The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Book Reviews

More Than a Historical Accident

An update on the travails of the university

Chad Wellmon

State Library of Australia, Fairy Duff; flickr.

What distinguishes the university from other sources of knowledge in an age of Google and Wikipedia?

On October 1, 2010, the President of the State University of New York, Albany, George M. Philip, announced the closure of the French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater programs. As liberal arts faculty members from across the country lodged their protests, Philip insisted that he had no other choice. Faced with declining state support, his university could no longer afford luxuries like small foreign literature or fine arts departments. In an age of economic uncertainty, the university could no longer lay claim to a privileged position. Like any other institution, it had to be held accountable to market demands and immediate social needs. As Stanley Fish put it in his New York Times blog, the long anticipated crisis of the university had finally arrived. The Great Recession and the more urgent demands for economic accountability and value that followed in its wake would, it seemed, turn the liberal arts university into a glorified trade school. The university of critical inquiry and self-discovery was on the verge of collapse.

Over the past two decades, Fish, a Milton scholar turned public spokesman for the university, has chronicled the travails of the university in the clearest of terms. Whereas most justify the university through appeals to its economic or social utility, Fish argues that the only way to defend the university is to tell the centuries- old story of the university on its own terms—that is, the story of an institution that is self-regulating, autonomous, and internally coherent. Unlike other modern institutions, the university is a system unto itself and thus incommensurate with the market and its values. It is an “integral unity with its own history, projects and goals; goals that at times intersect with the more general goals of the culture at large, and at times don’t” (New York Times, 18 October 2010).

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