Eagleton on the Death of Universities

Cultural theorist Terry Eagleton in The Guardian on the decline of the humanities in universities and how this undermines the very concept. This post doesn’t mean I’m coming out of retirement — I just liked the concise and concentrated coherence of his piece…

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5 Responses to “Eagleton on the Death of Universities”

  1. kerrjac Says:

    “In the end, the humanities can only be defended by stressing how indispensable they are”

    During the great depression, FDR sunk millions of dollars into farm subsidies, and even outright destroyed farm land, in a failed attempt to raise farm prices. On the contrary, prices continued falling. It is an example of an industry trying to argue that they are indispensable – that their products are of greater value than the public believed.

    Everything is a trade-off. Rather than simply saying that the humanities are important, the topic requires a more careful systemic analysis of why they are losing ground and to whom. Otherwise it is like Bill Gates arguing that Windows is great, or Ken Lay saying that Enron is essential, or FDR saying that people should pay more for wheat.

  2. The Necromancer Says:

    @kerrjac: You make a wonderful rhetorical argument here. Interestingly, rhetoric is essentially a humanistic practice, originally one of the liberal arts, as you doubtless already know. This is the difficulty in arguing for the indispensability of something so deeply embedded in our most basic cultural assumptions.

    Nonetheless, I take your meaning. Though, unlike all the other examples you employ, the humanities are not really an “industry.” In fact, I think this is precisely Eagleton’s point…

  3. kerrjac Says:

    I’d like to recommend a book to you, which I recently started: A History of Modern Times, by Paul Johnson. The book is (so far) an intriguing look at the worldwide events of the 20th century, with a focus on ideas and their underlying reality. He touches on the fad-ideologies of the times pitted against Tocquevillian movements of the masses and the emerging use of empirical science. However, unlike most intellectual histories, Johnson does not convey a smug and neat and tidy view of history. Early in the book, discussing the British empire, he writes,

    “It must not be supposed that already, in 1919, the progressive disintegration of the British Empire was inevitable, indeed foreseeable. There are no inevitabilities in history. That, indeed, will be one of the central themes of this volume”

    Anyway, think you’d like it.

  4. The Necromancer Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I read his The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, which I really liked, but I would be more reticent to accept his interpretation of events closer to this era. His is a generally conservative voice (hence the nostalgia for empire). Perhaps I can offer a counter-recommendation — Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes is a excellent survey of the “short 20th century” (i.e. between the beginning of WW I and the end of the Cold War — 1914 to 1989). Hobsbawm is an old Marxist, of course, but maybe his take on this period in history is a good antidote to Johnson’s more “old-fashioned” approach. This is not to dismiss your recommendation; I will certainly thumb through Johnson at the university library when the semester starts…

  5. kerrjac Says:

    I’ll be sure to check it out – as I always have difficulty in finding good reads by authors who take stances I disagree with – and what’s the point in only reading people who agree with you?

    I became familiar with Paul Johnson a few years ago reading History of the American People – which, for me, fired on all cylinders and thoroughly sparked a (perhaps dormant) fascination in history. History of Modern Times is likewise intellectual without being academic or revisionist, but in comparison is denser and darker, in a sense it’s very European in content and tone – all of which sort of reminded of your style, albeit, not your views.

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