Terry Eagleton on the death agony of universities

Posted: April 9, 2015 by Admin in Alienation, Capitalist ideology, Commodification, Cultural studies, Economics, Life, Limits of capitalism, Students, Universities

The article below by veteran Marxist and intellectual Terry Eagleton is reprinted from the Chronicle Review site, April 6.  We’ve added sub-heads. 

images (1)A few years ago, I was being shown around a large, very technologically advanced university in Asia by its proud president. As befitted so eminent a personage, he was flanked by two burly young minders in black
suits and shades, who for all I knew were carrying Kalashnikovs under their jackets. Having waxed lyrical about his gleaming new business school and state-of-the-art institute for management studies, the president paused to permit me a few words of fulsome praise. I remarked instead that there seemed to be no critical studies of any kind on his campus. He looked at me bemusedly, as though I had asked him how many Ph.Ds in pole dancing they awarded each year, and replied rather stiffly “Your comment will be noted.” He then took a small piece of cutting-edge technology out of his pocket, flicked it open and spoke a few curt words of Korean into it, probably “Kill him.” A limousine the length of a cricket pitch then arrived, into which the president was bundled by his minders and swept away. I watched his car disappear from view, wondering when his order for my execution was to be implemented.

This happened in South Korea, but it might have taken place almost
anywhere on the planet. From Cape Town to Reykjavik, Sydney to S?o
Paulo, an event as momentous in its own way as the Cuban revolution or
the invasion of Iraq is steadily under way: the slow death of the
university as a centre of humane critique. 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.

Finishing school for the gentry

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.

This is even becoming true at those traditional finishing schools for
the English gentry, Oxford and Cambridge, whose colleges have always
been insulated to some extent against broader economic forces by
centuries of lavish endowments. Some years ago, I resigned from a chair
at the University of Oxford (an event almost as rare as an earthquake in
Edinburgh) when I became aware that I was expected in some respects to
behave less as a scholar than a CEO.

When I first came to Oxford 30 years earlier, any such professionalism
would have been greeted with patrician disdain. Those of my colleagues
who had actually bothered to finish their Ph.Ds would sometimes use
the title of “Mr” rather than “Dr” since “Dr” suggested a degree of
ungentlemanly labour. Publishing books was regarded as a rather vulgar
project. A brief article every 10 years or so on the syntax of
Portuguese or the dietary habits of ancient Carthage was considered just
about permissible. There had been a time earlier when college tutors
might not even have bothered to arrange set tutorial times for their
undergraduates. Instead, the undergraduate would simply drop round to
their rooms when the spirit moved him for a glass of sherry and a
civilized chat about Jane Austen or the function of the pancreas.

Don power vs capitalist centralisation

Today, Oxbridge retains much of its collegial ethos. It is the dons who
decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their
gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best
to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than
on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows
of the college in full session, and everything from financial and
academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected
committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole.
In recent years, this admirable system of self-government has had to
confront a number of centralizing challenges from the university, of the
kind that led to my own exit from the place; but by and large it has
stood firm. Precisely because Oxbridge colleges are for the most part
premodern institutions, they have a smallness of scale about them that
can serve as a model of decentralized democracy, and this despite the
odious privileges they continue to enjoy.

Elsewhere in Britain, the situation is far different. Instead of
government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of
Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies,
and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General
Motors. Senior professors are now senior managers, and the air is thick
with talk of auditing and accountancy. Books – those troglodytic,
drearily pre-technological phenomena – are increasingly frowned upon. At
least one British university has restricted the number of bookshelves
professors may have in their offices in order to discourage “personal
libraries.” Wastepaper baskets are becoming as rare as Tea Party
intellectuals, since paper is now passé.

Philistine power

Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and
issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose. One Northern Irish
vice chancellor commandeered the only public room left on campus, a
common room shared by staff and students alike, for a private dining
room in which he could entertain local bigwigs and entrepreneurs. When
the students occupied the room in protest, he ordered his security
guards to smash the only restroom near to hand. British vice chancellors
have been destroying their own universities for years, but rarely as
literally as that. On the same campus, security staff move students on
if they are found hanging around. The ideal would be a university
without these dishevelled, unpredictable creatures.

In the midst of this debacle, it is the humanities above all that are
being pushed to the wall. The British state continues to distribute
grants to its universities for science, medicine, engineering, and the
like, but it has ceased to hand out any significant resources to the
arts. It is not out of the question that if this does not change, whole
humanities departments will be closed down in the coming years. If
English departments survive at all, it may simply be to teach business
students the use of the semicolon, which was not quite what Northrop
Frye and Lionel Trilling had in mind.

Humanities departments must now support themselves mainly by the tuition
fees they receive from their students, which means that smaller
institutions that rely almost entirely on this source of income have
been effectively privatized through the back door. The private
university, which Britain has rightly resisted for so long, is creeping
ever closer. Yet the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has also
overseen a huge hike in tuitions, which means that students, dependent
on loans and encumbered with debt, are understandably demanding high
standards of teaching and more personal treatment in return for their
cash at just the moment when humanities departments are being starved of

Forget the teaching

Besides, teaching has been for some time a less vital business in
British universities than research. It is research that brings in the
money, not courses on Expressionism or the Reformation. Every few years,
the British state carries out a thorough inspection of every university
in the land, measuring the research output of each department in
painstaking detail. It is on this basis that government grants are
awarded. There has thus been less incentive for academics to devote
themselves to their teaching, and plenty of reason for them to produce
for production’s sake, churning out supremely pointless articles,
starting up superfluous journals online, dutifully applying for outside
research grants regardless of whether they really need them, and passing
the odd pleasant hour padding their CVs.

In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher
education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and
the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that
academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if
it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not.
Points are awarded by the state inspectors for articles with a bristling
thicket of footnotes, but few if any for a best-selling textbook aimed
at students and general readers. Academics are most likely to boost
their institution’s status by taking temporary leave of it, taking time
off from teaching to further their research.

They would boost its resources even more were they to abandon academe
altogether and join a circus, hence saving their financial masters a
much grudged salary and allowing the bureaucrats to spread out their
work among an already over-burdened professoriate. Many academics in
Britain are aware of just how passionately their institution would love
to see the back of them, apart from a few household names who are able
to pull in plenty of customers. There is, in fact, no shortage of
lecturers seeking to take early retirement, given that British academe
was an agreeable place to work some decades ago and is now a deeply
unpleasant one for many of its employees. In an additional twist of the
knife, however, they are now about to have their pensions cut as well.

Students as consumers

As professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted
into consumers. Universities fall over one another in an undignified
scramble to secure their fees. Once such customers are safely within the
gates, there is pressure on their professors not to fail them, and thus
risk losing their fees. The general idea is that if the student fails,
it is the professor’s fault, rather like a hospital in which every death
is laid at the door of the medical staff. One result of this hot pursuit
of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is
currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of
English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather
than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world
rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and
economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that
focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would
be cutting its own throat.

Hungry for their fees, some British universities are now allowing
students with undistinguished undergraduate degrees to proceed to
graduate courses, while overseas students (who are generally forced to
pay through the nose) may find themselves beginning a doctorate in
English with an uncertain command of the language. Having long despised
creative writing as a vulgar American pursuit, English departments are
now desperate to hire some minor novelist or failing poet in order to
attract the scribbling hordes of potential Pynchons, ripping off their
fees in full, cynical knowledge that the chances of getting one’s first
novel or volume of poetry past a London publisher are probably less than
the chances of awakening to discover that you have been turned into a
giant beetle.

Needs of society

Education should indeed be responsive to the needs of society. But this
is not the same as regarding yourself as a service station for
neo-capitalism. In fact, you would tackle society’s needs a great deal
more effectively were you to challenge this whole alienated model of
learning. Medieval universities served the wider society superbly well,
but they did so by producing pastors, lawyers, theologians, and
administrative officials who helped to sustain church and state, not by
frowning upon any form of intellectual activity that might fail to turn
a quick buck.

Times, however, have changed. According to the British state, all
publicly funded academic research must now regard itself as part of the
so-called knowledge economy, with a measurable impact on society. Such
impact is rather easier to gauge for aeronautical engineers than ancient
historians. Pharmacists are likely to do better at this game than
phenomenologists. Subjects that do not attract lucrative research grants
from private industry, or that are unlikely to pull in large numbers of
students, are plunged into a state of chronic crisis. Academic merit is
equated with how much money you can raise, while an educated student is
redefined as an employable one. It is not a good time to be a
paleographer or numismatist, pursuits that we will soon not even be able
to spell, let alone practice.

The effects of this sidelining of the humanities can be felt all the way
down the educational system in the secondary schools, where modern
languages are in precipitous decline, history really means modern
history, and the teaching of the classics is largely confined to private
institutions such as Eton College. (It is thus that the old Etonian
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, regularly lards his public
declarations with tags from Horace.)

It is true that philosophers could always set up meaning-of-life clinics
on street corners, or modern linguists station themselves at strategic
public places where a spot of translation might be required. In general,
the idea is that universities must justify their existence by acting as
ancillaries to entrepreneurship. As one government report chillingly put
it, they should operate as “consultancy organisations.” In fact, they
themselves have become profitable industries, running hotels, concerts,
sporting events, catering facilities, and so on.

If the humanities in Britain are withering on the branch, it is largely
because they are being driven by capitalist forces while being
simultaneously starved of resources. (British higher education lacks the
philanthropic tradition of the United States, largely because America
has a great many more millionaires than Britain.) We are also speaking
of a society in which, unlike the United States, higher education has
not traditionally been treated as a commodity to be bought and sold.
Indeed, it is probably the conviction of the majority of college
students in Britain today that higher education should be provided free
of charge, as it is in Scotland; and though there is an obvious degree
of self-interest in this opinion, there is a fair amount of justice in
it as well. Educating the young, like protecting them from serial
killers, should be regarded as a social responsibility, not as a matter
of profit.

I myself, as the recipient of a state scholarship, spent seven years as
a student at Cambridge without paying a bean for it. It is true that as
a result of this slavish reliance on the state at an impressionable age
I have grown spineless and demoralized, unable to stand on my own two
feet or protect my family with a shotgun if called upon to do so. In a
craven act of state dependency, I have even been known to call upon the
services of the local fire department from time to time, rather than
beat out the blaze with my own horny hands. I am, even so, willing to
trade any amount of virile independence for seven free years at Cambridge.

Free education

It is true that only about 5 percent of the British population attended
university in my own student days, and there are those who claim that
today, when that figure has risen to around 50 percent, such liberality
of spirit is no longer affordable. Yet Germany, to name only one
example, provides free education to its sizable student population. A
British government that was serious about lifting the crippling debt
from the shoulders of the younger generation could do so by raising
taxes on the obscenely rich and recovering the billions lost each year
in evasion.

It would also seek to restore the honourable lineage of the university as
one of the few arenas in modern society (another is the arts) in which
prevailing ideologies can be submitted to some rigorous scrutiny. What
if the value of the humanities lies not in the way they conform to such
dominant notions, but in the fact that they don’t? There is no value in
integration as such. In pre-modern times, artists were more thoroughly
integrated into society at large than they have been in the modern era,
but part of what that meant was that they were quite often ideologues,
agents of political power, mouthpieces for the status quo. The modern
artist, by contrast, has no such secure niche in the social order, but
it is precisely on this account that he or she refuses to take its
pieties for granted.

Until a better system emerges, however, I myself have decided to throw
in my lot with the hard-faced philistines and crass purveyors of
utility. Somewhat to my shame, I have now taken to asking my graduate
students at the beginning of a session whether they can afford my very
finest insights into literary works, or whether they will have to make
do with some serviceable but less scintillating comments.

Charging by the insight is a distasteful affair, and perhaps not the
most effective way of establishing amicable relations with one’s
students; but it seems a logical consequence of the current academic
climate. To those who complain that this is to create invidious
distinctions among one’s students, I should point out that those who are
not able to hand over cash for my most perceptive analyses are perfectly
free to engage in barter. Freshly baked pies, kegs of home-brewed beer,
knitted sweaters, and stout, handmade shoes: All these are eminently
acceptable. There are, after all, more things in life than money.

Terry Eagleton is a distinguished visiting professor of English literature at the University of Lancaster. He is the author of some 50 books, including How to Read Literature (Yale University Press, 2013).

See also:

Terry Eagleton on Intellectuals versus Academics

Slump capitalism versus free education

Behind the crisis in liberal education

Commodifying education

  1. wbgoya says:

    Brilliant. Imagine how much worse it is for universities in countries like Tanzania where student loans are meagre and given in dubious ways to deserving and especially non-deserving students; where students feel that as the loans (which are not ever fully recovered or recoverable) are their personal responsibility they should use as they wish and not be asked to buy books (wikipedia will do fine thanks) but buy air time, iPhones or samsung galaxy and flat screen tvs! Where politicians from opposition parties support students to rebel against any order from the university administration (because the university is state-supported and is associated with the ruling party)!
    Where students who cannot speak or read English are not permitted to use Swahili as medium of instruction at Secondary school level) and you have a nightmare situation that makes Terry Eagleton’s cry seem like a spoiled child’s tantrums! Phew!
    Walter Bgoya, Publisher, Dar es salaam, Tanzania

  2. Admin says:

    Hi Walter, thanks for your comment.

    Yes, we’re still pretty lucky in the First World compared with Africa, much of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the small island states of the Pacific.

    I’m sure Terry Eagleton is aware of this.

    But part of the responsibility of the left in the First World is to always promote an internationalist view that stresses the importance of the working class in the most developed capitalist countries supporting the oppressed peoples of the rest of the world.

    • wbgoya says:

      Thank you. The article is being read and discussed by comrades and even defenders of neoliberal market criteria for providing education; under the slogan of “knowledge economy”; knowledge meaning marketable science in place of all round education that is firmly rooted in humanist values. Great piece and good humour.

  3. Admin says:

    Yesterday there were 104 views of articles on Redline that came from Tanzania, and the Eagleton piece had several hundred views, so I assumed that a lot of people from Tanzania were reading it. Yes. Eagleton is witty as well as insightful.

    We have the same process of commodification going in within university education in New Zealand. See, for instance, the article Commodifying Education: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/1238/

  4. Admin says:

    Another interesting piece is his discussion of intellectuals versus academics: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2013/11/22/terry-eagleton-on-intellectuals-v-academics/

  5. aviti says:

    This is one good read. I enjoyed and it makes me think a lot.

  6. Admin says:

    You might check out ‘Commodifying Education’ too: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/1238/

    We’ll be getting more material up on the university in capitalist society shortly.