Tuesday, December 22, 2009

University in Ruins?

Over the summer, one of the books I read but hadn't been able to blog about yet was Bill Readings University in Ruins, a book often recommended by Eileen Joy--which is why I picked it up and gave it a read.

Readings, writing c. 1995 to have the book published after his untimely death in 1996, offers a critique of the modern American university. By American I mean specifically AMERICAN rather than US, since Readings was a Canadian. The central focus of the book argues that the modern university is no longer a conduit of culture, making new and good citizens for the nation-state, or inculcating a knowledge of a particular culture. Rather the university has become a multinational corporation. It is dominated by the "consumerist ideology"--the students as consumer, education as product, the professorate as profession measurable in student reviews or number of grants or some other measure completely divorced from the traditional reasons that the university existed. At the time the book was written the buzz word was an empty and meaningless "Excellence". I remember that well: everywhere and every place was talking about excellence but never defining just what excellence in education meant. Is an excellent educator on the university level a popular one? One who brings in grants and money to the institution? How does one measure effectiveness? Number of graduate students?

The first nine chapters of the book detail the rise of the corporate university, a process that has gained significant ground in the years since Readings' book was published. He also devotes a very informative and important chapter on the development of Cultural Studies, and how "Cultural Studies" have essentially taken over much of the Humanities. He indicts Cultural Studies as being at odds with the very things that many Cultural Studies scholars claim and works against the ideals of those who do Cultural Studies.

Readings suggests a "pragmatic" approach, one that eschews disciplinary walls, where the university does not depend on a "mission" or centralized purpose. He uses Cultural Studies as a model, in spite of his criticisms of it, to suggest a "Humanities" department that is interdisciplinary and porous. He also takes Gerald Graff's argument to teach the conflicts, to teach dissensus, as a grounding for this new approach.

There is some things to criticize here. There are multiple models of the modern university, even multiple "corporate" models, each different model invoked according to the immediate need of the administration. Sometimes administrators even eschew the corporate models altogether and talk in terms of collegiality, family, and other models. So Readings in some ways does not go far enough down this road in discussing the corporatization. And even in that corporatizing he doesn't discuss the notion of education as commodity, of student as both consumer and object (by which I mean we assembly our students whose heads are stuffed with the product and then usher them out into the lot for sale, measuring their success by test scores etc, outcomes based education). And he does altruistically assume that administrators are somehow going to become convinced of the disciplineless university.

Related to that last statement is a simple fact of human nature: were we successful in convincing administrator's of this model, the unfortunate thing is that within a decade this model and practice would become calcified as well and become a model and practice that would be in need of reformation and addressing. Ok, perhaps I'm cynical in my old age. But my observation is that when any institution, corporate or otherwise, takes a practice or model and puts it into practice, it does so in such a way as to guarantee that in the near future the status quo will be sustained, and the window dressing is all that will have changed.

Don't get me wrong. I rather like Readings idea of a "humanities" dept in which I am not restricted by disciplinary lines from teaching a theme through several centuries and tracing it in literature, history, the arts, philosophy, etc and working with classicists, modernists, etc. It is what I admire about the Babel project, what I admire about the Kalamazoo Congress, what I admire about the blogosphere where I can read and collaborate far outside my training. I just don't see such a model ever succeeding for long and becoming institutionalized on a large scale.

This doesn't mean that I advocate we give up and do nothing. The best to change things is just doing it: that is, those of us lucky enough to be in institutions should just go ahead and do our utmost to think, teach, research, and collaborate interdisciplinarily. And even those of us outside institutions can further that ideal in our own work and collaborations. Eventually, it will be a fait accompli regardless of what the institution says or what pigeon holes the institution must put on its books for the accountants and so on. And so it goes.....but let's face facts: the institution must create compartments to do accounting, and since they often have to report to higher ups, such as the state in the case of a state institution, such walls are always going to exist. I've advocated before about using marketing methods to advertise medieval studies and about working across lines and even interests in order to show the academy that our field matters. I think Readings would agree.

A few quotes I found very interesting:

"Excellence [in discussing the use of the term "excellence" in higher ed's corporate culture of the 90s] draws only one boundary: the boundary that protects the unrestricted power of the bureaucracy. And if a particular department's kind of excellece fails to conform, then that department can be eliminated without apparent risk to the system. This has been, for example, the fate of many classics departments. It is beginning to happen to philosophy....the fact that the study of classics traditionally presupposes a subject of culture: the subject that links the Greeks to nineteenth century Germany, and legitimates the nation state as the modern, rational, reconstruction of the transparent communicational community of the ancient polis." (p. 33)

"The corollary of this is that we must analyze the University as a bureaucratic system rather than as the ideological apparatus that the left has traditionally considered it." (p. 41)

"What I am calling for, then, is not a generalized interdiscinplinary space but a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment, which is designed so as not to let the question of disciplinarity disappear, sink into routine. Rather, disciplinary structures would be forced to answer to the name of Thought, to imagine what kinds of thinking they make possible, and what kinds of thinking they exclude." (p. 176)

"Only by being constrained periodically to reinvent themselves can such groupings remain attentive to the terms of their production and reproduction." (p. 178)

Fourteen years later, there is still much to think about in this book. Thanks for the recommendation, Eileen, and I encourage anyone in academia who has not read the book to do so.


Steve Muhlberger said...

Re: "It is beginning to happen to philosophy....the fact that the study of classics traditionally presupposes a subject of culture: the subject that links the Greeks to nineteenth century Germany, and legitimates the nation state as the modern, rational, reconstruction of the transparent communicational community of the ancient polis."

I am not sure about the phrase "subject of culture" and I am not sure whether I'm still supposed to be cheering for legitimated nation state. But haven't things changed a bit since the 19th century?

This sounds a bit like other Canadian complaints based on the idea that Canada, which has its obvious cultural schisms and always will, should be more like real countries, starting with elitist university reform. But then I haven't read the book and this whole paragraph may be irrelevant.

Laurence said...

To set the record straight: Bill Readings was English, not Canadian. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford (M.A., D. Phil.). At the time of his tragic death Bill was a professor at the Université de Montréal.

theswain said...

Hi Laurence,

Thanks for the correction. I guess I got the idea that he was Canadian because of not only where he taught, but that his anecdotes, analogies, and comments all pertained to the Canadian academia and US academia. But thanks for the information.