Monday, April 27, 2009

Adapt universities to the demands of multinational capitalism

That's Mark C. Taylor's thesis, anyway, in his recent addition to the trash-heap of shoddy Op/Ed's published by the NyTimes. The fact that the article is poorly organized and argued notwithstanding, Taylor's entire approach begins by uncritically (or worse, unknowingly) accepting the demands and coordinates of contemporary capitalism as the basis for 'reforming' universities. Little is said explicitly about the role of the university in society or the way in which current university arrangements and departments are the sedimentation of past (and ongoing) economic and political struggles.

The university, he warns in a moment of anti-intellectualism, is "producing products for which there are no markets." Let's pick this sentence apart. First of all, why should we accept that the aim of graduate education in universities is primarily to produce products, and moreover why should the goal of universities be to sculpt these sorts of products in a way that accords with the demands of multinational capitalism? Why not ask instead, as any critical intellectual would do, what is it about contemporary societies (and the role of intellectuals and institutions of higher learning within them) such that there isn't a "high demand" for much of what intellectuals do? Why not critically 'deconstruct' the social/political functioning of the markets in question, rather than taking them as given, authoritative and requiring that we subordinate ourselves to them?

What's abundantly clear throughout Taylor's piece is that he has little grasp of how economic and political power is diffused throughout contemporary US universities or what place they have in society more broadly. Quoting an obscure bit from a minor Kant text without developing it isn't going to cut it. Moreover, since when is Kant (writing in 1789 in Taylor's example) the authority on 'mass' anything? Taylor lambasts colleagues for studying Duns Scotus, but nonetheless cites a quote from Kant that's meant to pertain to the particulars of a topic about which Kant couldn't have said anything interesting since he died long before the coordinates of mass markets and multinational capitalism came to define social life. (I'm hardly saying we've nothing to learn from Kant in navigating contemporary states of affairs, but let's not pretend he got the last word on mass market culture or finance capital).

Taylor frames a lot of his suggestions in terms of the fact that Universities are facing an economic crisis. But he offers no analysis of how the ways universities get their money might affect the way that they function. In short, he offers no analysis of the role institutions of higher learning play in contemporary capitalist societies. It's a pity he doesn't inquire as to why his Religion department, for instance, has 10 measly faculty members while the economics department probably has 25-30. Or ask why does the business school get oodles of cash while the humanities wither? It has little to do with the predispositions of academics as such, but rather with the place of intellectual life within contemporary societies ruled largely by the demands of profit margins. Taylor is either painfully ignorant of this relationship, or chooses to remain silent on the central problem of intellectual life today.

Contra Taylor: why should Universities simply accept the cuts that are being implemented? Why not fight them? Taylor assumes they are as natural as the onset of spring weather, so he asks "why not adapt?"

Of course, there are many nuanced points to make about the problematic (and arbitrary) nature of departmental distinctions and how they obscure the sort of interdisciplinary work that challenges prevailing assumptions rather than taking them as immovable starting points (e.g. try talking about 'social justice' to a hardcore rational-choice theory PoliSci department). But Taylor doesn't really have anything to say here that is interesting or helpful. Suggesting that we create a "Water Studies" program isn't anything but an exemplification of his ignorance of all the concrete, institutional and economic conditions that impact the university in contemporary societies. How will changed curricula impact the money that universities get? How will, for example, making all departments fair game for abolition not simply expose them to the punishing logic of neoliberalism (i.e. keep only those disciplines which are 'useful' or are amenable to capitalism and profit-maximization)? Also, who will get to decide what all of these 'problem-oriented' disciplines will be? State legislatures doing the 'regulating' that Taylor speaks so highly of (without filling out in concrete terms)? Back in the 1960s, those on the Left used to critically engage the University itself as an 'ideological state apparatus' and make radical calls for the democratic self-management of universities by faculty and students (i.e. not by a caste of administrative bureaucrats and ex-capitalists). But Taylor seems to be saying instead: "embrace the role of ideological state apparatus and don't ask too many pesky questions about this role."

An example of this tendency is when Taylor proposes that "consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses". But why should we, as critical intellectuals, accept that 'real life' is merely a matter of adopting a post at any old business? Its only for the neoliberal that 'real life' consists of the fluctuations of finance markets and the demands of corporate capitalism. Taylor appears quite happy to enlist himself up with this way of proceeding. Why not, alternatively, challenge the existing order rather than lapping it up as given?

Taylor's pot-shots at tenure seem like little more than anti-intellectual posturing, a favorite hat of academics writing nonsense about academia in the NyTimes (see: Stanley Fish).

Mandatory retirement? Abolish tenure? How about crushing what few graduate student unions there are as well! Let's subject all of those lazy academics to market forces! He seems to completely misunderstand the fact that tenure is primarily about the relationship of the intellectual to society, and its justification is largely political. What alternative does he offer that serves this purpose? None. He only takes shots at older academics who crowd out younger ones by maintaining their posts for a long time. This is a problem, to be sure, but it is completely unclear why the facile proposals of ending tenure and enforcing retirement are warranted as solutions. What about Eric Hobsbawm, for example, who is in his 80s but has been publishing important books like crazy for the last 10 years? Should he be forced into retirement and stripped of tenure? What about Habermas? Should he get booted from his university post in Frankfurt because he's quite old, even though he continues to write dense philosophical texts as well as teach and lecture?

Taylor's suggestions belong at a Religion departmental meeting, not in print. Certainly not in the NYTimes.

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