“We do not influence the course of events by persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard as radical proposals. Rather, we exert influence by keeping options available when something has to be done at a time of crisis” Milton Friedman, “Two Lucky People” (1998) quoted by Dougald Hine in “The End of the University as we know it?” (27 Jan 2011)
I’ll admit I was startled when Dougald, whom I know via his work with Dark Mountain (and in an unlikely series of coincidences, briefly played in a band with on Teesside in the early 90s) announced his intention to quote favourably from neo-liberal pin-up Milton Friedman. But when he shared the quote with me, I immediately understood why.
It is a beautiful encapsulation of the nature of resistance to orthodoxy, at the very basic level of ensuring that an alternative to the orthodoxy remains within – as a undertone – the ongoing public discussion. Where an idea seems to prevail, Friedman’s counsel suggests that an all-out attack on the idea is not as effective as something more subtle.
I was reminded of this as I read (at the recommendation of Mark Johnson) Roland Bartlett’s “Imagining the University” (Routledge 2013). I heard echoes in passages such as:
“What is striking about [the] conceptual journey that the idea of the university has undergone – over nearly one thousand years – is that it has gradually shrunk. Whereas the metaphysical university was associated with the largest themes of humanities self-understanding and relationships with the world, the idea of the university has increasingly – and now especially in its entrepreneurial and corporate incarnations – closed in. The entrepreneurial university is expected to fend for itself, and attend to its potential impact on particular segments of the economy, and become distinctive. This university has abandoned any pretence to be associated with universal themes.” (p2)
The shrinkage of the idea of the university, most notable in the past 30 years, has led to the framing of all possible discourses around the university in terms of “impact” and “viability”. Even the alternatives to Bartlett’s “entrepreneurial” university are assessed in terms of their impact – in terms of what immediate and tangible benefit that they can offer – even as (again in Bartlett’s arresting words) “feasible utopias”.
In Christopher Grey’s wonderful account of the organisational structure of Bletchley Park (something with I continually refer to with joy) he illustrates wonderfully the idea of an idea enclosing and defining a discourse:
“In a similar way [a] history of the Home Guard notes that it proved impossible to write that history without extensive reference to the popular television comedy ‘Dad’s Army‘ because this had so heavily inflected cultural memory and understanding of the topic. This is a very particular and perhaps extreme example, but it is illustrative of the more general significance of the interpretation and re-interpretation of the war in subsequent decades” (pp116-117)
Once you have defined the terms of the debate, it is difficult to avoid dominating it. Culture is riven with such shibboleths, commonplace interpretations and references. And it is these, far more than the facts of any given field, that dominate it.
The stories we tell are far more important that any mere facts, and the stories we contribute to need to be treated as narratives to which richness and delight must be added rather than fictions to be quashed.
In the UK, we’ve just lived through a concerted and deliberate attempt to define Margaret Thatcher as a universally admired national hero. At first the long-witheld joy (and yes, it feels wrong to define it as joy, so successful has been the narrative engineering) felt by so many who have struggled so long against everything she and her ideology stood for was quashed by an instruction to think of the feelings of her family (respectively a fraud who attempted to destabilise a sovereign state and a quasi-celebrity racist). Then, after an unprecedented 7 hours of Parliamentary eulogies (Churchill, an equally fishy and divisive character – who argued against universal suffrage, lest we forget – was only afforded 40 minutes) we were told it was not a time for party political point-scoring!
The lasting effects of the resistance to this will not be the protests at the cortege or the street party in Glasgow, it will be the open and public commentary of thousands of ordinary people – on social media and to each other. Our Mass Observation project will be soliciting diaries on 12th May 2013 – I can only urge people who care to write about Thatcher and what they felt at her passing. The recently released (JISC-funded, no less!) archives from the 80s are equally illuminating as a definition of a serious and politically active 80s light-years away from yuppies and electro-pop.
An owned discursive space is a striated and predefined space, where even resistance is a codified reinforcement of the dominant position. The “riots” against Thatcher became a part of her canonisation by the British establishment – a signifier that those who opposed her opposed all forms of public decency and order. Thinking again about the narratives of the future of the universities, Bartlett suggests:
“Is not academic life across the world increasingly striated [after Deleuze and Guattari] , with severe limits placed upon it and entreated to run its course in certain directions. [...] “No nomadism here” might be the sign over the university’s entrance.” (P103)
A long way from the Abbey at Thélème! Rabelais inscribed the rather more permissive “Do What Thou Wilt” as the one abiding rule governing the intellectual and pleasurable pursuits of his novitiates. And Newman, in his “Idea of the University” suggested
“An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” (Discourse 5)
Newman saw knowledge holistically as a set of narratives that intermeshed – there were none of the constraining striations that Bartlett warns against. Any attempt to limit this “Liberal” education would lessen its impact. And the striations do limit the impact of what universities are doing and are able to conceive doing.
My “feasible utopia” would be an unconstrained, Newman-esque academy. But I’m not quite naive enough to think that going around demanding one is going to get me any way towards it actually existing.
I’ve not been using all these scholarly references to show off how smart, or how widely read, I am. I’ve been using them because they are a helpful way of structuring and scaffolding an argument I am building. The argument I am building is that resistance, that critique, that just preserving the idea of another way, is valuable in itself. I’m able to build it because I am lucky enough to have had the chance to exist and grow, briefly, in an unstriated space and to have been astute enough to recognise this at the time.
To even recognise the critical basis of an attack on the university as unsustainable and unviable is to empower the attack. A final point from Bartlett:
“[In] an instrumental age, any serious exercise of the imagination has to face the jibe ‘But you are not living in the real world’. The proponents of this view fail, of course, to recognise that their reference to the “real world” is question-begging, for what is to count as “the real world”? Is “the real world” the contemporary world, with its gross inequalities, its distruction of the natural environment, its diminishing of the humanities (as it gives the highest marks to the sciences and science and mathematics-based technologies and its valuing of higher education only insofar as higher education yields a return in the knowledge economy? The imagination, in other words, may be working to bring about a different “real world” (p31)
If you accept the premis that an alternative has to be grounded in the “real world”, you’ve lost. Those arguing for the “entrepreneurial university” and the like are arguing – as Baudrillard put it “neither in a logic of war, nor a logic of peace, but a logic of deterrence.” Later, he continues “We are no longer in the logic of the passage from virtual to actual but in a hyperreal logic of the deterrence of the real by the virtual”.
This idea of the “real world”, as I’ve gone over again and again on these posts, is a pointillist idea that does not bear close inspection. The people arguing that we must take account of the reality do not live in it, because it simply does not exist.
And I may perhaps be excused for not building my arguments on the meagre and constrained dreams of our ruling class. And I may instead work on substituting, artfully and subtly, our dreams for theirs in the collective reinterpretation of our lived history.
“I decided I wasn’t coming here again.I went to the pub.’They were all singing, all of ‘em.[...] ‘oh, some song they’d learned from the jukebox.’And I thought, “Just what the frig am I trying to do? Why don’t I just pack it in, stay here and join in with the singin’?” [...] I did join in the singing, but when I turned around,me mother had stopped singin’, and she was cryin’.I said, “Why are you crying, Mother?” And she said, “There must be better songs to sing than this.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do, isn’t it?” Sing a better song.” (Educating Rita)