The University in Ruins

Bill Readings
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996
238 pp., $15.95 pb

John Hajduk
Western Montana College-U of M

This past summer the American Association of State Colleges and Universities issued a call for examples of the best practices adopted by member campuses to further their commitments to Quality Assurance, Public Engagement, Advocacy and Communications, and Access and Inclusion.

The call for examples was striking in how unselfconsciously it integrated the jargon of the corporate world into a description of academic goals. "Efficiency" and "cost-cutting" were recognized as essentials; universities were encouraged to focus on remaining "accessible and affordable" while maintaining the "quality of their product." That quality was at least partly measured by the curriculum's success in meeting "the needs of the marketplace...and the maintenance of excellence in teaching and learning." More traditional goals such as the development of critical thinking or the pursuit of rational truth were not mentioned at all. The ivory tower image of the university, and its corollary idea of the independent scholar/professor standing stubbornly apart from the grimy dealings of the business world, has been eroding for some time.

Judging from the title of his book, Bill Readings would seem to be against this trend. But his book is far from a jeremiad, and Readings' own position is much more complicated than his title superficially suggests. In fact, the book reads like an extended dialogue that the author is having with himself and is marked by an unwillingness to let either side of that debate score any easy points. This feature of the work might be due in part to the fact that Readings died before its completion. The final revisions were completed by Diane Elam who, in her foreword, makes it pretty clear that the resulting product actually remains quite true to Readings standard method. "Revision and conversation--with me, with friends and colleagues, with students--were Bill's way of trying to create possibilities for thinking together," Elam writes (vi). This methodology gives the book a work-in-progress tone, a tone that reflects Readings' thesis that the University today must be recognized as a work-in-progress.

Rather than subscribe to the notion that higher education has passed some sort of golden age and is in a period of decline, Readings uncovers a more or less constant evolutionary process that has already seen several notable shifts in how the University's purpose has been evaluated. This evolution has brought us to the point where, Readings asserts, "the wider social role of the University as an institution is now up for grabs" (2).

Before its current identity crisis, Readings observes, the University passed through several stages of development, each representing a break with tradition that created opportunities to re-define the mission of higher education. In the early nineteenth century, the University's primary function was the pursuit of culture. As practiced by the German Idealists (Kant, Schiller, Fichte, etc.) who were committed to the ideals of the Enlightenment, this meant devotion to a pedagogy geared toward creating critical thinkers. In this model, "the subject learns the rules of thought, not a content of positive knowledge, so that thought and knowledge acquisition become a freely autonomous activity, part of the subject.... What is thus taught is not facts but critique, the formal art of the use of mental powers, the process of judgment" (67).

These Enlightenment ideas, however, had implications far beyond academia. They also motivated the liberal processes that contributed to the creation of modern nation-states, a social development central to what Readings sees as the next phase of the modern University's development. As these nation-states came to the fore, it became useful for them to promote the University as a place where national values and goals were promulgated. This change in focus from a broad humanistic to a narrow nationalistic conception of learning was almost inevitable, Readings implies, and led to an emphasis on curriculum that more directly and practically served the public good as defined by political realities. Even the definition of culture itself changed. By the end of the nineteenth century, the culture perpetuated by the University was almost synonymous with the humanities and especially literature in the national language.

The creation and preservation of a canon was instrumental to this process and in the United States was particularly important. As Readings puts it, "The idea of the canon serves, in short, to overcome the tension between historical ethnicity and republican will, since it is claimed that in establishing the canon the American people chose their own historical ethnicity in a free exercise of rational will" (85). Since Americans lacked a culture defined by a shared linguistic or ethnic heritage, the works that became canonized often expressed a dynamic present, marked by the vernacular and regional perspectives that had to be reconciled as a part of the larger political and social project that democracy represented. The creation of a literary canon that could celebrate Emerson, Poe, and Twain equally was evidence that progress was being made in uniting our diverse society.

But if one argues that the canon is no longer central to the University mission--as many contemporary critics do--then one must acknowledge that the project itself has either reached a successful conclusion or has ceased to be a goal worth pursuing. Needless to say, the latter argument is more evident, as critics have charged that the canon only served to perpetuate and rationalize some of the worst elements of western civilization, such as racism, sexism, and colonialism. Insofar as those elements served the national good, they were naturally and uncritically a part of the University's mission, but now they must undermine any interpretation that places the "old" version of the University on a pedestal.

In fact, it was criticism of the canon, in the form of contemporary Cultural Studies, that largely provoked the University's current state of confusion over its identity. Cultural Studies advocates rejected the academy's old role of validating national values that had served as justification for morally dubious actions on the part of our government. Their criticism, whether one agrees with its substance or not, drove a wedge between the University and government, a wedge that became more deeply embedded with the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, questions about the canon existed in something of a political vacuum, wherein American exceptionalism had no obvious reference point. The need for the University to promote nationalism was considerably lessened, opening the door for a re-examination of its purpose. This process commenced in a context where the reduced importance of articulating and promoting the ideological foundations of democracy was joined to a reduction in the almost unlimited financial support that the government provided to research institutions to insure steady progress in the technology race conducted with our Soviet rivals. This situation left the University to pursue a new alliance with the only contemporary institution with the resources and, if we can call it this, the will to form the same sort of symbiotic relationship with education that previously existed with governments--big business.

Drawing on these historical developments and the contemporary commentary that has accompanied them, Readings convincingly argues that the University is ripe for re-definition. He makes clear to his readers that there are forces out there ready to stake their claim, most notably in the corporate world. After all, big business is in the best economic position to define and underwrite research priorities, a function previously performed by government. In addition, University bureaucracies created to free professors from the drudgery of administration often share more of a common language and background with their business counterparts than the academics they serve.

This leaves the academics to fight to reclaim their right to define the University. To Readings this means rejecting the goal of "excellence." Readings is not preaching mediocrity, rather he legitimately points out that "excellence" does nothing to define the tangible evidence that the University is performing any role at all. In other words, "excellent" relative to what? If the standard that we are pursuing exists independent of any specific yardstick, what exactly does it mean? As Readings says, "The need for excellence is something we all agree on. And we all agree upon it because it is not an ideology, in the sense that it has no external referent or internal content" (23). So the Cornell University Parking Service was given an award for "excellence in parking" not because they made more parking available, but because they had managed to extend restrictions on motor vehicle access on campus (24).

In place of "excellence," Readings proposes defining the University in terms of Thought and dissensus. Thought, with a capital T, represents the goal of education, and dissensus defines the method by which Thought would be institutionally practiced and embedded in the system, both academically and administratively. His notion of Thought differs little from the traditional goal of critical thinking, and superficially it appears as ambiguous as the idea of excellence he proposes it displace. But Readings argues that is not truly the case. First, Thought is more inclusive than critical thinking, embracing a communal process that ties subjects (students and teachers) and objects (bodies of knowledge) together in an endless process of communication that promises an empty transcendence, not one that can be worshiped and believed in, but one that throws those who participate in pedagogy back into a reflection upon the ungroundedness of their situation" (161). Second, Thought differs from excellence in that it does not raise a question of value, it does not "masquerade as an idea," and it "does not function as an answer but as a question" (159-160). Readings' belief that Thought can win out over excellence in defining the University's mission will likely appeal to academics bemoaning the business model that threatens to overwhelm us. But other constituencies--administrators, students, voters, legislators--with some stake in defining the mission will be hard to sway.

The creation of institutional dissensus will be even harder to sell, for it is in this concept that Readings hits on a truly radical concept, one that, depending on your point of view, is either exciting or frightening in its implications. The notion of dissensus is grounded in the understanding that communications, totally open in terms of substance and participation, should be the lifeblood of the University. Rather than accepting that the goal of institutional communications is the creation of total agreement or consensus, Readings imagines a situation where "the variety of voices and positions generate evolving options in both academic and administrative affairs. The University will have to become one place, among others, where the attempt is made to think the social bond without recourse to a unifying idea, whether of culture or of the state" (191).

The resultant community of dissensus, assuming its members share the commitment to Thought and a willingness to cut its ties to the nation-state, becomes a pluralistic force for perpetual questioning and re-evaluation that involves all who share an interest in the University's fate. While this model is independent of any foundational principle defined in relation to outside institutions, it does imply a commitment to learning as process, a notion that most academics value quite highly. If this prospect falls a little short of defining a clear-cut social mission for the University, its success still demands a sense of social responsibility and ethical probity among the participants if the constructive potential of the University is to be realized. Plus, it offers an alternative to the prospect of the University disappearing into the corporate sphere, a fate that even nation-states now face, and one that threatens to compromise any responsibility higher education may take for encouraging life-long learning. The catch is that in creating an institution divorced from concrete practical enterprises, we are in danger of marginalizing its impact on, and appeal to, both students and potential patrons. For Readings, Thought and dissensus constitute a direct challenge to traditional institutional structures and values and would comprise a viable replacement for them. In other words: the University lies in ruins; long live the University.

Readings' ideas represent a sort of intellectual utopianism that is mildly seductive. Who would not want to be part of a community of engagement and discussion where administrators, politicians, and business interests play no central role? As attractive as this prospect may be, one can't help but see it as unrealistic. If the University was widely recognized as an oasis where activities of the mind took precedence, we would not now be feeling so much pressure to forge an identity that fits into the broader social, economic, and political framework. Readings' historical overview establishes that the "ivory tower" concept of academic isolation was more a misguided perception held by outsiders than an organizing principle accepted by the University and its inhabitants. Adopting it now as our salvation threatens to hasten academia's disconnection from the very forces that have to be convinced of the important role higher education can play beyond preparing corporate drones. Readings clearly doesn't believe this is the likely outcome, but his failure to consider it as a possibility is an unfortunate omission.

Despite those reservations, Readings outlines his plan and bolsters it with such compelling logic and solid history that it does seem an attractive alternative to the path we are presently on. Whether or not all readers of this book will share that attitude, one hopes that they at least will make Readings' ideas a part of the ongoing debate over the role of the University.

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