The University in Ruins: Against Farcical "Innovations"Roundup
tags: education reform, higher education
Johann N. Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Universities might be facing a moment similar to what befell early modern English monasteries under Henry VIII. For generations, Ronald G. Musto explains in The Attack on Higher Education (2021), monasteries were the center of English intellectual and religious life. They were innovators that developed new ideas. But, following the dissolution acts of 1535 and 1539, “the monasteries’ daily routines, chants, liturgical hours, processions, rituals, instructions, and labors concentrated in particular places simply ceased to exist.”
Could the same happen to universities?
It’s already happening. Today, we walk among the ruins of an institution that once had a larger purpose. It’s not clear what role universities should play in society, and to what or to whom they are accountable, other than their corporate interests.
To some, that’s not a problem, at least according to Arthur Levine and Scott J. Van Pelt in The Great Upheaval (2021). They see higher education undergoing the same transformation that reshaped the music, film, and newspaper industries. Rather than place-based education overseen by tenured professors, they anticipate “the rise of anytime, anyplace, consumer-driven content and source agnostic, unbundled, personalized education paid for by subscription.”
Between Musto’s existential fears of disruption and Levine and Van Pelt’s embrace of it lies a third path. It takes the form of a wager — outlined by Ronald J. Daniels in What Universities Owe Democracy (2021) — that universities can and should continue to matter because of their importance in civic democratic life.
How did we get here? Under globalization, the modern university lost its referent, as Bill Readings wrote in his book The University in Ruins (1996). By this, Readings meant that the university no longer understood “the end and meaning of its activities.” Universities had once connected the education they offered to preparing citizens and the knowledge they produced to serving national interests and “uphold[ing] national prestige.”
But today, these purposes no longer animate our institutions. Even in 1996, Readings concluded that the university no longer functioned as “an ideological apparatus of the nation-state.” Instead, he warned, it had become “a relatively independent bureaucratic system.” It is this context that makes the wager Daniels offers in What Universities Owe Democracy so urgent.
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