Posts Tagged ‘United Kingdom’

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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.

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As is often the case in the United States, the current election campaign in the United Kingdom appears to be centered on the question, “are you better off today?”

Well, the answer is much like it would be in the United States: not the majority of people. Sure, the tiny minority at the top are doing fine.

Britain’s richest 1% have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 55% of the population put together, according to the latest official analysis of who owns the nation’s £9.5tn of property, pensions and financial assets. . .

A rush to save among richer households as the recession deepened boosted the nation’s total wealth and ensured Britain’s long-established financial inequality remained in place, with the top 10% laying claim to 44% of household wealth – while the poorest half of the country had only 9%.

But not so much for everyone else. Wages, according to Wells Fargo [pdf], are growing at less than two percent on an annual basis.

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And, according to the Guardian, both GDP per capita and net disposable income per capita (especially the latter) remain below their 2008 levels.

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said the Tories were wrongly telling voters they have “never had it so good” even though Britain is experiencing the slowest recovery in a century.

Speaking during a campaign visit to Swindon, Balls said: “This is a government which has presided over five years when wages have not kept pace with rising prices and family bills.

“George Osborne and David Cameron want to spend the next six weeks going round the country saying you are better off. I say ‘bring it on’ because working people are really struggling in our country and we can do better than this.”

Indeed, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, working people are really struggling and we can certainly do better than this. The problem is, while people are correctly questioning the policies offered by the political parties in power, they’re not convinced the challengers are offering a real alternative.

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