How should American universities – and those influenced by them in other countries – rise to the challenges of consumerism, anti-intellectualism and racial politics?
Those were just some of the topics explored in a panel discussion, held in partnership with Times Higher Education, at the recent Battle of Ideas weekend in London.
Michele Moody-Adams, Joseph Strauss professor of political philosophy and legal theory at Columbia University, described “the academic values we celebrate” in universities, including “intellectual experimentation, a willingness to engage with transformative ideas, the patience for scholarship and research for its own sake”.
These were now undoubtedly at odds with a number of “important cultural trends” such as traditional American anti-intellectualism, the model of student as consumer and “an atomistic individualism which celebrates suffering and victimisation – you’re no one till somebody wounds you”.
Dana Mills, a visiting fellow at New York University and Bard College, took up the theme of consumerism. When she taught at the University of Oxford, she said, she was often left very upset at the end of tutorials touching on topics central to her political and feminist activism. Yet “the rise of fees” meant that her students were “unwilling to be upset”.
Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, argued that “we need to resist a culture which flattens out core academic values. The signs are far more dangerous than anything I’ve experienced in 40 years.”
When travelling in the US, he found that “students are encouraged to leave behind their critical thinking and intellectual experimentation. I sometimes feel that my belief in judgement makes people regard me as a kind of pervert. It is seen as crucial to be non-judgemental…The possibility of creating an academic community is becoming more difficult – and we are seeing increasing segregation by race, gender and sexuality.”
Lindsay Johns, a fellow at the Hutchins Centre for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, said although he was a keen supporter of the Black Lives Matter campaign and attempts to expand the literary canon, he was strongly opposed to calls to “decolonise” it.
On one occasion, Mr Johns recalled, he had praised a South African writer as “the black Dickens”, and was told off on the grounds that “we have our own canon [of writing]”. Yet instead of assuming that “black people can only relate” to certain kinds of writing, they should embrace “the intellectual patrimony of all mankind...All my black heroes used the canon to critique the canon.”
The session, titled “What’s Happened to the University? Lessons from America”, continued with Professor Moody-Adams asking Professor Furedi: “Why are black tables and dormitories a bad thing when we’ve long had racist fraternities and sororities?”
She also echoed Mr Johns’ point about the need to challenge the accepted literary canon from within.
Her own PhD had been partly inspired by a footnote in which the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, stated that black people were just parrots and could never be real scholars. There was only one response: “I’ll show you, David Hume!”