So, I said some time ago that I would post on this book, The University in Ruins. It is taking me ages to read, so you may hear from me on this topic more than once. I am just starting chapter 8 (of 12).
First, a few minor things. One impressive thing about this book is that Bill Readings died in the midst of writing it and a pal completed it. That is one impressive friendship. And, a good reminder that a community of thinkers is key to all of us. And, certainly to Shimer. Also, Readings has taught in the US (at Syracuse) and in Canada. So, yes, he is binational!
Second: the book's premise is very intriguing. The main thesis is that the university (in its modern form) was created in a way that was inextricably linked to the nation state, and thus as the nation state has declined (in the face of, say, the rise of multinational corporations), the role of universities in instantiating national culture has . . . . disappeared. What has replaced it? The ubiquitous, but empty, quest for excellence. Here, excellence is basically not defined and vacuous.
This makes more sense to me than I want to admit. Everywhere one looks, one sees mission statements and vision statements aspiring to excellence. There are no modifiers to the word -- and thus the excellence can seem empty. It is unspecific. Excellence in dentistry (something I value) and excellence in the humanities (another value of mine) and excellence in . . . . . traffic control and . . . . you name it, we want excellence. No one strives for mediocrity (obviously) but can we all be excellent? In a world where excellence has come to substitute for much else, perhaps.
Readings argument includes attention to crucial texts like Humboldt and Kant on education as well as the creation of German, English and US universities. I find the book very smart (though I am reading Readings very slowly -- just had to say that). I like it perhaps because I come across statements I might have made myself. For example:
"University mission statements, like their publicity brochures, share two distinctive features nowadays. On the one hand, they all claim that theirs is a unique educational institution. On the other hand, they all go on to describe this uniqueness in exactly the same way." (Readings, The University in Ruins, Harvard University Press, p. 12).
I will write more on this later -- but here we have the pressure toward sameness ensured by markey capitalisms of some sorts -- and the pressure to differentiate ensured by that same market capitalism -- congealed into a very big challenge for all of us, including Shimer. A key is not to claim uniqueness where it is not, and to make uniqueness comprehensible where is is. Hmmm.
Responses? More later!
Meanwhile, here is a review of the book that emphasizes the way the vacuousness of excellence comes with the emptyng and equating of marginalized people (such that all are somehow alike. Here, Readings goes for the notion of singularity rather than the subject. And, in the book he also takes on the role of Cultural Studies.) Here is a response from Gerald Graff whose work Readings takes on. And here is a summary on vimeo just in case reading Readings is not on your immediate agenda.