Monday, June 27, 2011

de-legitimation and purposeless universities

Bill Readings makes what I think is the right argument regarding the de-legitimation of higher education in The University in Ruins. Previous structurally legitimating notions of the university were rational (the Kantian model) and cultural (the Humboldtian model), but these have collapsed under the weight of the university’s core function as a bureaucratic corporation.

His analysis of the bureaucratic university as an administrative institution is spot-on. Universities are measured by scales that have no referents and that are essentially meaningless – among them, rankings like that performed by US News, institutional research data like graduation rates, time-to-graduation, etc. The very concept of excellence is devoid of meaning.

Readings does not lament this. Although the post-modern university (he prefers not to use this term, but it’s what he means) has no legitimation, the nostalgic drive to re-legitimate it would only restore one or another of the not-terribly-noble legitimations of the past. Instead, he argues that the university should be treated as a ruin – a potentially interesting place to be, that still has some remaining resources to do some interesting things. He says that the university without a purpose should instead be organized around the rhetorical and ethical obligation of the relation of pedagogy, which is to say, universities should be places where teaching happens.

Now, if the teaching and other activities of university faculty are only measured via what boil down to reputation surveys, what would make teaching one thing versus another the right thing to do? Readings’ answer is: nothing. So teaching is not about disseminating knowledge, or of producing it, or of reproducing culture, or anything related to some content. Instead, it’s an ethical relation between teacher and students. So far, so good, I think.

We can’t say in advance what ethical obligations that relationship creates, because those obligations arise from and are inherent to that relation itself. What can we say about it in general? As a teacher, Readings says, my conduct should be focused on justice.

Here’s where he loses me. What we have up to this point looks like Socratic education (Socratic, not Platonic). It is not in service to the state, to the economy, to the church, or to any particular, given set of ideals or any particular, given ideology. After all, what else did Socrates do but raise questions about all of that? Instead, Readings writes something not much different from gibberish:

The referent of teaching, that to which it points, is the name of Thought. Let me stress that this is not a quasi-religious dedication. I say "name" and I capitalize "Thought" not in order to indicate a mystical transcendence but in order to avoid the confusion of the referent with any one signification. The name of Thought precisely is a name in that it has no intrinsic meaning. In this sense, it is just like excellence. However, Thought differs from excellence in that it does not bracket the question of value. (159)

Oh, for fuck’s sake! How 90s-tastic can you get?

Anyway, the actual idea he's presenting here, as far as I can tell, is something like what I've outlined above. Since (a) nobody's actually watching what I teach, and (b) the only measure of what I'm doing that anybody cares anything about is an arbitrary notion that boils down to customer satisfaction, and (c) this is the case universally in universities, (d) because their purposes are referent-less - that is, there is no legitimating narrative for university education and it serves structural economic and social purposes not linked meaningfully to any particular activity taking place within them, it follows (e) that teaching has no purpose and no essential content. From this we can conclude (f) that teachers who so choose would be able to teach according to a notion of ethical responsibility that would be, from the standpoint of the administrative apparatus of the institution, immeasurable, unknowable, unacknowledged, and unnoticed.

What disturbs me about this is not the idea that university education is, for most intents and purposes, bullshit (that is to say, everyone involved could - and many do - treat it as bullshit with no discernible effect on the function of the system). What disturbs me is not the idea that teaching is a contentless activity related to an inchoate and non-referential concept of justice. As I said, those together fairly well describe Socrates wandering around Athens making people upset. I'm fine with that.

What disturbs me is that, if universities are ruins, and there is no purpose for ruins, there's no reason to maintain them. Again, I think that's probably true, and is certainly characteristic of the long-term trend of higher education. There are very few places where it's safe to do this crazy thing Readings calls teaching. There are fewer where it's safe and remunerative. And getting fewer by the hour. I admit it: what upsets me is the likelihood that I won't have my job much longer.

Then again, maybe I will. Just because universities are purposeless doesn't mean the capitalist economic system will liquidate them. Capitalism runs on consumption, and universities are spectacular sites of consumption.


Anonymous said...

If Universities are ruins where should I go to be taught? I need to learn.

Doc Nagel said...

Universities are still places where teaching can happen. The gist of the critique in Readings' book, that I'm trying to pick up on, is that teaching and learning aren't the purpose of universities any more. Even though that is a fact, it doesn't rule out the possibility of teaching and learning happening. It's just not the real agenda of the institution. (I'm going to write another post on this fairly soon, so stay tuned if you're interested.)