coromandal


The eccentric, brilliant, and impractical
January 21, 2019, 4:51 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Don’t Blink, Lisa Rinzler

The best four years of my middle aged life were spent reading English Literature as an undergraduate. I went on and did a professional degree, which in my mind wasn’t education at all and should be immediately removed from the university and put in a trade school where it belongs. I developed a lifelong love of the humanities from the short introduction I had to it, and know I owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who taught me for their role in introducing us to the histories, stories and ideas that make the foundation of our shared institutions, that nurture our collective imagination, and cement truth and beauty at the center of society and life.

I was aware at the time – the late eighties – of some of the cultural shifts that would a few short decades later completely alter the mission of the humanities. Third Way for instance was a term I learned during my undergrad as a bold bipartisan market based way forward. Exciting! However, no one could have known then the precision and speed with which neo liberal third way would hollow out the liberal arts education starving the core concepts of learning for it’s own sake, for the sake of shared humanism, to allow the imagination to flourish. This movement instrumentalized, quantified and monetized the universities, and the sacred heart of their mission was smothered. Deans, who used to protect the mandate of the colleges, now came in to raise money and, well, the body rotted from the head on down.

In the Baffler book No Future For You is a chapter on the liberalizing of the universities by David Graeber. He describes the result: administrative work has replaced study, research and teaching; administrators outnumber professors; corporate management techniques have led to competition instead of collegiality; study and teaching has been replaced by selling: books, grant applications, faculty, and the university itself; true creative work has been replaced by a sort of stenography. There are no new works of social theory and the eccentric and brilliant are denied tenure and languish in obscurity.

It’s time to declare: we want our universities back.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber, No Future For You, The Baffler


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