There is no doubt, for those of us who work in and around institutions of higher education, that the university is dying.
Terry Eagleton has been making that argument for a long time. Now, he’s making it in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja], with his characteristic incisiveness and wit.
Eagleton’s argument is about the death of the British university but much of his analysis holds for the United States as well.
Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.
Much of this will be familiar to an American readership. Stanford and MIT, after all, provided the very models of the entrepreneurial university. What has emerged in Britain, however, is what one might call Americanization without the affluence — the affluence, at least, of the American private educational sector.
But Eagleton, I think, focuses a bit too much on the decline of the humanities, as if English and art departments were the only source of critical thinking. Better, it seems to me, is to identify and analyze the crisis of critical thinking across the length and breadth of the university—in economics as well as English, anthropology alongside art. Critical thinking in all the disciplines is disappearing as “Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose.”
The death of critical thinking in and across all its disciplinary forms is the real death of the university.