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Monday, October 21, 2013

Monday, October 21, 2013

The British are Coming

The best recent book about British higher education, Andrew McGettigan's The Great University Gamble,  was the subject of two long reviews last week. I wrote one of them, which appeared in the LA Review of Books under the title “The Counterreformation in Higher Education.”  The other, called “Sold Out,” was written by the eminent essayist and Cambridge literature professor Stefan Collini, and appeared in the London Review of Books.  The essays have US and UK audiences in mind, respectively.  I try to provide enough background on both UK universities and the Conservative government’s changes for non-British readers to see just how huge and irreversible the British changes have been—and how relevant that are to the U.S. If you don’t have time to read the reviews and this post, then stop reading here and cut to the reviews (LARB & LRB). 
 
There are two broad schools of thought in the Anglophone world about the permafrost austerity and the deep cuts that have been applied to public universities. One is that they reflect reform, and that the suffering is temporary, the pain transitional, and the outcome cost-effective improvement.  The other school of thought is that they produce decline, and that both quality and efficiency are being reduced by systemic cuts and related changes.  Drs. Collini, McGettigan and I are declinists, though also optimists in the narrow sense of thinking there is nothing inevitable or necessary about the changes that are harming public universities. 

Thus the work of the book and the reviews is to persuade the first school that changes like the Cameron government’s sudden 80% cuts in the UK university teaching budget are in fact both unnecessary and destructive—that the replacement income of tripled fees and other market-oriented measures create losses rather than gains.  Persuasion will be in the eye of the careful reader, and I hope the McGettigan book attracts quite a few. He shows that Tory talk was one thing and Tory deeds something else altogether. The Great University Gamble will be especially valued by anyone interested in what the broad concept of privatization really means in technical practice.  How you really do that is fully explained in the long-play version, with the nuance required to see the operating system behind Tory beliefs.

The declinists are in turn comprised of various groups.  One might be called the fatalists, who are deeply unhappy about what is happening to their universities but who don’t see intentionality or design, at least ones that could be blocked or redressed. Another are depressives, and this is a psychologically interesting position that I can’t go into here.  A third are anti-commercialists—not anti-commerce in a general sense but anti-commercialism, where commercialism is an ideology that deals with economic adversity, turbulence, injustice, and confusion by saying commercialize everything. 

Prof. Collini and I could be classed as opposing this master narrative, often called neoliberal, and as you read the two reviews you will see a shared sense that behind the assurances of efficient budgets and increased quality lies the goal of commercializing universities all the way down, norming their goals and practices to those of for-profit firms. 

Anyone writing from this position needs to master technical detail for the purpose of constructing arguments that will appeal both to allies and to opponents.  My own method in the LARB review is to use Dr. McGettigan’s formidable research to deduce government motive from government policy implementation, crossing off one declared goal after the other until we get to what is really going on. I also say a few things about why commercialization is bad, since the dominant school sees it as a liberating breeze that brings a vital glow to the excessively cloistered academic cheek. Even commercialization is not, as I see it, the final Conservative goal. But to see how this works you’d have to read through to Sections V and VI of the piece.  

My title alludes to my sense that those who say they favor reform are not rightly called reformers but counterreformers, and that they are not adapting ad hoc to a changing situation but aim at a full counterreformation, which I outline there. The main way today’s conventional wisdom deals with such arguments is to cast them as resistance to inevitable change, but even sympathetic skeptics about the declinist analysis reasonably ask, what do declinists favor? What are declinists for?

Fortunately, Stefan Collini has written an entire book called What Are Universities For? A complex answer lies therein.  One way to think about it in a policy context is as the a strong public good understanding of education. This is an economic discourse that is woefully underdeveloped if not falsified in standard economics. This abstract discourse of the public good—or common, or commonwealth—is embodied in Prof. Collini’s book as the limitless pursuit of human knowledge. 

This discussion emerges in his uncomfortable relationship to the humanism of Cardinal Newman, and I quote him (Prof. Collini) in part.

A better way to characterize the intellectual life of universities may be to say that the drive towards understanding can never accept an arbitrary stopping-point, and critique may always in principle reveal that any currently accepted stopping-point is ultimately arbitrary. Human understanding, when not chained to a particular instrumental task, is restless, always pushing onwards, though not in a single or fixed or entirely knowable direction, and there is no one moment along that journey where we can say in general or in the abstract that the degree of understanding being sought has passed from the useful to the useless. In other words, it is not the subject-matter itself that determines whether something is, at a particular moment, classed as ‘useful’ or ‘useless’. Almost any subject can fall under either description. Rather, it is a question of whether enquiry into that subject is being undertaken under the sign of limitlessness – that is to say, not just, as with the development of all knowledge, subject to the testing of hypotheses or the revision of errors, but where the open-ended quest for understanding has primacy over any application or intermediate outcome.

This is the tip of the iceberg of the impact of the university on public or common knowledge, where the university is one place devoted, in theory, but utterly, to maximizing the power of human thought to save us from ourselves.  Limitless knowledge is a central public stake in the contemporary battles for the university, and the book and these reviews are written in the knowledge that commercialism doesn’t have what it takes to support this work.

3 comments:

Obat Herbal Penyempitan Pembuluh Darah said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Angel said...

The piece at LARB is no longer available there. Can it be found anywhere else?

Chris Newfield said...

the link above still works for me -- http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/the-counterreformation-in-higher-education/

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