Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The death of universities

Check out Terry Eagleton's provocative essay in the Guardian.

On the humanities:

The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties. If the humanities are not under such dire threat in the United States, it is, among other things, because they are seen as being an integral part of higher education as such.

(I guess we have something to be thankful for--could be worse!)

He has some harsh words for academia...wish he'd had more space to develop this point (i.e. what is at the root of academia becoming the servant of the status quo?):

What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. We will not change this simply by increasing state funding of the humanities as opposed to slashing it to nothing. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.

And the final paragraph:

Might not too much investment in teaching Shelley mean falling behind our economic competitors? But there is no university without humane inquiry, which means that universities and advanced capitalism are fundamentally incompatible. And the political implications of that run far deeper than the question of student fees.

In other words, saving the university requires...a revolution! I'm unsure that I'd go this far, but I'd agree that capitalism in its neoliberal mode is incompatible with the survival of the university. But as Karl Polanyi has argued, markets gone wild invite counter-movements that constrain markets. We have a lot of work to do to convince the public that universities are worth saving and that doing so requires shielding them from market forces.

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