[Marxism] The Slow Death of the University

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 7 07:32:03 MDT 2015

The Chronicle Review, April 6, 2015
The Slow Death of the University
By Terry Eagleton

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 sector.

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 

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 Cambridge.

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).

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