I originally wrote about this book here in very late July. I was, at the time, still reading the book. And, I was controlling my urge to use the words reading, readings, and every single similar word I could come up with, in pointing to the silliness of things.
The book, though, is quite serious. It begins with a discussion of the many ways the modern university and (and by implication) the modern college were created simultaneously with the nation-state. So, the point in many ways was to create the national citizen -- and/or the national culture. The university of culture, as he calls it, was meant to create autonomous (paradoxically) subjects of the state through their immersion in culture of that same state. (Hence the rise of English departments . . . . and much else.) This university has met its end, as has the nation state. In its place, there is what Reading sees as the vacuous university of excellence. Excellence in what, you ask? Who cares, Reading says, says the contemporary university. As long as it is excellent we do not care what it is. Hmmm.
As he addresses this, Readings raises such questions as:
(1) how can we have accountability (and responsibiity) without reducing it to accounting per se and thus evaluate through a means that trivializes what we do?
(2) what is the "scene of pedagogy" in a post-historical university? If it is not to create little reproductions of the professor (alas, many of us pre-dating the demise of the institutions within which we work, and pretending to re-create it in our own image), what is teaching for? If we, today, celebrate difference -- and community is under significant critique - what are we actually doing if we are not creating generic individuals or communities of inquiry?
(3) what does it mean to focus on doing justice to topics within the context of today's university rather than pursuing a single, eternal truth?
4) when Readings uses phrases that are immensely tantalizing, like the community of dissensus, what might that be? Could Shimer be a community of dissensus? Might it be?
And, of course, Readings refuses to see the university as ideal in any way. And, in this he refuses much -- the image of the university as a form of society that represents what democracy strives for, for example. He notes that the demise of the university and its transformation into bureaucracy for an unknown purpose comes with the consequence that, since a value is critique (like excellence with no content), leftists risk finding a home, a meaningless one at that, in the University of Excellence, which takes pride in including all. Even its own enemies. And markets itself on this point.
A complex point here is this: if (as I believe) our institutions ought model what we espouse in our curricula, how can we avoid espousing a form of bureaucratic accounting (for example) rather than doing justice to the complexities of living (and learning) in a world of many meanings?
Perhaps my favorite quotations wil give you some insight:
P. 145: "The history of an institution is persistently marked by the structural contradictions of its founding."
P. 154: "Teaching thus becomes answerable to the question of justice, rather than the criteria of truth. We must seek to do justice to teaching rather than to know what it is."
Page 172: (in the context of an analogy between university and city) "The question that is raised by the analogy is how we can do somethng other than offer ourselves up for tourism: the humanities as cultural manicure, the social sciences as travelogue, the ntural sciences as the frisson of real knowledge and large toys."
And I admit it: I love the way readings links (as I think others have elsewhere) education as an interminable process to . . . . well, Freud's "Analysis Terminable and Interminable." (See p. 159) I also love his argument that the point is THOUGHT -- and THOUGHT as about questions -- and pedagpgy as all about relationship and, even more, a network of obligations. (p. 158). Perhaps even more intriguing are the ways Readings thinks through the change from national broadcasting companies to narrowcasting aimed at particular demographics and the multiplication of channels (p. 142). Now, there is a marketing analogy.
Theer is more to say. But I ought to stop. So I shall. Read Readings perhaps?