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Tuesday 18 March 2014

Essay: Some Doubts about Universities and the Humanities

I have always had my doubts about universities. If you take the long view, they have rarely encouraged scientific enquiry or tolerance of different opinions. Often enough, they have not been so very different from overtly theological seminaries which don’t even pretend to value Science or Toleration. Both universities and seminaries recruit from the same age groups and – until very, very recently – they have only been interested in recruiting those biologically sexed as male.  The teachers have been even more exclusively male, often with a requirement of Celibacy or (what used to be called) Bachelorhood. In the long view, the history of a university like Oxford makes you wonder why we bother. 

It’s easy to think that things have changed and it is not like the bad old days. I’m not so sure and I’m not so sure it could be otherwise.

Ironically, it is in those countries and cultures which appear most attached to the values of Truth and Tolerance that sceptical (“deconstructionist”), relativist (anti – “humanist”) and anti-realist (anti – “essentialist”) theories have been in vogue among university teachers who then – unable to appeal to any notions of Truth or Right – substitute Disapproval or Outrage for any kind of considered Judgement on the ill-considered opinions of their students or the misguided views of colleagues who shouldn’t be.

I’m thinking about places like Literature Departments in British and American universities, bursting at the seams with young seminarians anxiously working out what they must say to please their professors.

Of course, the kinds of science in which Literature departments could engage are not the same as those deployed by the Physics departments, though there may be some overlap. As places where Texts are read, the essential discipline for a Literature student is the ability to pay attention to the Text. From there, it’s possible to go on to respond to and Interpret it in an indefinite number of ways – as Comic, Tragic or Pornographic; as the Expression of a personality, as the (witting or unwitting) vehicle for an Ideology, as belonging to a Tradition, as embodying a distinctive Voice, as in (acknowledged or unconscious) Dialogue with other Texts – and so on and so forth. As you respond and Interpret, so the Text itself may re-focus: you notice things you didn’t notice the first time round. So Interpretation has no obvious end (as the deconstructionists would agree), though it may approach it asymptotically by which I mean that sometimes we exhaust the plausible possibilities and supposed new interpretations seem arbitrary and forced.

At their worst (and this is not something new), a course in a Literature department is about putting a text through a Grinder. In the past, it was sometimes a Marxist Grinder - made bearable by the introduction of a distinction between “Naturalist” novels which were politically correct but, unfortunately, boring and “Realist” novels which were bourgeois but much more fun. Today, the Grinder is more likely to be some version of Deconstructionism-cum-Feminism-cum-Queer-Theory. Whether these new theories accommodate a distinction between Boring and Fun I don’t know, which is probably a bad sign.

The Grinders are products of the university system, not of great Theorists or Theories. They are ways of making it possible for students to write term papers and for the term papers to be sufficiently alike for tutors to grade them. 

There seems an in-built tendency for the Grinders to produce essays which read less like (literary) Criticism and more like (political) Denunciation – or, occasionally, Endorsement, though I think  it’s harder (maybe intrinsically harder) to write an A grade essay for saying nice things about a book.

I think we might get better work done in the humanities and some of the social sciences without the seminaries. If people want to read books together, there can be evening classes, book clubs, residential weekends. We don’t really need the big bureaucracies, the professional career structure and the clubs of like-minded people giving each other a leg up.

In recent years, some of the best books I have read are the work of very clever people who haven’t followed the career path into university teaching but, instead, have become political activists or bankers or serious journalists.

I will mis-use a tripartite classification from Roland Barthes. Writers have no future as writers if they can’t write. Intellectuals need ideas - a vision even - or else no one will listen. But Professors can advance in their careers and hang their hats on a decent pension though quite unable to write and pretty much devoid of ideas. They have the power to make generations of students labour over unreadable and soon-to-be-demoted books which in a free world would be left unread and never promoted in the first place.

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