April 12, 1999
Volume 51, No. 27
Books In Review
an occasional column by Emory reviwers
The University in Ruins
Bill Readings, Harvard University Press
reviewed by Mark Bauerlein
Since Allan Bloom's 1987 best-selling The Closing of the American Mind, books, reports, polemics, position papers and manifestos either lamenting or defending post-'60s changes in higher education have appeared with tiresome regularity. These range from right-wing alarms (e.g. Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals) to left-wing apologias (e.g. Anthony Easthope's Literary into Cultural Studies and Cary Nelson's Manifesto of a Tenured Radical)-texts that decry, caricature, eulogize and otherwise debate the merits of conservative and liberal notions of the university.
Bill Readings' The University in Ruins falls somewhere on the left side of the political scale. But Readings isn't interested in pushing a leftist cultural studies agenda, or denouncing a rightist humanist one. Instead he proposes to diagnose a broader transformation of the university, namely, the recent conversion of the university from "the primary institution of national culture in the modern nation-state" to a "bureaucratically organized and relatively autonomous consumer-oriented corporation."
Administrators treat education as a product, a commodity dispensed by credentialed employees to student-consumers. College presidents form limited-partnership agreements with corporations. University public relations offices disseminate an idiom of "excellence" no different from that of new car commercials. Tenure decisions are based upon productivity (i.e. student enrollments and scholarly output), and U.S. News and World Report weighs "value-for-money' in its annual best-buy rankings.
What caused the university to abandon its culture/ideology mission and idealize bureaucratic efficiency and consumerism? Readings pinpoints a general historical development: the decline of the nation-state and the rise of global capitalism. When individuals defined themselves as citizens committed to a national identity and the myths and values that represented, the nation-state functioned as a cultural and political foundation. Universities and their faculties contributed to content and ideas about culture. Political theory, aesthetics, history and justice were considered the outgrowth of a nation-state so that, for instance, the United States represented a whole set of deep values and beliefs, while the Soviet Union represented another.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, global capitalism has triumphed, and U.S.-style democracy has reached the most backward political pockets of Eastern Europe. A global economic order has begun, with companies like Reebok and transnational financiers like George Soros replacing the State Department and elected leaders as purveyors of culture. The state no longer requires universities to provide a steady flow of intellectuals and ideologues to foment its values and interests. Now universities supply corporations with technocrats and society with intellectual service-providers.
Readings' antidote begins with the advice that "we accept that the modern University is a ruined institution." The bureaucratic corporate university is a reality that neither nostalgia nor utopianism can change. Rather than embracing a "good ol' days" attitude or becoming anti-capitalist pariahs, professors should inhabit the university critically, countenancing its market imperatives but retaining the capacity to "think," occupying thoughtfully an "institution whose development tends to make Thought more and more difficult, less and less necessary."
"Thinking" is defined as opposition to the "unthinking participation in institutional-bureaucratic life" and manifests itself in activities such as interrogation of disciplinary boundaries (without creating interdisciplinary amorphousness), consideration of realities excluded from academic study (not necessarily to include them but to make their exclusion explicit), and reconstituting students as students, not consumers. The actions of Thought, Readings says, will not endow the university with a social mission, but it will secure instances of "ethical probity" and "real responsibility," probably the best today's professors can hope for.
That is the substance of Readings' book. He supplies little empirical data to substantiate his thesis and prescriptions (before he could amplify his ideas, he died in a 1994 plane crash), so professors must measure his assertions by consulting their own experience. Is Emory a university in ruins? Do Emory students act as if they are buying intellectual services? Are Emory faculty thinking? Do Emory administrators prefer corporate-speak to learned discussion? Are globalization and interdisciplinary initiatives expressions of market forces, or do they mark sound intellectual reforms of nation-state curricula and disciplinary structures? As with most academic questions, that depends upon whom you ask.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English.