[R-G] The death of universities

Sid Shniad shniad at gmail.com
Sat Dec 18 13:56:34 MST 2010


The Guardian
                                     17 December 2010

*The death of universities

Academia has become a servant of the status quo. Its malaise runs so much
deeper than tuition fees*

Terry Eagleton

Are the humanities about to disappear from our universities? The question is
absurd. It would be like asking whether alcohol is about to disappear from
pubs, or egoism from Hollywood. Just as there cannot be a pub without
alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history,
philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their
wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute.
But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it
would be deceptive to call it one.

Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word
when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. 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.

When they first emerged in their present shape around the turn of the 18th
century, the so-called humane disciplines had a crucial social role. It was
to foster and protect the kind of values for which a philistine social order
had precious little time. The modern humanities and industrial capitalism
were more or less twinned at birth. To preserve a set of values and ideas
under siege, you needed among other things institutions known as
universities set somewhat apart from everyday social life. This remoteness
meant that humane study could be lamentably ineffectual. But it also allowed
the humanities to launch a critique of conventional wisdom.

>From time to time, as in the late 1960s and in these last few weeks in
Britain, that critique would take to the streets, confronting how we
actually live with how we might live.

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.

In the end, the humanities can only be defended by stressing how
indispensable they are; and this means insisting on their vital role in the
whole business of academic learning, rather than protesting that, like some
poor relation, they don't cost much to be housed.

How can this be achieved in practice? Financially speaking, it can't be.
Governments are intent on shrinking the humanities, not expanding them.

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.

More information about the Rad-Green mailing list