August 3rd, 2012
Just when I thought I had emptied my brain fully of all blog-worthy thoughts, a colleague sent me the following:
Simon Critchley, Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The New School, lends to the lament of where higher education is today:Universities used to be communities; they used to be places where intellectual life really happened. They were also places where avant-garde stuff was happening. And that’s – in England anyway – completely ground to a halt. Universities are largely sold as factories for production of increasingly uninteresting, depressed people wandering around complaining. There’s been a middle-management take-over of our education, and it’s depressing. So universities, like the university I was at – Essex, which was a radical, experimental, small university, but had a bad reputation but did some great stuff – have become a kind of pedestrian, provincial university run by bureaucrats.
This tasty sample comes from Andrew Sullivan’s column this week in The Daily Beast. Sullivan, whose column “The Dish: Biased and Balanced” is almost always worth a read, implicitly buys Critchley’s lament. Hard not to, I guess.
Yes, the quotation is discouraging, wha? I cringe when I read something like this. First, oh my, I am one of those bureaucrats now, and, second, I know much of what cranky Critchley is saying is true. Dancing to the tune of public funding has certainly strained capacity in the UK, and is increasingly doing so here, there, and everywhere.
But then a part of me also wonders if Critchley and others who believe university culture has been drained of all creativity and experimentation aren’t suffering from Look-Back-in-Anger Syndrome. Nostalgia, in other words. Were things really much better then? There’s a whiff of elitism in Critchley’s comments, even while I know there is a middle-management sensibility running a lot of university life these days. It’s unavoidable in some ways because our funders are constantly seeking assurance that their money is being spent wisely and well. That’s not to say we are providing our funders with the right kind of measures. We’re all capitulating to millennialism anxiety, worried about performance and productivity, and using the language of corporatism to defend what we do. I wish we had another vocabulary but we can’t seem to find the right words. I doubt even Oxford has developed a better lexicon.
Furthermore, I am not sure universities could ever really claim familiarity with the avant-garde. Certainly the art world remains the natural home of radical expression, and, despite the corruption or shallowness of the art market, always will be. Besides, a lot of artists walk around depressed and complaining. I don’t think universities have any ownership of those behaviours. It just feels like that sometimes, because being critical is part of the job description. I complain, therefore I am.
Nostalgia is overrated, but it can be useful. Critchley’s words at least uphold the value of community as fundamental to the learning experience. Right now, Memorial is reveling in it. Next week we will be hosting hundreds and hundreds of graduates who are returning to the scene of their youthful crimes. Billed as a “Havin’ a Time” Reunion 2012, the extended event is designed to encourage connections and reflections. Memories will be shared, distorted, exaggerated, and perhaps even invented. That’s what reunions are for. Memorial is still a relatively young institution, and this is really the first large-scale homecoming event of its kind. It will be an occasion to build on that community Critchley believes has disappeared but which many graduates of Memorial insist is real and continuing, an evolving project, not a lost one. We’ll see what the lasting effects of all this are, of course, but to date the event has been promoted as a blast of nostalgic fun. I’ll be doing my bit for the show, and will have more to say about that next time.