The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, by Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth

Thomas Docherty on a study of the academy today and working conditions

April 9, 2015

One of the greatest scandals besetting the higher education sector worldwide is that even as tuition fees rocket, the position of those teaching becomes less secure and less formally legitimised. This book explores the consequences of that scandal. It starts by exposing the prevailing mythic versions of “humanities in crisis” to show that the real crisis lies in the steady downgrading of the status of university teachers. Shockingly, 70 per cent of all academic staff teaching in the US, this book’s primary focus of interest, are “contingent”; in other words, not on tenure track, or adjunct – our UK-based equivalent would be the graduate teacher, often on a zero-hours contract.

This is scandalous not just in itself, but also because of its percussive effects. First, that 70 per cent find themselves structurally inhibited with regard to academic and other freedoms: their precarious future depends on conformity with the demands of those who hold the purse strings. Second, with tuition fees rising inexorably and students encouraged to see themselves as customers, this 70 per cent cannot afford to say or do anything that will be “upsetting” to students. Third, the activity of thinking itself might occasionally be upsetting, since it sometimes forces us to change our minds about cherished beliefs, and so the very intellectual foundation of the institution is endangered. Fourth, this reverberates across the entire institution and affects its every activity with the consequence that academic freedom and its objective correlative – democracy – is endangered.

This important book lays out the detail of this state of affairs. Michael Bérubé’s opening section draws on Peter Singer’s arguments on the status of thinking – cognitive capability – as a marker of our human being. In a brilliant analysis, Bérubé demonstrates the fallacy of establishing some specific standard of cognitive capacity as normative, and uses that to show that the humanities, unlike all conservative positions, are concerned firmly with the extensions of thinking and the disruptions that that brings.

Having thereby shifted the usual extraordinarily narrowed terrain of the argument in which the humanities justify themselves in terms of economic growth, Bérubé and his co-author Jennifer Ruth follow through the logic of a condition in which the majority of teaching is done by the new academic precariat. Their logic is laid out with exemplary clarity and with impressive factual detail. When “contingent” faculty are the majority, the usual rules of professionalisation (tenure) are laid aside and replaced by patronage. Patronage leads to cronyism, corruption and the construction of fiefdoms. Contingent faculty are in effect barred from taking a long-term interest in their institutions and those who retain that interest are in the minority. The loss of shared governance has a knock-on effect at every level; but crucially, it leads to a profound disengagement of the tenured faculty from those shared interests that ought to give us the very identity of our institutions. In the resulting atomised institution, academic freedom is structurally threatened; the prevailing attitude becomes Darwinian, with those who can best adapt to fit themselves to ideological norms – to conform – being those who will survive. Do you recognise the emerging picture? You probably will do, for this is also heading our way. Crisis management is our new norm: a shock doctrine that damages all ethical values and that weakens the academy as a social force for good.

This book has a positive suggestion. It urges the tenured to attend to the contingent, to be rid of precariousness. That logic can be extended: the university itself should attend not just to its students, but also to those who do not or cannot attend: the wider society as a whole. For that, we need to revive the university as a public good.

The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments

By Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth
Palgrave Macmillan, 136pp, £50.00, £13.99
ISBN 9781137506108, 6115 and 6122 (e-book)
Published 1 May 2015

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Reader's comments (1)

I thought this was a third world problem!............I think it is a common problem which must be addressed if the world is to achieve set sustainability goals!

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