Saturday, 1 November 2014

Marina Warner quits Essex - The University in Ruins

Nearly twenty years ago, a young professor at the Universite de Montreal named Bill Readings was killed in an air crash. Friends and colleagues spoke of a brilliant career cut off abruptly and tragically.  But Readings left at least one very fine book.  The University in Ruins was and remains one of the most interesting books on the fate of the humanistic Western university in the postmodern or late modern age.  Readings was writing long before the economic crash, and long before the apotheosis of managerialism as we know it in Anglophone universities now.  He was writing at the end of what in the United States were called 'the culture wars', the series of heated public debates about the nature of cultural education that had begun in the wake of the Vietnam War.  These debates - about the place of matters of class, sex/gender, and race/empire in thought about culture - were often seen as taking place in a sharply polarized landscape, divided between radicals, equipped with the weapons of 'theory', who were intent on storming the citadels of traditional high culture, and their conservative opponents, who were intent on preserving an Arnoldian idea of culture as 'the best that has been thought and said'.  The strength of Readings's book was that it did not observe this divide, but rather reached beyond it.  For Readings, the western university had, under the influence of nineteenth century German thought (Humboldt, but also many figures from the great flowering of German philosophy in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century had formulated ideas about the workings and functions of a university), been long thought of as the intellectual gearbox of the nation-state.  In a world of globalization, of massive multinationals, and of large international blocs or agencies of power (the EU, the WTO, the IMF), the 'national university' had lost its function as the motive force of national culture.  Those who accused literature professors in hock to Derrida's deconstruction of 'western metaphysics' (for example) of destroying the 'traditional' humanities were missing the point, Readings was showing us: the real threat to humanistic education came from neoliberalism, which with its assaults on state education, on values of the social or national good, and its will both to bureaucratise and commodify learning was the real danger.

Two decades on, we can see the outworking of the situation described by Readings in much greater and often more alarming detail than he could have anticipated.   In America, university education is now so expensive that the accumulation of debt that has funded university attendance over the last couple of decades constitutes another financial 'bubble', ready to burst and cause lethal damage to the world economy.  In Britain, the Brown reforms have resulted variously in a huge spike in university fees, in the abolition of student grants, and in the arbitrary destruction of superb academic units (the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University - one of the best 'continental' philosophy programmes in the Anglophone world, with an exemplary record of research and intellectual advance - was simply abolished, in the face of student protests and petitions from some of the world's greatest living philosophers; fortunately, it has since been 'reconstructed' at Kingston University).  In Ireland, an enormous increase in student numbers and levels of university participation over the last 15 years has continued in spite of huge slashes in state funding for universities during the crash.  The 'Haddington Road' (properly, and more aptly, called 'Beggars Bush') agreement on public sector jobs and wages has brought with it very considerable collapses in staff resistance to various kinds of bureaucratic and managerial 'reform'.  The Higher Education Authority, which oversees the Irish universities and institutes of technology, now takes its advice from Ernst and Young and distributes surveys to staff seeking to estimate the 'impact' of research, and to devise ways for the 'leveraging' of this activity in 'innovation' - a ludicrous Disneyland rhetoric of corporate managerialism dominates the discourse of higher education, so detached from anything to do with learning or teaching that it's hard to credit how senior university administrators, once themselves teachers and scholars, have the faintest idea of what they are talking about.

In this dire context, Marina Warner's story of how she decided to leave the University of Essex is exemplary of the effects of what is now called 'reform' and 'innovation' on even the most brilliant of scholars and intellectuals.  From the London Review of Books, as so often:

Marina Warner
Why I Quit



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