Printer Friendly

Response to Bill Readings.

I MET BILL READINGS in January of 1993 when he invited me to talk to a class of his at the University of Montreal. Even as we tramped through the nasty blizzard that hit the city just as I arrived, I was charmed by Bill's quick mind and his wonderful wit, which at times took on a delightfully Monty Pythonesque quality. I was looking forward to writing this response to his superb essay as a sort of letter to Bill. I'm deeply saddened now to know that he will never read it.

Bill Readings's essay makes a distinguished contribution to a discussion that has been going on for a century now on how modern higher education can come to stand for something more than its own bureaucratic and administrative processes. As Readings wittily notes, "the American university faculty has been defined as a loose association of people united by a common interest in parking." Can the university represent anything more? And if so, what?

Judging from the disproportion between the massive quantities of ink expended on this question and the few new ideas they have produced, the number of available options is limited. On the one hand, we have those like Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind who argue that the modern university can transcend triviality and incoherence only by resuming to the unifying tradition embodied in the classic texts--as interpreted by themselves. On the other hand, we have those who argue that education can right itself only by adopting the liberatory program of the cultural left, which helpfully offers to "empower" students whether they want to be empowered or not.

These diametrically opposed prescriptions for saving the university increasingly tend to look alike, amounting in most cases to the declaration that "The problems will be solved if they will only shut up or disappear and everyone will agree with us." Since the opposing theys show no sign of shutting up or disappearing (and since neither side seems able to liquidate the other), the clashing prescriptions have left things in a state of general paralysis punctuated by periodic attempted coups that only further heat up the antagonism.

A third option, the one I have been advocating, is to recognize that a consensus on the disputed questions is unlikely any time soon and to make use of the most edifying controversies themselves as a principle of curricular coherence. The assumption here is that the only consensus necessary is on the need to make education more coherent and intellectually challenging for students. That is, when dealing with a student body which has perennially been ill at ease with intellectual culture as such (regardless of which side gets to draw up the reading list), the first priority should be to help those students enter intellectual debates rather than to win final victories in them. I will have more to say about this option presently, since Bill has reservations about it.

A fourth option, finally, is to reject the idea that the university needs "coherence" and declare good riddance on the collapse of all unifying metanarratives. Bill seems tempted by this last option but not finally happy with it. He opens with the trenchant observation that the American culture wars are "one symptom of the fact that the decline of the nation-state as the primary instance of capitalism's self-reproduction has effectively voided the social mission of the modern University." He says that "the strong idea of 'culture' arises with the nation-state, and we now face its disappearance as the locus of social meaning."

This seems to me a helpful way to put the problem, though somewhat Canadianocentric. Unlike in Canada and Europe, the idea of the nation-state never effectively took hold in United States universities, despite strenuous attempts to enforce it. It is symptomatic that when the Greek and Roman classics gave way to the study of national literatures in American schools and colleges at the turn of the century, it was English literature and not the native literature of the United States that was institutionalized at the center of the humanities curriculum. Even when American literature won curricular and scholarly respectability after World War I, it failed to displace English literature from center stage, and the very phrase "native literature of the United States" continued to seem something of a contradiction in terms until the triumph of American world power after World War II.

In fact, the idea of a university as "a loose association of people united by a common interest in parking" would not have been particularly shocking to American academics as early as the turn of the century (or would not have been, had automobiles existed). The early literature on universities abounds with jokes of exactly this kind, and Robert Maynard Hutchins literally dined out on such jokes during his presidency at the University of Chicago.

Such historical considerations aside, however, I fully agree with what Bill is getting at, that we now need a kind of thinking "that does not seek to lend work in the university a unified ideological function." I agree that we need to "reimagine the notion of community itself," and that such a project implies "a dissensual community that has relinquished the regulatory ideal of communicational transparency."

But what Bill finally proposes-a proliferation of "new spaces" resulting in an "archipelago of minor activities"--seems to me little more than a redescription of the already existing state of affairs. Indeed, Bill himself seems to recognize that it is the vacuum created by such decentered spaces that has enabled bureaucracy and its pseudo-meanings to become the dominant metanarrative of the university. That is, a university that can do no better than go on proliferating an incoherent mass of small stories leaves only bureaucratic administration to write the overall story. Bill's Lyotardian suspicion of anything that would smack of another grand story seems to prevent him from formulating a real alternative.

What about making the clashing stories themselves into a new principle of coherence? Bill says that my own arguments for "teaching the conflicts" have been animated by "a desire for final consensus, a consensus that would permit the determination and transmission of 'the conflict' as an object of professorial discourse." The charge that I harbor a "desire for final consensus" leaves me at a bit of a loss, since I am frequently reproached these days by both the right and the left for not having enough of that desire, for lapsing, that is, into mere relativism or liberal pluralism. I like to think I have about as much desire for consensus as the next person, but the question seems to me somewhat beside the point, since, as I see it, educating more effectively would require not a consensus but a clarification of the issues for students. Educational institutions do not have to get agreement on disputed issues in order to make clearer to their constituencies what they are talking and arguing about. That this still remains largely mysterious is a serious problem at a moment when higher education desperately needs to convince the public and government officials that it is worth supporting financially.

I imagine Bill would retort that "clarification" is not a neutral or "transparent" term: whose clarification are we talking about? What would count as a clarification for Lynne Cheney would be a mystification for bell hooks, and vice versa. This is no doubt the case, but this is the pedagogical point: when clarifications compete, the ones different students will choose will be different, but the important thing is that clarifications be available to them. To put it another way, there exists enough common discourse between Cheney and hooks to permit the reasons why these two are at odds to become intelligible to students and other third parties. Neither I nor Bill could have described the incommensurability of such discourses if no such metadiscourse were possible.

Bill, however, argues that "dissensus cannot be institutionalized, because the precondition for such institutionalization would be a secondorder consensus that dissensus is a good thing." I would reply, however, that in an important sense dissensus has already been "institutionalized," as you need only look around at today's educational conflicts to see. The question is not whether dissensus can be institutionalized-where else is it if not imbedded in the academic institution?-but whether it can be institutionalized differently. For me (and I think for Bill) the question is whether dissensus can be institutionalized in a way that does not rigidly circumscribe it but allows it to play itself out in a democratic fashion.

Bill objects that for that outcome to take place would require "a second-order consensus that dissensus is a good thing." But then, it does not seem so unreasonable to expect such a consensus in a culture that has let the present noisy level of dissensus become established. Somebody must think dissensus is a pretty good thing, or why have contemporary universities come to harbor so much of it?

I believe it makes a difference here whether we think about these problems pedagogically and pragmatically, as problems of administrative and curricular strategy, or theoretically (as I think Bill does), as problems of philosophical incommensurability. As I have suggested, it should not be necessary to reconcile or synthesize the incommensurable perspectives represented in the academic curriculum in order to help students make better sense than they now do of their courses. In other words, there is no reason to fear a commonality of discourse if this is seen not as a final philosophical solution aimed at closure, but as a local or contingent pedagogical imperative aimed at helping students sort things out.

Bill's challenge to my argument is a version of the question I am frequently asked when I urge that universities "teach the conflicts," namely: "Who will decide which conflicts we are going to teach?" This question indeed leads to an unresolvable impasse if considered philosophically, but not if we look about and ask how we decide now to which conflicts students will be exposed, that is, which conflicts are already represented in the disciplines and courses offered at a given moment. If "who decides" is a problem, it is not more of one for a conflict curriculum than for what we have now.

To put it less abstractly, the university is already "teaching the conflicts" now every time a student goes from a humanities course to a science course, or from a course taught by a social constructionist to one taught by an essentialist. The choice is not between teaching the conflicts and not doing so, but between teaching the conflicts well or badly.

Bill concludes that "if we do not try to pose the question of how to think in the humanities without reference to the idea of culture, then the bureaucracy will answer it for us." Alas, I think the bureaucracy will answer that question for us even if the humanities do pose it without reference to the idea of culture, as it has been doing in the United States, at least, where the idea of culture lost its coherence almost a century ago. The only way the humanities can speak more effectively for themselves is by clarifying the debate about culture, and the place to do this where it will matter is in the curriculum itself.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:response to article in this issue, p. 465
Author:Graff, Gerald
Publication:New Literary History
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Previous Article:The university without culture?
Next Article:The future of literary studies?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |