Imagining the University by Ronald Barnett

Simon Blackburn on higher education via a postmodern lens

January 31, 2013

Ronald Barnett is dissatisfied with current arguments about what a university is, or should be, or should become. He reasonably sees these arguments as clustered around a few ideas: the entrepreneurial university, beloved of politicians; the commodified university, which is much the same idea but as described by critics; the civic or public goods university; and finally the university as a “kind of ultra-debating society”, which is how Barnett rather uncharitably interprets the views of Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas. He thinks that we need to expand this anaemic range of thoughts.

First, however, we are to expand our vocabularies. This is a technique the author may have learned from thinkers whom he references, such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and their progeny. So: becoming-fully-university, developmental emergence, ideational complexity, imaginative fecundity, planes of university being, positive possibilism, practical spaciousness, realisable feasible utopias, societal transactionality, university-in- itself, university-for-itself and university-for-the-world are just some of the terms scattered in the text and displayed in the glossary. Alongside these, Barnett plunges us into an orgy of adjectives for his planes of university being. So we get the accessible university, the anarchic university, the borderless university, and so on through collaborative, congested, corporate, corrupt, creative, dialogic, digital, ecological, liquid, multi-modal and performative, to socialist, soulless, technologico-Benthamite, theatrical and translucent. Unfortunately, missing are the verbose university, the jargon-ridden university and the let’s-rape-the-English-language university.

In this kind of writing, dislocations of grammatical categories are also de rigueur, so, for instance, “knowledge” is used mainly as an adjective, while “imaginary” has become a noun. After such linguistic fecundity it is disappointing to find that some everyday words, such as “education”, “scholarship”, “history” or “civilization”, are rather sadly absent from the subject index. It may be that in this happy postmodernist or po-po-mo heaven they could only be used in sneer quotes, so it was kindest to avoid them altogether.

All this could perhaps be forgiven if there were enchantments in the forest, or a nice living mouse at the end of the mountainous labours. So what is the take-home message, what does Barnett advise for universities? What we need, he tells us, is to think about universities more imaginatively. But we must also be realistic.

And that’s about it. Vice-chancellors and ministers of education and registrars and everyone else should indeed try not to be unimaginative and yet to be realistic. Excellent. This splendid nostrum works equally well when you are choosing a holiday or what to wear or eat: be sure to think of the possibilities, but rule out the ones that are not feasible. Look at the stars, but keep your feet on the ground. Unfortunately, as advice it is apt to irritate rather than to change practices: nobody engaged in a serious discussion, for instance about whether to close the humanities departments (or about where to go on holiday, or what to wear or eat) is going to be much helped by an injunction to be both imaginative and realistic. Who are the sinners who will admit that they need this advice?

Bishop Berkeley complained about the “horrid vice of abstraction”, and here we have it flying high and wide. Myself, I think universities are about educating a new generation into procedures of understanding, reason, analysis and explanation in many different domains. And if you want to know what that involves, sign up for a course.

Imagining the University

By Ronald Barnett

Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 188pp, £100 and £29.99

ISBN 9780415672023 and 2047

Published 11 December 2012

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