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<nettime> Terry Eagleton: The Slow Death of the University
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<nettime> Terry Eagleton: The Slow Death of the University

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The Slow Death of the University

By Terry Eagleton APRIL 06, 2015

A few years ago, I was being shown around a large, very
technologically advanced university in Asia by its proud
president. As befitted so eminent a personage, he was flanked by
two burly young minders in black suits and shades, who for all I
knew were carrying Kalashnikovs under their jackets. Having waxed
lyrical about his gleaming new business school and
state-of-the-art institute for management studies, the president
paused to permit me a few words of fulsome praise. I remarked
instead that there seemed to be no critical studies of any kind
on his campus. He looked at me bemusedly, as though I had asked
him how many Ph.D.'s in pole dancing they awarded each year, and
replied rather stiffly "Your comment will be noted." He then took
a small piece of cutting-edge technology out of his pocket,
flicked it open and spoke a few curt words of Korean into it,
probably "Kill him." A limousine the length of a cricket pitch
then arrived, into which the president was bundled by his minders
and swept away. I watched his car disappear from view, wondering
when his order for my execution was to be implemented.

This happened in South Korea, but it might have taken place
almost anywhere on the planet. From Cape Town to Reykjavik,
Sydney to São Paulo, an event as momentous in its own way as the
Cuban revolution or the invasion of Iraq is steadily under way:
the slow death of the university as a center of humane critique.
Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have
traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always
some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established
between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as
well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals,
and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its
own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much
self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now
being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that
produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python,
capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.

Much of this will be familiar to an American readership. Stanford
and MIT, after all, provided the very models of the
entrepreneurial university. What has emerged in Britain, however,
is what one might call Americanization without the affluence --
the affluence, at least, of the American private educational

This is even becoming true at those traditional finishing schools
for the English gentry, Oxford and Cambridge, whose colleges have
always been insulated to some extent against broader economic
forces by centuries of lavish endowments. Some years ago, I
resigned from a chair at the University of Oxford (an event
almost as rare as an earthquake in Edinburgh) when I became aware
that I was expected in some respects to behave less as a scholar
than a CEO.

When I first came to Oxford 30 years earlier, any such
professionalism would have been greeted with patrician disdain.
Those of my colleagues who had actually bothered to finish their
Ph.D.'s would sometimes use the title of "Mr." rather than "Dr.,"
since "Dr." suggested a degree of ungentlemanly labor. Publishing
books was regarded as a rather vulgar project. A brief article
every 10 years or so on the syntax of Portuguese or the dietary
habits of ancient Carthage was considered just about permissible.
There had been a time earlier when college tutors might not even
have bothered to arrange set tutorial times for their
undergraduates. Instead, the undergraduate would simply drop
round to their rooms when the spirit moved him for a glass of
sherry and a civilized chat about Jane Austen or the function of
the pancreas.

Today, Oxbridge retains much of its collegial ethos. It is the
dons who decide how to invest the college's money, what flowers
to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior
common room, and how best to explain to their students why they
spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All
important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in
full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs
to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of
academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole. In
recent years, this admirable system of self-government has had to
confront a number of centralizing challenges from the university,
of the kind that led to my own exit from the place; but by and
large it has stood firm. Precisely because Oxbridge colleges are
for the most part premodern institutions, they have a smallness
of scale about them that can serve as a model of decentralized
democracy, and this despite the odious privileges they continue
to enjoy.

Elsewhere in Britain, the situation is far different. Instead of
government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal
of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but
dogsbodies, and vice chancellors who behave as though they are
running General Motors. Senior professors are now senior
managers, and the air is thick with talk of auditing and
accountancy. Books -- those troglodytic, drearily
pretechnological phenomena -- are increasingly frowned upon. At
least one British university has restricted the number of
bookshelves professors may have in their offices in order to
discourage "personal libraries." Wastepaper baskets are becoming
as rare as Tea Party intellectuals, since paper is now passé.

Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos
and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose. One
Northern Irish vice chancellor commandeered the only public room
left on campus, a common room shared by staff and students alike,
for a private dining room in which he could entertain local
bigwigs and entrepreneurs. When the students occupied the room in
protest, he ordered his security guards to smash the only
restroom near to hand. British vice chancellors have been
destroying their own universities for years, but rarely as
literally as that. On the same campus, security staff move
students on if they are found hanging around. The ideal would be
a university without these disheveled, unpredictable creatures.

In the midst of this debacle, it is the humanities above all that
are being pushed to the wall. The British state continues to
distribute grants to its universities for science, medicine,
engineering, and the like, but it has ceased to hand out any
significant resources to the arts. It is not out of the question
that if this does not change, whole humanities departments will
be closed down in the coming years. If English departments
survive at all, it may simply be to teach business students the
use of the semicolon, which was not quite what Northrop Frye and
Lionel Trilling had in mind.

Humanities departments must now support themselves mainly by the
tuition fees they receive from their students, which means that
smaller institutions that rely almost entirely on this source of
income have been effectively privatized through the back door.
The private university, which Britain has rightly resisted for so
long, is creeping ever closer. Yet the government of Prime
Minister David Cameron has also overseen a huge hike in tuitions,
which means that students, dependent on loans and encumbered with
debt, are understandably demanding high standards of teaching and
more personal treatment in return for their cash at just the
moment when humanities departments are being starved of funds.

Besides, teaching has been for some time a less vital business in
British universities than research. It is research that brings in
the money, not courses on Expressionism or the Reformation. Every
few years, the British state carries out a thorough inspection of
every university in the land, measuring the research output of
each department in painstaking detail. It is on this basis that
government grants are awarded. There has thus been less incentive
for academics to devote themselves to their teaching, and plenty
of reason for them to produce for production's sake, churning out
supremely pointless articles, starting up superfluous journals
online, dutifully applying for outside research grants regardless
of whether they really need them, and passing the odd pleasant
hour padding their CVs.

In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher
education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology
and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise,
means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their
teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past
several years it has not. Points are awarded by the state
inspectors for articles with a bristling thicket of footnotes,
but few if any for a best-selling textbook aimed at students and
general readers. Academics are most likely to boost their
institution's status by taking temporary leave of it, taking time
off from teaching to further their research.

They would boost its resources even more were they to abandon
academe altogether and join a circus, hence saving their
financial masters a much grudged salary and allowing the
bureaucrats to spread out their work among an already
overburdened professoriate. Many academics in Britain are aware
of just how passionately their institution would love to see the
back of them, apart from a few household names who are able to
pull in plenty of customers. There is, in fact, no shortage of
lecturers seeking to take early retirement, given that British
academe was an agreeable place to work some decades ago and is
now a deeply unpleasant one for many of its employees. In an
additional twist of the knife, however, they are now about to
have their pensions cut as well.

As professors are transformed into managers, so students are
converted into consumers. Universities fall over one another in
an undignified scramble to secure their fees. Once such customers
are safely within the gates, there is pressure on their
professors not to fail them, and thus risk losing their fees. The
general idea is that if the student fails, it is the professor's
fault, rather like a hospital in which every death is laid at the
door of the medical staff. One result of this hot pursuit of the
student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is
currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of
English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality
rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the
contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that
deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape
syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on
Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its
own throat.

Hungry for their fees, some British universities are now allowing
students with undistinguished undergraduate degrees to proceed to
graduate courses, while overseas students (who are generally
forced to pay through the nose) may find themselves beginning a
doctorate in English with an uncertain command of the language.
Having long despised creative writing as a vulgar American
pursuit, English departments are now desperate to hire some minor
novelist or failing poet in order to attract the scribbling
hordes of potential Pynchons, ripping off their fees in full,
cynical knowledge that the chances of getting one's first novel
or volume of poetry past a London publisher are probably less
than the chances of awakening to discover that you have been
turned into a giant beetle.

Education should indeed be responsive to the needs of society.
But this is not the same as regarding yourself as a service
station for neocapitalism. In fact, you would tackle society's
needs a great deal more effectively were you to challenge this
whole alienated model of learning. Medieval universities served
the wider society superbly well, but they did so by producing
pastors, lawyers, theologians, and administrative officials who
helped to sustain church and state, not by frowning upon any form
of intellectual activity that might fail to turn a quick buck.

Times, however, have changed. According to the British state, all
publicly funded academic research must now regard itself as part
of the so-called knowledge economy, with a measurable impact on
society. Such impact is rather easier to gauge for aeronautical
engineers than ancient historians. Pharmacists are likely to do
better at this game than phenomenologists. Subjects that do not
attract lucrative research grants from private industry, or that
are unlikely to pull in large numbers of students, are plunged
into a state of chronic crisis. Academic merit is equated with
how much money you can raise, while an educated student is
redefined as an employable one. It is not a good time to be a
paleographer or numismatist, pursuits that we will soon not even
be able to spell, let alone practice.

The effects of this sidelining of the humanities can be felt all
the way down the educational system in the secondary schools,
where modern languages are in precipitous decline, history really
means modern history, and the teaching of the classics is largely
confined to private institutions such as Eton College. (It is
thus that the old Etonian Boris Johnson, the mayor of London,
regularly lards his public declarations with tags from Horace.)

It is true that philosophers could always set up meaning-of-life
clinics on street corners, or modern linguists station themselves
at strategic public places where a spot of translation might be
required. In general, the idea is that universities must justify
their existence by acting as ancillaries to entrepreneurship. As
one government report chillingly put it, they should operate as
"consultancy organisations." In fact, they themselves have become
profitable industries, running hotels, concerts, sporting events,
catering facilities, and so on.

If the humanities in Britain are withering on the branch, it is
largely because they are being driven by capitalist forces while
being simultaneously starved of resources. (British higher
education lacks the philanthropic tradition of the United States,
largely because America has a great many more millionaires than
Britain.) We are also speaking of a society in which, unlike the
United States, higher education has not traditionally been
treated as a commodity to be bought and sold. Indeed, it is
probably the conviction of the majority of college students in
Britain today that higher education should be provided free of
charge, as it is in Scotland; and though there is an obvious
degree of self-interest in this opinion, there is a fair amount
of justice in it as well. Educating the young, like protecting
them from serial killers, should be regarded as a social
responsibility, not as a matter of profit.

I myself, as the recipient of a state scholarship, spent seven
years as a student at Cambridge without paying a bean for it. It
is true that as a result of this slavish reliance on the state at
an impressionable age I have grown spineless and demoralized,
unable to stand on my own two feet or protect my family with a
shotgun if called upon to do so. In a craven act of state
dependency, I have even been known to call upon the services of
the local fire department from time to time, rather than beat out
the blaze with my own horny hands. I am, even so, willing to
trade any amount of virile independence for seven free years at

It is true that only about 5 percent of the British population
attended university in my own student days, and there are those
who claim that today, when that figure has risen to around 50
percent, such liberality of spirit is no longer affordable. Yet
Germany, to name only one example, provides free education to its
sizable student population. A British government that was serious
about lifting the crippling debt from the shoulders of the
younger generation could do so by raising taxes on the obscenely
rich and recovering the billions lost each year in evasion.

It would also seek to restore the honorable lineage of the
university as one of the few arenas in modern society (another is
the arts) in which prevailing ideologies can be submitted to some
rigorous scrutiny. What if the value of the humanities lies not
in the way they conform to such dominant notions, but in the fact
that they don't? There is no value in integration as such. In
premodern times, artists were more thoroughly integrated into
society at large than they have been in the modern era, but part
of what that meant was that they were quite often ideologues,
agents of political power, mouthpieces for the status quo. The
modern artist, by contrast, has no such secure niche in the
social order, but it is precisely on this account that he or she
refuses to take its pieties for granted.

Until a better system emerges, however, I myself have decided to
throw in my lot with the hard-faced philistines and crass
purveyors of utility. Somewhat to my shame, I have now taken to
asking my graduate students at the beginning of a session whether
they can afford my very finest insights into literary works, or
whether they will have to make do with some serviceable but less
scintillating comments.

Charging by the insight is a distasteful affair, and perhaps not
the most effective way of establishing amicable relations with
one's students; but it seems a logical consequence of the current
academic climate. To those who complain that this is to create
invidious distinctions among one's students, I should point out
that those who are not able to hand over cash for my most
perceptive analyses are perfectly free to engage in barter.
Freshly baked pies, kegs of home-brewed beer, knitted sweaters,
and stout, handmade shoes: All these are eminently acceptable.
There are, after all, more things in life than money.

     Terry Eagleton is a distinguished visiting professor of English
     literature at the University of Lancaster. He is the author of
     some 50 books, including How to Read Literature (Yale University
     Press, 2013).

Copyright © 2015 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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