Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bill Readings's University in Ruins

Readings published his important tract about the decline of the university in 1996. The book provides a powerful description of the evolution of the German university and its decline into what Readings sarcastically calls the "university of excellence," which is "excellent" because it is committed to "quality." Readings claims that both words are vacuous.  He offers in place a university based on what he claims is an equally vacuous term: "Thought."   He discusses English literature's transformation into "cultural studies."  His philosophical creativity is impressive. The best part of the book is his discussion of the origins of the modern university in chapter 5.  There, he describes a debate between Fichte and Humboldt as to the structure of the University of Berlin and subsequent interpretations of the relationship between the nation, the university and culture in philosophers like Schiller, Schelling, Schleiermacher and Leavis. He contrasts them with Cardinal Newman's parallel but religiously-based vision of a liberal education (p. 75).

I gained much from Readings's book; his contextualization of the history of the university in terms of the German Idealists and more recent authors is essential.  But I disagree with his analysis because he understates and in large part overlooks the culture-based university's moral failure.  He notes that the German Idealists created not only the modern university but also the German nation (p. 62-3).  He describes Schleiermacher's ethnically-based concept of evolution to the "rational state."  Schiller  adds that culture or the development of moral character can offer beauty as the link between ethnicity and the rational state. Schiller defines art as history and the interpretation of nature as a historical process. This argument, while intriguing, is linked directly to ethnically-based national socialism.

Readings adds (p. 64) that culture is both the object of science and the formation of character, that is, of research and teaching, the two goals of the university. Quoting Schelling he asserts that "the 'nurseries of science' must also be 'institutions of general culture."  Humboldt's (p. 65) "University of Culture" both develops the individual student and, through research, the idea of culture; moreover, the university "gives the people an idea of the nation-state to live up to and the nation-state a people capable of living up to that idea."  Readings adds (p. 65),  "The German Idealists propose that the way to reintegrate the multiplicity of known facts into a unified cultural science is through Bildung (learning), the ennoblement of character." 

Quoting Lepenies, Readings offers a limited discussion (p. 82) of the link between the culturally based university, which he fails to point out was frequently anti-Semitic, and national socialism.  As well, he does not consider the possibility that the ideas of philosophers like FR Leavis  led directly to totalitarianism.  Leavis, Readings notes, argues that (p. 80) industrialization and economic specialization sever culture from civilization.  Readings writes, describing Leavis, "a minority culture must supervene as the dialectical resolution of the opposition embodying the principle of the lost unity of culture in order to resist and reform mass civilization through the practice of criticism."

How is a minority to envision a national culture?  It is possible that universities could aim to persuade the general public of their opinions about beauty and history, but might such an approach prove to be authoritarian when combined with political figures of the kind democracies, starting with Athens, have produced?

It is not accurate to say that the American university of the past 30 years has lived in a symbiotic relationship with the state or has supported the state by safeguarding its national culture (an idea that, Readings emphasizes as one of the themes of this book, has been outdated because of globalization).  Rather, the university of the past 30 years atavistically insisted on failed collectivist ideology.  Universities, without offering a viable "minority culture," have assaulted American culture, not as it is fragmented on cable television or reflects excessive specialization, but as it reflects the Lockean ideal of freedom that counters the substantive content that the German Idealists advocated in Germany and that led to totalitarianism.  In place of freedom, American universities have offered ridiculous, failed collectivist ideology. 

The insistence on collectivism  can be traced in the academy's superstitious claim of the viability of Soviet communism until the very end. Even an economist of Paul Samuelson's stature continued to claim into the 1980s that Soviet communism had successfully produced industrialization, a claim that was incorrect and  had been seen to be incorrect sixty years sooner by Ludwig von Mises, who fled the "organic" society of Austria only to be excluded from American universities because he was right and they were wrong. 

Universities' emphasis on collectivism has not been "excellent."  Excellence is a word that is intimately linked to Aristotle.  The Nicomachean Ethics was the first book to emphasize the importance of excellence as a cornerstone of education.  Excellence means achievement or fulfillment of potential on a foundation of character. To be successful universities need to provide students with a foundation of character and with knowledge that they need to achieve.  The humanities and social sciences can potentially do these things, but they have not.  In part the reason may be that the ideals of Humboldt and Leavis are too subtle to be institutionalized. In translation, the American university functioned as a dogmatic institutional apologist for totalitarianism, excluding from its consensus (not dissensus, which would require non-ideologically based hiring and, specifically, would have required that von Mises had been offered a job appropriate to his status) any who could have offered support to the American culture and state.  The universities' failure is consistent with Leavis's claim that university professors offer a minority culture, but the minority culture that they have been capable of offering has been a second rate version of 19th century fantasies that led to Hitler and Stalin.

The University in Ruins is crucial.  Readings's claim that the university has been transformed into a corporation (in today's sense) is correct, and his claim that it is a ruined institution, that the Idealist university has been replaced by a corporatist university is also correct.  Readings does not, though, ultimately explain why the three alternatives he presents are the only ones:  (1) the university of culture, which is linked to totalitarianism; (2) the university of "excellence," which functions along a shallow business model;  and (3) the university in ruins, where thinkers pursue "Thought" among the university's ruins.  A different alternative might be a university grounded in reason and focused on teaching and research aimed to improve humanity; social sciences without ideology that strive to improve widely agreed upon goals such as economic efficiency and human welfare; and the absence of the hubris that claims that university professors trained in English literature are capable of reinventing a nation's culture.

That such an option is excluded from Readings's view is consistent with its being rooted in the failed German university.  A superficial university of "excellence" may not be the best alternative, but it is preferable to the ruined totalitarian one.  A constructive approach would be to recognize that virtue is possible with respect to intellectual pursuit and teaching, that both can be excellent, and that both can authentically graduate students who have the skills society needs and produce research that is of value to humanity.

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