Monday, December 20, 2010

Terry Eagleton on the Death of Universities

My favorite literary critic and professional role model Terry Eagleton has just published a brilliant article (and when did he ever publish anything that wasn't absolutely spectacular?) on the death of higher education. Whenever I read Eagleton, I feel both admiration and resentment because he says exactly what I always wanted to say but so much better than I ever could:
Are the humanities about to disappear from our universities? The question is absurd. It would be like asking whether alcohol is about to disappear from pubs, or egoism from Hollywood. Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.
Eagleton is writing about the university's decline in Great Britan, but the same can be said about the United States. Just substitute Reagan for Thatcher and you'll see how much everything he says is relevant to this country as well:
What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. We will not change this simply by increasing state funding of the humanities as opposed to slashing it to nothing. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud. In the end, the humanities can only be defended by stressing how indispensable they are; and this means insisting on their vital role in the whole business of academic learning, rather than protesting that, like some poor relation, they don't cost much to be housed.
I couldn't agree more that the efforts to convince the corporate administrators that we don't cost that much and that universities can afford us is useless and counter-productive. We don't have to justify our existence. The administrators should justify theirs to us.


eric said...

Eagleton is right, as he usually is (except for when he was knocking PoMo back in the '80's!). For me, the humanities is a state of mind, and not tied to any particular research program. I "do" humanities every time I crack into my tattered copy of Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" on the bus ride home, or critique something I read in the newspaper or see on the tube, and yes, when I reply to a blog post. The humanities don't particularly need universities, but universities definitely need the humanities!

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Angie Harms. said...

Hi Clarissa. I'm a relatively new reader. Love your blog and will be commenting more in the future, I'm sure. Just have a quick question with regard to Terry Eagleton: do you have reviews anywhere of his books that you could link me to? I'd love to read more of what you have to say about him and his work. Cheers and happy holidays!

Clarissa said...

Welcome to the blog, Angie! To find reviews of Eagleton's books you just need to enter his name into Search This Blog box that's located on the right panel of the blog.
I'd link to them, but I'm on the road right now and can't do that from my cell phone.