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TheChronicleReview,April6,2015

TheSlowDeathoftheUniversity
ByTerryEagleton
Afewyearsago,Iwasbeingshownaroundalarge,verytechnologicallyadvanced
universityinAsiabyitsproudpresident.Asbefittedsoeminentapersonage,he
wasflankedbytwoburlyyoungmindersinblacksuitsandshades,whoforallI
knewwerecarryingKalashnikovsundertheirjackets.Havingwaxedlyricalabout
hisgleamingnewbusinessschoolandstateoftheartinstituteformanagement
studies,thepresidentpausedtopermitmeafewwordsoffulsomepraise.I
remarkedinsteadthatthereseemedtobenocriticalstudiesofanykindonhis
campus.Helookedatmebemusedly,asthoughIhadaskedhimhowmanyPh.D.s
inpoledancingtheyawardedeachyear,andrepliedratherstiffly"Yourcomment
willbenoted."Hethentookasmallpieceofcuttingedgetechnologyoutofhis
pocket,flickeditopenandspokeafewcurtwordsofKoreanintoit,probably"Kill
him."Alimousinethelengthofacricketpitchthenarrived,intowhichthe
presidentwasbundledbyhismindersandsweptaway.Iwatchedhiscardisappear
fromview,wonderingwhenhisorderformyexecutionwastobeimplemented.
ThishappenedinSouthKorea,butitmighthavetakenplacealmostanywhereon
theplanet.FromCapeTowntoReykjavik,SydneytoSoPaulo,aneventas
momentousinitsownwayastheCubanrevolutionortheinvasionofIraqis
steadilyunderway:theslowdeathoftheuniversityasacenterofhumanecritique.
Universities,whichinBritainhavean800yearhistory,havetraditionallybeen
deridedasivorytowers,andtherewasalwayssometruthintheaccusation.Yetthe
distancetheyestablishedbetweenthemselvesandsocietyatlargecouldprove
enablingaswellasdisabling,allowingthemtoreflectonthevalues,goals,and
interestsofasocialordertoofreneticallyboundupinitsownshorttermpractical
pursuitstobecapableofmuchselfcriticism.Acrosstheglobe,thatcritical
distanceisnowbeingdiminishedalmosttonothing,astheinstitutionsthat
producedErasmusandJohnMilton,EinsteinandMontyPython,capitulatetothe
hardfacedprioritiesofglobalcapitalism.
MuchofthiswillbefamiliartoanAmericanreadership.StanfordandMIT,after
all,providedtheverymodelsoftheentrepreneurialuniversity.Whathasemerged
inBritain,however,iswhatonemightcallAmericanizationwithouttheaffluence
theaffluence,atleast,oftheAmericanprivateeducationalsector.
ThisisevenbecomingtrueatthosetraditionalfinishingschoolsfortheEnglish
gentry,OxfordandCambridge,whosecollegeshavealwaysbeeninsulatedto
someextentagainstbroadereconomicforcesbycenturiesoflavishendowments.

Someyearsago,IresignedfromachairattheUniversityofOxford(anevent
almostasrareasanearthquakeinEdinburgh)whenIbecameawarethatIwas
expectedinsomerespectstobehavelessasascholarthanaCEO.
WhenIfirstcametoOxford30yearsearlier,anysuchprofessionalismwouldhave
beengreetedwithpatriciandisdain.Thoseofmycolleagueswhohadactually
botheredtofinishtheirPh.D.swouldsometimesusethetitleof"Mr."ratherthan
"Dr.,"since"Dr."suggestedadegreeofungentlemanlylabor.Publishingbooks
wasregardedasarathervulgarproject.Abriefarticleevery10yearsorsoonthe
syntaxofPortugueseorthedietaryhabitsofancientCarthagewasconsideredjust
aboutpermissible.Therehadbeenatimeearlierwhencollegetutorsmightnot
evenhavebotheredtoarrangesettutorialtimesfortheirundergraduates.Instead,
theundergraduatewouldsimplydroproundtotheirroomswhenthespiritmoved
himforaglassofsherryandacivilizedchataboutJaneAustenorthefunctionof
thepancreas.
Today,Oxbridgeretainsmuchofitscollegialethos.Itisthedonswhodecidehow
toinvestthecollegesmoney,whatflowerstoplantintheirgardens,whose
portraitstohangintheseniorcommonroom,andhowbesttoexplaintotheir
studentswhytheyspendmoreonthewinecellarthanonthecollegelibrary.All
importantdecisionsaremadebythefellowsofthecollegeinfullsession,and
everythingfromfinancialandacademicaffairstoroutineadministrationis
conductedbyelectedcommitteesofacademicsresponsibletothebodyoffellows
asawhole.Inrecentyears,thisadmirablesystemofselfgovernmenthashadto
confrontanumberofcentralizingchallengesfromtheuniversity,ofthekindthat
ledtomyownexitfromtheplace;butbyandlargeithasstoodfirm.Precisely
becauseOxbridgecollegesareforthemostpartpremoderninstitutions,theyhavea
smallnessofscaleaboutthemthatcanserveasamodelofdecentralized
democracy,andthisdespitetheodiousprivilegestheycontinuetoenjoy.
ElsewhereinBritain,thesituationisfardifferent.Insteadofgovernmentby
academicsthereisrulebyhierarchy,agooddealofByzantinebureaucracy,junior
professorswhoarelittlebutdogsbodies,andvicechancellorswhobehaveas
thoughtheyarerunningGeneralMotors.Seniorprofessorsarenowsenior
managers,andtheairisthickwithtalkofauditingandaccountancy.Books
thosetroglodytic,drearilypretechnologicalphenomenaareincreasingly
frownedupon.AtleastoneBritishuniversityhasrestrictedthenumberof
bookshelvesprofessorsmayhaveintheirofficesinordertodiscourage"personal
libraries."WastepaperbasketsarebecomingasrareasTeaPartyintellectuals,
sincepaperisnowpass.
Philistineadministratorsplasterthecampuswithmindlesslogosandissuetheir

edictsinbarbarous,semiliterateprose.OneNorthernIrishvicechancellor
commandeeredtheonlypublicroomleftoncampus,acommonroomsharedby
staffandstudentsalike,foraprivatediningroominwhichhecouldentertainlocal
bigwigsandentrepreneurs.Whenthestudentsoccupiedtheroominprotest,he
orderedhissecurityguardstosmashtheonlyrestroomneartohand.Britishvice
chancellorshavebeendestroyingtheirownuniversitiesforyears,butrarelyas
literallyasthat.Onthesamecampus,securitystaffmovestudentsoniftheyare
foundhangingaround.Theidealwouldbeauniversitywithoutthesedisheveled,
unpredictablecreatures.
Inthemidstofthisdebacle,itisthehumanitiesaboveallthatarebeingpushedto
thewall.TheBritishstatecontinuestodistributegrantstoitsuniversitiesfor
science,medicine,engineering,andthelike,butithasceasedtohandoutany
significantresourcestothearts.Itisnotoutofthequestionthatifthisdoesnot
change,wholehumanitiesdepartmentswillbecloseddowninthecomingyears.If
Englishdepartmentssurviveatall,itmaysimplybetoteachbusinessstudentsthe
useofthesemicolon,whichwasnotquitewhatNorthropFryeandLionelTrilling
hadinmind.
Humanitiesdepartmentsmustnowsupportthemselvesmainlybythetuitionfees
theyreceivefromtheirstudents,whichmeansthatsmallerinstitutionsthatrely
almostentirelyonthissourceofincomehavebeeneffectivelyprivatizedthrough
thebackdoor.Theprivateuniversity,whichBritainhasrightlyresistedforsolong,
iscreepingevercloser.YetthegovernmentofPrimeMinisterDavidCameronhas
alsooverseenahugehikeintuitions,whichmeansthatstudents,dependenton
loansandencumberedwithdebt,areunderstandablydemandinghighstandardsof
teachingandmorepersonaltreatmentinreturnfortheircashatjustthemoment
whenhumanitiesdepartmentsarebeingstarvedoffunds.
Besides,teachinghasbeenforsometimealessvitalbusinessinBritish
universitiesthanresearch.Itisresearchthatbringsinthemoney,notcourseson
ExpressionismortheReformation.Everyfewyears,theBritishstatecarriesouta
thoroughinspectionofeveryuniversityintheland,measuringtheresearchoutput
ofeachdepartmentinpainstakingdetail.Itisonthisbasisthatgovernmentgrants
areawarded.Therehasthusbeenlessincentiveforacademicstodevote
themselvestotheirteaching,andplentyofreasonforthemtoproducefor
productionssake,churningoutsupremelypointlessarticles,startingup
superfluousjournalsonline,dutifullyapplyingforoutsideresearchgrants
regardlessofwhethertheyreallyneedthem,andpassingtheoddpleasanthour
paddingtheirCVs.
Inanycase,thevastincreaseinbureaucracyinBritishhighereducation,

occasionedbytheflourishingofamanagerialideologyandtherelentlessdemands
ofthestateassessmentexercise,meansthatacademicshavehadlittleenoughtime
topreparetheirteachingevenifitseemedworthdoing,whichforthepastseveral
yearsithasnot.Pointsareawardedbythestateinspectorsforarticleswitha
bristlingthicketoffootnotes,butfewifanyforabestsellingtextbookaimedat
studentsandgeneralreaders.Academicsaremostlikelytoboosttheirinstitutions
statusbytakingtemporaryleaveofit,takingtimeofffromteachingtofurthertheir
research.
Theywouldboostitsresourcesevenmoreweretheytoabandonacademe
altogetherandjoinacircus,hencesavingtheirfinancialmastersamuchgrudged
salaryandallowingthebureaucratstospreadouttheirworkamonganalready
overburdenedprofessoriate.ManyacademicsinBritainareawareofjusthow
passionatelytheirinstitutionwouldlovetoseethebackofthem,apartfromafew
householdnameswhoareabletopullinplentyofcustomers.Thereis,infact,no
shortageoflecturersseekingtotakeearlyretirement,giventhatBritishacademe
wasanagreeableplacetoworksomedecadesagoandisnowadeeplyunpleasant
oneformanyofitsemployees.Inanadditionaltwistoftheknife,however,they
arenowabouttohavetheirpensionscutaswell.
Asprofessorsaretransformedintomanagers,sostudentsareconvertedinto
consumers.Universitiesfalloveroneanotherinanundignifiedscrambletosecure
theirfees.Oncesuchcustomersaresafelywithinthegates,thereispressureon
theirprofessorsnottofailthem,andthusrisklosingtheirfees.Thegeneralideais
thatifthestudentfails,itistheprofessorsfault,ratherlikeahospitalinwhich
everydeathislaidatthedoorofthemedicalstaff.Oneresultofthishotpursuitof
thestudentpurseisthegrowthofcoursestailoredtowhateveriscurrentlyin
fashionamong20yearolds.InmyowndisciplineofEnglish,thatmeansvampires
ratherthanVictorians,sexualityratherthanShelley,fanzinesratherthanFoucault,
thecontemporaryworldratherthanthemedievalone.Itisthusthatdeepseated
politicalandeconomicforcescometoshapesyllabuses.AnyEnglishdepartment
thatfocuseditsenergiesonAngloSaxonliteratureorthe18thcenturywouldbe
cuttingitsownthroat.
Hungryfortheirfees,someBritishuniversitiesarenowallowingstudentswith
undistinguishedundergraduatedegreestoproceedtograduatecourses,while
overseasstudents(whoaregenerallyforcedtopaythroughthenose)mayfind
themselvesbeginningadoctorateinEnglishwithanuncertaincommandofthe
language.HavinglongdespisedcreativewritingasavulgarAmericanpursuit,
Englishdepartmentsarenowdesperatetohiresomeminornovelistorfailingpoet
inordertoattractthescribblinghordesofpotentialPynchons,rippingofftheirfees
infull,cynicalknowledgethatthechancesofgettingonesfirstnovelorvolumeof

poetrypastaLondonpublisherareprobablylessthanthechancesofawakeningto
discoverthatyouhavebeenturnedintoagiantbeetle.
Educationshouldindeedberesponsivetotheneedsofsociety.Butthisisnotthe
sameasregardingyourselfasaservicestationforneocapitalism.Infact,you
wouldtacklesocietysneedsagreatdealmoreeffectivelywereyoutochallenge
thiswholealienatedmodeloflearning.Medievaluniversitiesservedthewider
societysuperblywell,buttheydidsobyproducingpastors,lawyers,theologians,
andadministrativeofficialswhohelpedtosustainchurchandstate,notby
frowninguponanyformofintellectualactivitythatmightfailtoturnaquick
buck.
Times,however,havechanged.AccordingtotheBritishstate,allpubliclyfunded
academicresearchmustnowregarditselfaspartofthesocalledknowledge
economy,withameasurableimpactonsociety.Suchimpactisrathereasierto
gaugeforaeronauticalengineersthanancienthistorians.Pharmacistsarelikelyto
dobetteratthisgamethanphenomenologists.Subjectsthatdonotattractlucrative
researchgrantsfromprivateindustry,orthatareunlikelytopullinlargenumbers
ofstudents,areplungedintoastateofchroniccrisis.Academicmeritisequated
withhowmuchmoneyyoucanraise,whileaneducatedstudentisredefinedasan
employableone.Itisnotagoodtimetobeapaleographerornumismatist,pursuits
thatwewillsoonnotevenbeabletospell,letalonepractice.
Theeffectsofthissideliningofthehumanitiescanbefeltallthewaydownthe
educationalsysteminthesecondaryschools,wheremodernlanguagesarein
precipitousdecline,historyreallymeansmodernhistory,andtheteachingofthe
classicsislargelyconfinedtoprivateinstitutionssuchasEtonCollege.(Itisthus
thattheoldEtonianBorisJohnson,themayorofLondon,regularlylardshispublic
declarationswithtagsfromHorace.)
Itistruethatphilosopherscouldalwayssetupmeaningoflifeclinicsonstreet
corners,ormodernlinguistsstationthemselvesatstrategicpublicplaceswherea
spotoftranslationmightberequired.Ingeneral,theideaisthatuniversitiesmust
justifytheirexistencebyactingasancillariestoentrepreneurship.Asone
governmentreportchillinglyputit,theyshouldoperateas"consultancy
organisations."Infact,theythemselveshavebecomeprofitableindustries,running
hotels,concerts,sportingevents,cateringfacilities,andsoon.
IfthehumanitiesinBritainarewitheringonthebranch,itislargelybecausethey
arebeingdrivenbycapitalistforceswhilebeingsimultaneouslystarvedof
resources.(BritishhighereducationlacksthephilanthropictraditionoftheUnited
States,largelybecauseAmericahasagreatmanymoremillionairesthanBritain.)

Wearealsospeakingofasocietyinwhich,unliketheUnitedStates,higher
educationhasnottraditionallybeentreatedasacommoditytobeboughtandsold.
Indeed,itisprobablytheconvictionofthemajorityofcollegestudentsinBritain
todaythathighereducationshouldbeprovidedfreeofcharge,asitisinScotland;
andthoughthereisanobviousdegreeofselfinterestinthisopinion,thereisafair
amountofjusticeinitaswell.Educatingtheyoung,likeprotectingthemfrom
serialkillers,shouldberegardedasasocialresponsibility,notasamatterof
profit.
Imyself,astherecipientofastatescholarship,spentsevenyearsasastudentat
Cambridgewithoutpayingabeanforit.Itistruethatasaresultofthisslavish
relianceonthestateatanimpressionableageIhavegrownspinelessand
demoralized,unabletostandonmyowntwofeetorprotectmyfamilywitha
shotgunifcalledupontodoso.Inacravenactofstatedependency,Ihaveeven
beenknowntocallupontheservicesofthelocalfiredepartmentfromtimetotime,
ratherthanbeatouttheblazewithmyownhornyhands.Iam,evenso,willingto
tradeanyamountofvirileindependenceforsevenfreeyearsatCambridge.
Itistruethatonlyabout5percentoftheBritishpopulationattendeduniversityin
myownstudentdays,andtherearethosewhoclaimthattoday,whenthatfigure
hasrisentoaround50percent,suchliberalityofspiritisnolongeraffordable.Yet
Germany,tonameonlyoneexample,providesfreeeducationtoitssizablestudent
population.ABritishgovernmentthatwasseriousaboutliftingthecripplingdebt
fromtheshouldersoftheyoungergenerationcoulddosobyraisingtaxesonthe
obscenelyrichandrecoveringthebillionslosteachyearinevasion.
Itwouldalsoseektorestorethehonorablelineageoftheuniversityasoneofthe
fewarenasinmodernsociety(anotheristhearts)inwhichprevailingideologies
canbesubmittedtosomerigorousscrutiny.Whatifthevalueofthehumanities
liesnotinthewaytheyconformtosuchdominantnotions,butinthefactthatthey
dont?Thereisnovalueinintegrationassuch.Inpremoderntimes,artistswere
morethoroughlyintegratedintosocietyatlargethantheyhavebeeninthemodern
era,butpartofwhatthatmeantwasthattheywerequiteoftenideologues,agents
ofpoliticalpower,mouthpiecesforthestatusquo.Themodernartist,bycontrast,
hasnosuchsecurenicheinthesocialorder,butitispreciselyonthisaccountthat
heorsherefusestotakeitspietiesforgranted.
Untilabettersystememerges,however,Imyselfhavedecidedtothrowinmylot
withthehardfacedphilistinesandcrasspurveyorsofutility.Somewhattomy
shame,Ihavenowtakentoaskingmygraduatestudentsatthebeginningofa
sessionwhethertheycanaffordmyveryfinestinsightsintoliteraryworks,or
whethertheywillhavetomakedowithsomeserviceablebutlessscintillating

comments.
Chargingbytheinsightisadistastefulaffair,andperhapsnotthemosteffective
wayofestablishingamicablerelationswithonesstudents;butitseemsalogical
consequenceofthecurrentacademicclimate.Tothosewhocomplainthatthisisto
createinvidiousdistinctionsamongonesstudents,Ishouldpointoutthatthose
whoarenotabletohandovercashformymostperceptiveanalysesareperfectly
freetoengageinbarter.Freshlybakedpies,kegsofhomebrewedbeer,knitted
sweaters,andstout,handmadeshoes:Alltheseareeminentlyacceptable.There
are,afterall,morethingsinlifethanmoney.
TerryEagletonisadistinguishedvisitingprofessorofEnglishliteratureatthe
UniversityofLancaster.Heistheauthorofsome50books,includingHowto
ReadLiterature(YaleUniversityPress,2013).