Sunday, May 23, 2010

Save Middlesex Philosophy

In light of what's happening at Middlesex University in the UK (read about it here and here), I thought I would re-post the following. It's no less relevant now than it was a couple of months ago.


We must adapt universities (and perhaps thought itself) to the demands of contemporary 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.

Taylor's entire approach proceeds by uncritically (or worse, unknowingly) accepting the demands and coordinates of contemporary capitalism. 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. It is entirely unclear whether Taylor even grasps that there really is this thing, capitalism, out there in the world and that the university is located within a society structured in this way. Yet, at every step in his essay, capitalism is there implicitly giving force to the demands and imperatives he puts forward.

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 or function 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 must, what is it about our society (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? And where's the argument for why intellectuals must subordinate themselves to capitalist markets at all?

If critical thought brushes against the grain of the official justification of the dominant order, Taylor's approach is decidedly uncritical.

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, as he does in a particularly pedantic moment in the essay, isn't going to cut it. Since when is Kant (writing in 1789 in Taylor's example) the authority on 'mass' anything? Taylor lambastes his 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).

To be sure, it might sound as though Taylor really does have economic matters in focus since he often mentions the fact that colleges and universities are facing an economic crisis. But he offers no analysis of why there is a crisis. Nor does he ever consider the ways in which the sources of funding for universities 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? Contrary to Taylor's favored mode of explanation, the answer to these questions has little to do with the dispositions and predilections of academics, but rather with the place of intellectual life within contemporary societies ruled largely by the demands of profit margins. As far as I can tell, Taylor is either painfully ignorant of this relationship, or chooses to remain silent on the central problem of intellectual life today.

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, as when he asks "why not adapt?" But why should intellectuals, who are employed precisely to think outside of the boxes of balance sheets and quarterly dividends, adapt to such a state of affairs? Why should knowledge itself be subordinated to the narrow demands of a system that values everything instrumentally insofar as it produces profit?

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 commodity fetishism to an economics department in the US). 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).

Consider his suggestions: Mandatory retirement and the abolishment of 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

1 comment:

EHR said...

I was reading an article in an archaeology (my discipline) journal recently about how archaeological education is supposedly not serving the needs of the students/job market (the two being, of course, not really seen as separate entities with often-opposing ends) and basically arguing that it split from its theoretical parent, anthropology, to concentrate more on the materialist aspects. I didn't realize this when I read it but what you have said here is part of why I had such a huge problem with that article - it never seemed to acknowledge that there might be a problem with something other than the student or market.