Current Affairs Higher Education

writing epilogues on the 20th-century university

Terry Eagleton’s recent Chronicle op-ed is making the rounds. It’s a piece with some clever flourishes but with largely familiar arguments. What I think is curious is that the nostalgia for the good old, bad old days describes a university that we would no longer find acceptable. Looking back at the end of the 20th century, the greatest accomplishment of higher education might be the way that we managed to greatly expand access in the last two decades. We have clearly not found a sustainable way to afford the post-secondary education of this growing portion of the population, and many of our problems revolve around that challenge. However, many of the other changes that Eagleton laments are a result of other aspects of this shift. Students show up on campus with different values, goals, and expectations for higher education than they once did. Governments, businesses, and other “stakeholders” also have shifting views to which universities are increasingly accountable as the role of higher ed becomes further embedded in the economy with more and more jobs requiring it. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m doing some campus visits with my daughter. It may be that the “highly/most selective” colleges and universities still get to select students who fit their educational values, but that’s not the case at public universities.

When I read articles like this one, I tend to have three general reactions. First, I agree that there’s a lot wrong with the way higher education is moving (increased bureaucracy, decreased public support, etc.). Second, I find it odd and a little worrisome how “technology” is scapegoated, as if higher education has always been technological. Third, I find the nostalgia understandable but ultimately unhelpful. As much as we may not like where we are or where we appear to be going, trying to go back is not a viable or even desirable option.

One of the amusing parts of Eagleton’s essay is his description of how it used to be, when faculty didn’t finish dissertations or write books because such things suggested “ungentlemanly labor.” I don’t think we have many colleagues who still share those values, but we still object to notions of “utility.” Maybe it’s the lower middle-class upbringing, or maybe it’s the rhetorician in me, but I’m not insulted when someone finds something I’ve written or a class I’ve taught to be useful. To the contrary, I actually prefer to do work that other people value and makes their lives easier or better, even though that might make me “ungentlemanly.”

In a couple recent conversations I’ve had around this topic, I have heard repeated the value of writing a book that maybe only a handful of people might read. I was struck by the widespread appeal of this value, at least among the audiences of humanities faculty and grad students who were present. I think I understand why they feel that way. They want to pursue their own interests without having any obligation to an audience. If Eagleton’s old colleagues found writing itself to be ungentlemanly then many contemporary humanists find the idea of writing for an audience (or writing something that would be useful) to be an anti-intellectual constraint.

Given that perhaps as a set of disciplines we are not particularly inclined to rhetorical strategies, here’s some fairly straightforward advice. It’s not an especially effective argument to say that everything about the contemporary university is going to hell and that we need to change everything so that we can create conditions were I can pursue my own interests regardless of whether they result in anything useful or even produce something that any one else would bother reading because the humanities are inherently good and must be preserved. Perhaps that seems like a hyperbolic version of this position, but if so, only barely. A better rhetorical strategy would be one that said something along the lines of “here’s how we believe higher education should be adapting to the changing demands of society, and here’s what we in the humanities would do/change to respond to those challenges.” I see a lot, A LOT, of digital ink spilt on the humanities crisis. I almost never see an argument from within the humanities about how the humanities itself should change. It’s almost always about how everyone else should change (students, parents, politicians, administrators, employers, etc.) so that we don’t have to.

Why is that?


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