The University in Ruins?

Readings, B. 1996. The University in Ruins. Harvard University Press.

Readings describes himself as ‘deeply ambivalent’ about the university, and his book as an attempt to think his way out of ‘an impasse between militant radicalism and cynical despair.’ I know how he feels; I felt that way for a while. For me, there has been a turning point; my anger has gone, and I feel a lot more positive about the future. I’m optimistic that we are beginning to embark on a viable and preferable path of human development and innovation… but more on that another time I guess!

Writing in the mid-1990s, shortly before Dearing and Blair – and Reading’s own untimely death in a plane crash – Readings makes the case that there is no longer any fixed idea of the university, that its social role as an institution is up for grabs. He draws a distinction between this claim and the attempts of others to engage with conflicting ideas of the university, and those who argue that new theoretical advances render the old ideas obsolete.

Readings’ work is focused on the Western idea of the University, and on an American view in particular, explaining that ‘Americanization’ is synonymous with globalization. He doesn’t beat around the bush here and I guess that’s one of the few advantages of being dead, you don’t have to deal with the consequences of posthumous publication. Maybe that’s why this book comes across as so brave and ahead of its time. Readings sees the dissolution of the university’s sense of purpose is an outcome of ‘decline of the national cultural mission’ (p3). The university used to produce, protect and inculcate national culture, and now there is no national culture.

I found myself questioning this while watching a sheep-shearing contest yesterday – I am on a self-led writing retreat on the west coast of Wales), but I don’t think that’s the kind of national culture Readings thought it was the university’s task to protect. By the way, the guy who won was called Shaun. True story.

At this point in reading, I thought about whether there were (and still are) some things about national culture in the Western world that needed changing; white supremacy, nepotism, ‘powerful knowledge’ and so on (on the other hand, much of the English literature canon, while heavy on dead white males, is on the subjects of oppression, exile and diversity). Do we need a national culture? What is its value? What if we do have a culture, it is just more fluid, mutifaceted and multicoloured than it used to be? Sure, today’s universities are bureaucratic transnational corporations as Reading points out, but they are also questioning, broadening and synthesising culture. At least, ours does; I see it happen on a daily basis.

With bureaucracy comes administration and the pursuit of what Readings calls the ‘empty concept’ of excellence.

Barzun (1968, p19) speaks of administrators thus:

‘if caught young, such men can become top civil-servants and be accepted as professionals without being scholars; they can enjoy a prestige of their own and share fully in the amenities that are widely believed to adorn campus life; and they can do more than any other agency, human or electronic, to render efficient the workings of the great machine.’

Practically, we need administrators, and – having been a programme administrator earlier on in my HE career, I rather think the drive to excellence may be the most obvious source of meaning in an administrative role. In my university admin job I was dealing with students face-to-face and over the phone at least some of the time, but many university administrators do not. They deal with numbers, interfaces, forms and faceless applications. What rewards exist for such an administrator that enable them to derive pleasure from the work? Dealing with applications efficiently, monitoring satisfaction, using data to predict critical incidents, ensuring applicants have accurate information about the course and that students receive and attend to updates; this is what it means for an administrator to do their job well. Benchmarks and targets provide direction; something to aim for.

In this sense, ‘excellence’ may be deeply, personally meaningful, and I am concerned that in decrying it as an empty concept – as I have myself done – academics reveal a worrying lack of empathy and understanding (perhaps the complaint is even emptier than the concept). There are, of course, cases where bureaucratic pressures on institutions and individuals have been linked with distressing events. Ron Barnett told me about Stefan Grimm, former Toxicology chair at Imperial College, who killed himself while under employment review having not met Imperial’s demanding grant income targets. But we have all, to some extent, been complicit in constructing the world we live in and we do what we can to make ourselves comfortable in it. We are all hypocrites.

Don’t get me wrong; I like what Readings is saying, he says it well, and he was clearly ahead of the game in forseeing all this. Also, he is not blaming the bureaucrats. He is correct right that a university focused purely on excellence serves nothing but itself, but a university is not an inanimate object, it consists of human beings who value stability and meaning in their lives. Would we level the same charge at a coal-mining community, desperate to preserve their livelihood? Thatcher clearly did, but I’d like to think we would approach the wicked problem of the future of the university with sensitivity, respect and patience. As agents we can enact change on the system, but the system acts on us as well (Archer 2007). We are products of it as well as agents within it.

In describing the breakdown of the nation-state, Readings identifies nationalism as a sign of this dissolution, recognising the conflicting desires that service globalisation. The ‘hollowing out’ (p47) of the state entails a loss of belief in a political alternative, as – he argues – a purely capitalist system actually offers a non-ideological belonging. In a capitalist system, everyone just has to focus on doing their own job effectively; there is no need to concern ourselves with finding universal answers to questions of the good life and human destiny. It is essentially a breakdown of the collaborative process and could be seen as a form of stress-avoidance; avoiding ‘conflict’, getting our heads down and getting on with it. I think people see it as trusting in nature. I certainly got the sense that many people see our true nature as individual and competitive rather than collective and collaborative when I attended last year’s book launch of Rethinking Capitalism. I am personally ambivalent and conflicted; the biology graduate in me says that we are both, and that this is one of the primary tensions in human nature; a yin and yang that we are constantly balancing. The psychedelic researcher in me says that we are all one consciousness, and the ego is a product of fear that stops us from working together and recognising our commonalities. Fear – resulting from trauma – is very efficiently transferred in a population. It is cumulative and reciprocal.

I’ve just ordered Jaroslav Pelikan’s ‘Idea of the University’, as Readings is intriguingly dismissive of Pelikan’s re-reading of Newman; he sees it as outdated (Pelikan was writing around 1960) and identifies its alternative title Apologia pro vita sua – ‘in defence of one’s own life’ – as particularly telling.

So, Readings and I agree entirely on the observation that the university has become self-serving (or self-sustaining). Of course it has. We live in a precarious and fast-changing world where jobs are less secure and the underlying commitments these sustain (families, home ownership) are ever more demanding. We are all concerned for our livelihoods. I often get the feeling reading polemic literature on the university that the authors – many with secure jobs that have prima facie meaning – feel that administrators are morally as well as intellectually bankrupt. I would rather live in a society with minimal bureaucracy, an economy founded on Jackson’s three C’s (care, craft, culture), and reduced working hours in line with the predictions of Keynes and the recommendations of the New Economics Foundation, but we cannot wait for the administrators to enact change; they alone do not have the capacity to free us all from the system. Academics may feel oppressed by the bureaucrats, but they would do well, I think, to mind Freire’s (1972) advice that our oppressors need liberating before we can become liberated ourselves.

Readings identifies consumerism as the biggest threat to university education and a ‘sign that the individual is no longer a political entity’ (p48), along with increased migration and internationalization. Citing Gérard Granel (1982), Readings argues that ‘it is now pointless to seek the destiny of the University in its capacity to realize the essence of a nation-state or its people’ (p48). Granel sought to redeem the University by giving it a negative coherence; an oxymoronic ‘coherent anarchy’ (Fynsk 1991, p350). These arguments are still alive in universities; many teachers at UAL are confused about whether we are supposed to be offering our students what they see as a British education. Most of them are fairly sure they know what a British education is, particularly in the creative subjects, but uncertainty abounds about why students from China come to Britain to study fine art, for example, when we hear that artists in China are being imprisoned for creating subversive works, and why they come to study fashion when the values and processes of the Chinese fashion industry are so different from our own. There is the colonial view that our Chinese students revere the British way and expect to return to China and influence their home culture (perhaps an example of American-globalisation of which Readings speaks). In addition are assumptions and theories about trade links, filial piety, social status and social capital. The true picture is undoubtedly complex.

Angst is rarely a productive way forward. Perhaps what is best is for us to continue to deliver what we think is a British education, with all the evaluation and reflection that entails (and openness to learning and influence of other cultures), and without endless pondering on what other nations want from us. Such a preoccupation suggests an unhealthy dependence and a diminished sense of identity. Here again we can call on Carl Rogers’ theory of human development, only for a nation of peoples rather than an individual. With authenticity, acceptance and understanding we can become the best we can be.

Readings is saying the essence of a nation-state has now dissolved, and cites Heidegger’s Rectorial Address as the final plea for universities to band together to fulfil the political will of the nation-state. Also lost, Readings claims, is any referent for culture. Readings describes CP Snow’s argument for two academic cultures as a ‘fascinating rhetorical ploy’ (p61), and highlights F.R. Leavis’ recognition of the significance of Snow’s treatise in the process of fragmentation.

Readings proceeds to place literary culture in opposition to technology (p61), and sketches out the philosophical notion of culture espoused by the German Idealists; founded on concepts such as Wissenschaft and Bildung, and preceding the fragmentation described by Snow. The German Idealists believed that only a unified academic culture would direct progress and innovation towards a ‘higher social unity’ (p61).

I’ll probably write more on that in a bit – it does overlap with recent posts, and I think now is the time to engage first-hand with Snow and Leavis’ famous argument. Watch this space.




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