Critical comeback

February 28, 2013

Having been away of late, I am only now able to respond to Simon Blackburn’s review of my book Imagining the University (“Creative steps to po-po-mo heaven”, 31 January).

First, the role of any reviewer is surely to provide a summary of the book’s contents, but Blackburn doesn’t really offer that. (A non-technical summary is set out in the book’s introduction in the form of 15 theses.)

Second, Blackburn rather misconstrues the argument. The “orgy of adjectives” is not my own but is my identification of different terms depicting the university that are to be found in the literature and which I critique in the book.

Third, Blackburn informs readers that dislocations of grammatical categories are common in the book, “knowledge” being mainly used as an adjective while “imaginary” becomes a noun. The first example is mistaken; the second is curious, to say the least. Blackburn seems either not to know or to care that both Jean-Paul Sartre and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor have used “imaginary” as a noun (and done so in the titles of books of theirs). In Imagining the University, I draw on their meanings of “imaginary”, as well as making a distinction between it and “imagination”. Being charitable, Blackburn is at best misguided here.

Fourth, Blackburn suggests that “universities are about educating a new generation”. Some might think that they are about rather more than that, including research and contributions to wider society. However, a matter that Imagining the University seeks to address is the future development of such institutions: that this is not picked up in the review could be said to be indicative of a certain complacency on the reviewer’s part.

Finally, there is no intimation in Blackburn’s review that he is aware of the literature on the university or on higher education. I do not apologise for the use of some technical terms in the book, but to suggest that it is marked by abstraction is unfair. I believe that a reader opening it at random would be met by an accessible prose (described as “elegant” in a recent THE column).

Ronald Barnett
Emeritus professor of higher education
Institute of Education, University of London

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