Bill Readings: The University in Ruins

Bill Readings: The University in Ruins

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Books on the future of higher education are a booming business these days. Readings situates his discussion of the modern university in the context of decades of debate over the role of education in the 20th century. He draws on Kantian ideals of the university as a unit dedicated to a single agenda to demonstrate how the modern university's pursuit of "excellence" is a meaningless search. In fact, the very idea of "excellence" is devoid of meaning, he argues, merely a rallying cry to unite the academic troops as bureaucratic administrations attempt to keep their universities financially sound. Once the university was the repository and defender of national culture, but now it is an institution whose decline coincides with the rise of postmodernism. How can universities teach truth and objectivity when the relation between subject and object is in doubt? Unfortunately, there are no new answers here. For decades, academicians have sounded the death knell for culture; Marxist critics long ago decried the corporatization of the university; and discussions of the aim of pedagogy, even those like Readings's that stress the importance of community and obligation, are easy to come by. Readings's proposal, which does not make its full appearance until the final 10 pages of the book, is that the university adopt a course of study that emphasizes how we think and how such thinking intersects with and affects the outside world, but it is incomplete and too optimistic and makes for a disappointing ending to a largely disappointing work.