The End of the End of the University

In the April 26th, 2009 New York Times, the eminent scholar of religion and technology Mark C. Taylor contributed an op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It” in which he suggests that the university is in the midst of a tremendous crisis requiring the institution to initiate significant reform. Professor Taylor–perhaps an ironic title given his transparent resentment of his own professional class–begins his series of proposals for the future of the university by drawing an attention-grabbing metaphor between the state of U.S. academic institutions and the state of U.S. automakers and banks. I cannot help but admire the boldness of Taylor”s approach and his lack of reserve in questioning the entrenched practices and assumptions of his profession. Many of his proposals, e.g., the abolition of traditional disciplines and the permanent abandonment of the tenure system for faculty in favor of renewable contracts, seem specifically chosen to incite the antipathy of university professors the world round. In these proposals, Taylor directly attacks both the manner in which professors make their livelihood and the very nature of the work that they do.

While hearing this kind of talk from amongst the professorial ranks is rare, the ability to offer proposals that draw the ire of one”s colleagues does not in itself amount to an actual platform of reform that is in the public interest. If Taylor has done nothing else, and in my opinion, by and large he hasn”t, he has nevertheless succeeded in launching an opening salvo for a broader conversation as to what the university endeavors to be. How and toward what end should our institutions of higher education operate?

Taylor”s argument presumes that the U.S. system of higher education is going through a fundamental crisis; one similar in nature to the financial crisis. Already in Taylor”s opening metaphor, he demonstrates the pronounced influence of the very sort of disciplinary specialization his proposals would eliminate.  As a scholar of Kierkegaard and other philosophers of religion, Taylor understandably sees the world around him through that particular disciplinary lens. In this academic theological parlance, a crisis (as in “crisis of faith”) refers not simply to a dilemma posed to a particular person, institution, or belief structure regarding how it ought to proceed; a crisis is a dilemma that both threatens and stems from the essence of what a person, institution, or belief structure most takes for granted. A crisis can only be resolved (and such a resolution is itself always and only temporary, the philosophers remind us) insofar as the person, institution, or belief structure in crisis abandons the very basis upon which it relates to the world. Moreover, no real assurances can be given that the person, institution, or belief structure which comes after the “leap of faith” will be any better or less problematic than the one that came before. After all, if a radical transformation seemed like a good idea from the untenable perspective that it was trying to abandon, then such a transformation would not be radical enough because it may still be wedded to the basic orientation of the original perspective.

Viewing contemporary social issues through the lens of specialized theoretical concepts may (or may not) be accurate, suggestive, or useful. For instance, “crisis” may very well be a good name for the state of financial institutions at present, and this is perhaps why Taylor compares the state of higher education to the financial crisis. The collapse of the housing market and the credit market (and the subsequent reverberations throughout the world economy) was not on the whole caused by isolated cases of fraud and misconduct. Propelled by the drive to ever-increased speculation that comprises their very essence, financial institutions kept making more and more bets on more and more bets that became increasingly distant from the actual transactions.  To offer an extended metaphor, it”s as if instead of betting on boxing matches seen in person, or boxing matches watched on TV, or boxing matches with results that would be put in the paper, our financial institutions were all betting on boxing matches for which the results would never be known at all–in fact, boxing matches that would never even take place. One doesn”t have to be Marx to see that this logic presupposes its own destruction.

To say that such a situation constitutes a crisis–if we follow out the Kierkegaardian line of thought–is to suggest that the only possible way of recovering from the current situation, or preventing a similar crisis from happening in the future, is to transform the fundamental basis for how we go about coordinating economic transactions. Given the deleterious effects that follow from speculative capitalism even when it is working well–e.g., ever-increasing disparities of wealth, the various forms of social stratification that result from these disparities, the transformation of the Earth into a place less and less habitable by various forms of life including human beings, etc.–a case could be made for Taylor”s Kierkegaardian “crisis” approach to the problem. The course of action counseled by this analysis (the “leap of faith”) would not be the ameliorative-incrementalist approach of utilizing the political system to place a series of regulations upon financial institutions in the attempt to prevent those institutions from realizing their inner need for destruction. The leap of faith would instead demand that we get rid of financial institutions entirely. After all, if we allow the continued existence of these institutions, it will only be a matter of time before their immense power and influence, which will always be accorded them due to the central role they play in capitalist production, will once again be utilized in order to manipulate whatever political systems dare to constrain them.

In this essay, I am not claiming that an anti-capitalist revolution is the most sensible way of responding to the current financial debacle. ((Just as it is necessary to point out the likely failings of incrementalist regulation, it is also necessary to recall the conservative, Burkean observation that revolutions often serve to pave the way for counter-revolutions. However, the current approach to the financial crisis taken by our political representatives is neither the radical leap of faith of anti-capitalist revolution, nor is it the band-aid approach of confining the market’s impetus to self-destruction through strict regulation. The approach adopted by our political leaders (the “bailout”) could best be equated to the strategy employed by an alcoholic who drinks more and more every morning in order to get over the hangover from the night before. This strategy will continue to work in the short-term–again, as long as one defines “working” as the cycle of booms and busts that we have grown accustomed to–until one day when it blows itself up completely. Given their role in encouraging this process to reach its apotheosis, our leaders might very well be considered anti-capitalist revolutionaries after all. We might just all be exterminated in the process, but that’s the leap of faith for you!)) I chose to elucidate the revolutionary position regarding the financial crisis in order to demonstrate how the application of specialized theoretical concepts can help us to consider courses of action for addressing social problems beyond those which are the most obvious. By enlarging our discussion of social problems through the deliberate inclusion of a pluralistic variety of ideas, perspectives, positions, proposals and opinions (including many with which we disagree, perhaps even vehemently) we are more able to see the limitations of our habitual ways of encountering those problems. Professors, artists, and intellectuals of specialized training and temperament–especially those who have a difficult time marketing their labor directly in the consumerist economy-have a unique role to play in public deliberation. We need them to think up crazy, impractical, nihilistic, idiosyncratic, faulty, utopian, tangential ways of seeing the world so that they can share those perspectives with the rest of us. This social role of the university is performed best when the pluralism of its constituents is encouraged to the greatest conceivable extent. The university should be an asylum (or perhaps a zoo) without walls in which the freaks and outcasts who are its inhabitants are encouraged to come and go as they please and the rest of us are free to visit as long as we agree to preserve (and perhaps contribute to) the oddity of the surroundings.

It is in the public interest (and in the interest of the capitalist market as well, incidentally) for the university to function as an incubator and store-house for ideas that would otherwise be discarded because they are too iconoclastic, counterintuitive, or controversial to come into being equipped with their own revenue streams. The internet is an example of one such idea. From this perspective, the problems faced by U.S. institutions of higher education today are not best understood as the result of a fundamental crisis stemming from the university”s pursuit of specialized, impractical knowledge as Mark Taylor suggests. In fact, I believe that a better argument could be made for the converse hypothesis: the university”s present problems can be seen as the result of its failure to adequately preserve its own working ideal–entelecheia in Aristotelian terminology–as a sphere of infinite pluralistic debate that operates in relative autonomy from the immediate dictates of the market.

Creative Commons License photo credit: seantoyer

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