syllabus of study beginning with the classical languages and literatures and taking in almost the full range of subjects grouped today within the sciences and social sciences (Mill has his own rationale for ordering them).

Professor Small will reappraise, 150 years on, the importance of John Stuart Mill’s lecture and argue that the lecture is a less internal and less placid document than may be apparent to those approaching it now at a long historical distance.

She will suggest that it has a particular antagonist of liberalism and liberal education within its sights: a charismatic conservatism, recently given expression by another university rector. This charismatic conservatism raises various challenges for Mill’s liberalism, for the motives of education he assumes, and for the assumptions he makes about the proper form and temper of public debate. Those challenges, Helen Small will suggest, have returned in force to our own political sphere, and give Mill’s lecture renewed salience now.

Current Rector Catherine Stihler MEP will respond.


The University of St Andrews Special Collections blog, Echoes from the Vault, explores the contribution of John Stuart Mill.