The humanities and state funding of higher education

Terry Eagleton penned an eloquent essay on the academic decline of British universities, especially in the humanities. A few passages:

Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism….

Education should indeed be responsive to the needs of society. But this is not the same as regarding yourself as a service station for neocapitalism. In fact, you would tackle society’s needs a great deal more effectively were you to challenge this whole alienated model of learning. Medieval universities served the wider society superbly well, but they did so by producing pastors, lawyers, theologians, and administrative officials who helped to sustain church and state, not by frowning upon any form of intellectual activity that might fail to turn a quick buck….

[A British government that wanted to deal with the debt accumulated by young adults] would also seek to restore the honorable lineage of the university as one of the few arenas in modern society (another is the arts) in which prevailing ideologies can be submitted to some rigorous scrutiny. What if the value of the humanities lies not in the way they conform to such dominant notions, but in the fact that they don’t? There is no value in integration as such. In premodern times, artists were more thoroughly integrated into society at large than they have been in the modern era, but part of what that meant was that they were quite often ideologues, agents of political power, mouthpieces for the status quo. The modern artist, by contrast, has no such secure niche in the social order, but it is precisely on this account that he or she refuses to take its pieties for granted.

A quick aside: I’m not sure how that third quoted paragraph is related to debt, either.

But to return to the main point, Eagleton’s ideal of a university is admirable. But he also misses the irony. He calls for resistance to the private university in Britain, but Oxford and Cambridge seem to be largely privately governed (let me know if I am wrong on this).

There’s a saying that “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next” (attributed here to William Ralph Inge). It seems to me that by and large academics have married themselves to the ever-growing welfare state. Yet they are surprised that, in the age of neoliberalism, which prioritizes cuts and efficiency, politicians don’t see much value in the humanities. After all, how many people or societies want to pay people to criticize them? It’s no wonder that the defense of the humanities falls flat.

Alan Jacobs has pointed to this kind of failure of imagination on his blog, Text Patterns, a couple of times (here and here – do read these short pieces). It is easy to assume that people who share your values will always be in control, and to build your institutions on that assumption. But it’s a pretty precarious assumption, and I think that Eagleton’s article illustrates that.


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