Type
Polemic
Category
Reading

Universities in ruins

etonboys1936Peter Cook once said that nobody had actually read Don Quixote, and though Cervantes might have written it, even he couldn’t be bothered reading it as well. When I heard Cook say this, it relieved me of a great responsibility, that of reading Don Quixote. These days I try never to read any book that weighs more than a brick, but it’s very easy to fill one’s own bookshelves with books that should be read, rather than books that one wants to read and might enjoy.

I still haven’t read Don Quixote, and don’t own a copy so I’m never tempted to try. Gathering a library of books together can be a bit like creating a new family. Biological families, as most of us have hopefully found out, just aren’t enough. Putting together a family of choice that doesn’t in some way replicate the family of origin can be tricky. You can end up accidentally marrying one of your parents (‘You’re just like my mother!’) or squabbling with friends over a variety of objects you’re highly attached to in the same way you used to argue with your brother over who got the GI Joe and who got the Action Man. In the same way we can end up with libraries of books that we hump around for all kinds of reasons other than we enjoy them.

Learning that families of origin aren’t enough is a bit like learning that literary canons aren’t enough either. In the same way that developmental theories tell us all the ways in which we have screwed up, literary canons can tell us all the ways in which we can’t write or should write. Literary canons are always evidence of a political frame-up. A few years ago I was given a complete set of 54 nicely bound hardbacks published in 1952 by Encyclopaedia Britannica, snugly fitted in their own customised bookshelf, called Great Books of the Western World. Great Books begins with Homer and ends with Freud. It was edited by a team of heavyweight American professors who all seem to possess very unlikely names, as though they are characters in pre-war American fiction: Stringfellow Barr, Clarence H. Faust, Alexander Meiklejohn, Joseph J. Schwab, with a series of advisors that includes Walter Murdoch, who died at 96 after having a university in WA named after him, and was notable for a number of things, one of them apparently being a defence of the proposed outlawing of the Australian Communist Party.

The list of volumes in Great Books includes 15 Greeks, nine Romans (including one Roman African), two Italians, seven Frenchmen, 14 Germans, two Spaniards (one of them Cervantes), 20 Englishmen, three Americans, one Dutchman and an Austrian, and is proceeded by an introductory volume called The Great Conversation, which contains sentences like, ‘No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West …’ and so on. The ‘most important question in the world’ says Volume 1, is ‘Can everybody get an education in the liberal arts?’ In the unlikely event that someone has read none of the selected texts, says the editors, The Great Books come with a suggested reading guide, noted in great detail, to be completed over a period of ten years. Year One begins with excerpts from Plato, Aristophanes and Plato, and Year 10 completes the odyssey with William James, Marx, and Freud. Either the distinguished professors had a delusional view of the interests and capabilities of American readers, or people were considerably more literate 60 years ago. As 20 percent of American teenagers are now reported to be unable to locate the US on a map, and 60 percent of American adults believe that Creationism trumps the theory of natural selection, to go from contemplating Marx to mediaeval ignorance in half a century is quite a shift.

When the Great Books collection was published just a few years after the Second World War, it was seriously believed that they contained everything in Western thinking that was worth knowing. Great Books was not just a ‘Best of’ collection, it was a Utopian world-changing project, and just as significantly an imperial one. The introductory volume contains a list 29 pages long of the project’s financial supporters (David Ben-Gurion, Westinghouse, Standard Oil) and the institutions to which sets of Great Books would be gifted (Rapid City Air Force Base, University of California, Chicago Lying-In Hospital). After ten years of reading the Great Books library, you would presumably become a paid up member of the elite group carrying the flame of human knowledge. For a century though science had been On The March, and in their attempts to battle the overwhelming tide of technological materialism they saw swamping them, the editors of the Great Books also included texts by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Faraday. They acknowledged the immense discoveries and invention of technocracy, but they preferred their science pre-1900. Technology, that had once seemed like a kind of magic – humanity had gone from balloons to jets in 50 years – was now, after Hiroshima, carpet bombing and so on, starting to seem a little demonic.

All the Great Books are naturally written by men, and men who were university-approved. There are three Americans deemed worthy of choice: Melville, James and Thomas Jefferson. The American contribution consists of novel about a whale, an early book of psychology and the Declaration of Independence. In other words, texts of Really Big Ideas. We may not have written much, the Americans seem to be saying, but we have written about is Big, Really Big. Whales, Psychology, Democracy. You might think it’s a long way from Plato’s Republic to Marx’s Kapital, but that’s just peanuts compared to Jefferson and Melville.

Of course this very big whale of American utopian imperatives was already well on the way to dominating the planet, from the gutter to the stars, and American psychologies and versions of democracy have saturated the cultures of nearly everyone on earth. These days in the US the term ‘liberal’ seems to have become synonymous with ‘terrorist’, ‘traitor’ and even ‘Nazi.’ Literature has about as much to say to ordinary Americans – and most Australians too – as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The dream that the editors of Great Books had of an intellectualised American populace, continually discussing the Great Questions raised by continual pondering on literature and the liberal arts seems about as realistic as Star Trek. But interestingly, the professors of yore saw the essential vehicle for the realisation of that dream as a universal system of free education. The idea that access to education would depend on the size of mum and dad’s income was anathema to them.

So wherefore now the University, the liberal utopia? The announcement of AC Grayling’s private university, the New College of the Humanities (NCH), managed to both convulse me with laughter and disturb me at the same time which is something of a unique achievement. In his legendary book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings attacked the discourse of excellence which has come to dominate academic practice, exposing it for the seedy grasping venture it is, claiming a context-free world where values can be bought and sold, to paraphrase Orwell, like so many pounds of cheese.

About ten years ago I presented a paper at an education conference in Melbourne where I attacked the appropriation by elite private schools, those in Melbourne in particular, of a radical experiment in early childhood education that had been developed by the Communist municipalities in northern Italy after World War 2. Given that I delivered the paper on the premises of a Melbourne private school, you can imagine that it didn’t go down very well. The main objection that I received to my arguments was that ‘all schools should be like us and have our resources’. A political discussion wasn’t just out of the question, it wasn’t even possible to generate the context in which to have one. ‘Politics’ was all that nasty shouting that other people did who weren’t as fortunate as us.

The academic staff of the New College of the Humanities, which sounds like something created by the Jedi, comprises such celebrity academics as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Ricks and Niall Ferguson. Educationally it sounds as dead as FR Leavis. Philosophy taught by AC Grayling, history by Niall Ferguson, and literature by Christopher Ricks doesn’t exactly set one’s imagination on fire. Whenever Dawkins appears in my field of vision, I usually turn to Terry Eagleton’s demolition of Dawkins’ hilarious book The God Delusion. That cheers me up immensely. Christopher Ricks, a life-long Bob Dylan fan, wrote one of the worst books you’re ever likely to read on Dylan, excruciatingly pretentious, dull and written with all the verve of Annette Funicello’s movie dad grooving it with the kids on the beach. As for Niall Ferguson, words fail.

Jedis

So many humorous images come to mind when I think of the NCH, I’m spoiled for choice. I have a picture of the NCH staff common room as something like the first-class passenger lounge of Brunei Airways. Or maybe it would be more like a well-tailored version of the wizard’s staff room at Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University, sans humour, funny hats or orangutans, but probably with similar levels of entitlement, pomposity, self-parody and so on. Or perhaps it would be like the common room at Hogwarts school but without a Master of the Dark Arts to liven things up. Anyway, check out the NCH website, for proof positive that the ‘professiorate’ of that institution have no sense of humour, and even less sense of the ironic. Whenever you read ‘New College of the Humanities’ try substituting ‘Unseen University’, or ‘Temple of the Jedi Order’, or ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’. Like substituting the lyrics of the theme from Gilligan’s Island with those of Advance Australia Fair, they all work spookily well.

UU wizards

Actually the staff list for the NCH reminds me of the line-up for the New York Cosmos football team. The Cosmos became famous in the late 1970s for paying stars such as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer truckloads of cash to come to the US and sign up for the Cosmos bench long after they were past their use-by-date. It’s tempting to think of the NCH like that, as the place where has-beens and loudmouths lucratively pension themselves off long after everyone else has become tired of hearing from them, and are paid to wander around in mid-field, as it were, talking at great length about all the fantastic goals they used to score, and will again once they just lose a bit of weight and stop drinking.

Of course to anyone associated with universities over the past few decades, the NCH comes as no surprise. Bill Readings was ringing alarm bells in the early 1990s and his book has proven to be somewhat prophetic. The language of excellence has swept the board so that we rarely hear any challenge to it. It’s probably only a matter of time before we see an Australian franchise of the NCH. Many universities have invested in new faculties of excellence, of ‘innovation’ over the past decade or so. Excellence has come to equal Innovation, which has itself appropriated the term Creativity, which has become code for ‘finding new ways of raking in money’. As one university of my acquaintance slogan’d it, ‘Creativity is the new currency’. And it’s instructive, or depressing, take your pick, to imagine an Australian version of the NCH. My guess is that there would be academics falling over each other to sign up, and in any existing university department it wouldn’t be too hard to pick the likely candidates.

Universities have become politics-free zones. Of course there’s the ‘politics’ of character assassination and career ruthlessness in which university faculties have traditionally excelled, but that’s not what I’m referring to. Readings pointed out that it was often the academics of the Left who supported the university’s manic drive for excellence, and who were most committed to the academic project, as though some essential truths were contained within the walls of a university, just as the editors of Great Books of the Western World thought they were the standard bearers for universal enlightenment, or Jedi knights consider themselves guardians of the Force.

Of course having AC Grayling as your lecturer comes at a price: eighteen thousand quid, to be precise. Each year. That’s the thing about excellence, it’s apparently not free, and it stands to reason that the more you pay the more excellent your education will undoubtedly be.

The NCH has about as much credibility as a place of learning as the Cosmos had as a football team. But of course it’s the political import that is disturbing. As the Cosmos were a kind of marker for the beginning of the disintegration of international football into a meaningless parade of superclubs owned by corrupt plutocrats of one kind and another, so the NCH might be the marker of the final parcelling out of universities as reservations for the elite and the celebrated. Now all the NCH needs to cement its place as a weird parody of liberal education is the Creative Writing degree. I call for nominations for Head of Faculty.

Stephen Wright lives in Nimbin on a land-sharing community. He has won some things (2009 Eureka Street Prize, 2013 Nature Conservancy Prize) and been shortlisted for others (2012 Creative NonFiction Prize, 2014 Calibre Prize). He is writer-in-residence at Blue Knob community cafe, Nimbin.

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Comments

  1. I read Don Quixote when I was twelve, probably because it starred a horse. By sixteen, I’d moved on to D.H Lawrence, Bukowski and Anais Nin. These days I wonder at the ‘canons’ who fed those writers. Ulysses has taken me three years a chapter on average, Homer tells great ripping yarns … and the whale novel works for me, right now, in my forties.

    On first reading, Stephen, I was thinking about that canon but then your post morphed into something else. We all know that Star Wars and its offspins were coming from such places as Campbell’s hero’s journey and all the archetypes that preceded it. So what if someone wants to make some cash from celebrity philosophy? Let them go for it. Discuss it. Argue it. (As you have). It’s all part of the process. Good stuff.

    • I was thinking of Star Wars for Grayling’s university, because something about the insufferable certitude of Grayling and Dawkins and co (a not uncommon academic trait, which they have taken to new heights) seemed to chime with George Lucas’ conception of Jedis as serene pontificating types floating above ordinary mortals in vast glittering halls designed by Albert Speer. And the fact that Dawkins carrying on about atheism looks roughly as silly as Yoda bouncing around a room with a light-sabre.
      I don’t object to Grayling et al making money. It’s the politics of the academy, of canons and of the institutional state of universities I have trouble with.

  2. When I began reading this piece, some neurological entanglement made me, for a while, confuse “AC Grayling” with “JK Rowling”. Your allusion to Hogwarts and Pratchett, as a consequence, took on a somewhat different shade of meaning.

    • Well you know, Rowling as creator of Hogwarts and Grayling as creator of the New College of the Humanities is an interesting parallel. Just go to the NCH website and mentally substitute ‘Hogwarts’ for NCH, ‘Dumbledore’ for Grayling etc. It works.

  3. Don Quixote is still one of my favourite laugh out loud takes on those institutions cited in the blog: literature and the academy.

  4. I’m not hugely interested in anything Niall Ferguson or AC Grayling has to say, and I haven’t read Christopher Ricks’s book about Dylan, but Ricks has written some good books – Beckett’s Dying Words, TS Eliot and Prejudice, Reviewery, Essays in Appreciation, Milton’s Grand Style.

  5. Stephen, what would you prefer?

    Do you want governments to provide free/cheap education for anyone that wants it? If so, how would this work out, without some sort of canon-isation and top-down politics of common-ality playing out. What I mean is: a government is a centralised, top-down institution that can redistribute resources, and if they do, then someone or some agency is going to be assigned the task of dolling out the resources and coming up with criteria for what is a reasonable, or unreasonable, use of those resources. It doesn’t take too long before we get generate committees, national curricula, expert panels, canons, institutional hanky-panky etc.

    If it about bottom-up communities and collectivities determining their own modes and moods of learning together (ala the northern Italian municipalities) then we get something else entirely. But isn’t this what the NCH is a version of, in a rather posh way no doubt?

    Universities has gone-to-ruins in direct proportion to their ‘democratisation’, to use a d-word that gets used in weirder and weirder ways these days. Ie, universities since mid century expand their doors to a wider set of demographics, getting out of the higher class and into the middle class, and this produces a greater cost of university education which governments over time are less and less inclined to pay through common funds (tax revenue) so it’s more and more ‘user pays’.

    Free/cheap education-for-all that is non-canonical (non-expert, non-centralised) may not be possible in the politics of today, at least not in Australia. Or is that not what you are hoping for?

  6. It depends what we intend to prioritise Luke. We can give trillions to banks, we can squander billions on military equipment that doesn’t even work, but when it comes to public health and education all of a sudden it’s more democratic for users to pay their way. The discourse of excellence is tailor-made for that type of discourse. We get a closing down of any innovation in thought, of pedagogy and of politics. The NCH isn’t an exercise in democracy. It’s politics-free. I don’t give a rats whether Ricks or any of his celebrity colleagues have ever written anything scholastically-worthy or not. The politics of the NCH is astoundingly naive and muddle-headed and marks a new low in academic ignorance. It has nothing to do with the pursuit of knowledge and everything to do with the avoidance of discussion as to what might constitute a space for civic debate and construction and who should participate in that discussion, about who gets excluded and who doesn’t..
    hey, on the basis of this post I got an invite to speak at the Melbourne Free Uni, an invite which I will probably take up in the New Year if they are still interested. i thought that was a pretty cool outcome, and made the post worth the effort.

    • Hey Stephen

      Didn’t know about the Melb Free Uni (MFU). Had a look at their website. Hard to know from this how they offer things for free, but it looks like they might be funded by the major universities in a round-about way; many of the people involved seem to be PhD candidates which means they are on a scholarship – like one I used to receive, not huge in terms of middle class full-time incomes, but nevertheless okay (although rising rents/housing costs means it’s worth less today than ten years ago). Interesting to see what they say about it.

      I didn’t want to suggest NCH was an exercise in democracy. It is a form of collective action of a small group of people. On that level, if not any other level, this is just like the Italian communities that got Reggio Emilia going.

      I’m pretty pessimistic that any top-down government distribution of resources (whether to financial, military, health, educational or other domains) could provide something-for-everyone [broad access] that doesn’t prescribe one-thing-for-all [centralised canons, standards of excellence].

      BTW, hasn’t the discourse of universities always be framed around excellence? it began as a niche, via the monasteries, courts, and intelligencia. What am I missing here?

      • Luke
        I don’t think a small group of people building a radical educational model literally out of the bombed ruins of their towns is comparable to what Grayling and chums are doing. I assume they have corporate investment anyway. Universities have not always been about excellence. Universities have historically been about the perpetuation of something called ‘culture’ (hence projects such as the Great Books) . And that ‘culture’ was often related to a nationalistic context.
        ‘Excellence’ is a discourse that has been appropriated by market forces, and a university’s subscription to excellence is usually very much a subscription to the market. Enter the NCH etc.
        I’m not suggesting that universities should return to the days of their engagement with ‘culture’, but I wonder what universities are actually for and what they could be
        for. The NCH seems to be trying to have it both ways promote high culture via the use of market forces. I try and imagine a university as a community of thinkers, a comunity of dialogue, a community of politics of civic action and so on. But then they might resemble more an Occupy site than the NCH.

        • And BTW, I haven’t had any other engagement with the MFU other than an invite. Perhaps its just an extension of the academic system. But maybe it’s something else too. It’s the possibility of something else I’m interested in.

  7. And I should add that it’s as hard as hell to get a discussion on the politics of education. Very few educators of any stripe are intersted and those that are often have a utopia to promote.

  8. The post was definitely worth the effort Stephen- made me laugh (and cry). I haven’t set a learning foot inside a university for over twenty years, but I first noted the corporatisation of universities starting to take place in the early 1980s, and then came Bond University, enabling academics with a profile to jack up their superannuation while running the business of education (teaching and research) along business lines while excluding a totally representative agenda in respect of most things. I’m not sure how the discussion of the merits of literature got caught up in all this; however, resetting the reading clock with Larkin and McEwan at 1963 (that Annus Mirabilis: the year sexual intercourse began), on Chesil Beach, “between the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP”, is scarcely going to correct socio-structural inequalities. Given the present corporatisation of party politics I can’t foresee another reformist, Whitlam-style government willing to address structural inequalities in respect of such things as health and education, as you so rightly state. Where to from here? That’s why I cried: I have no answers. More power to what you are saying and doing though.

    • Dennis
      I think you’re right. The possibility of universities offering that kind of structural reform is a fantasy. In fact universities find themselves in a parlous position; they are increasingly restricting access to those well-heeled enough or debt-burdened to take it, but at the same time, as the Occupy movement has shown your expensive degree is no guarantee of any kind of future – unless you want one in the academy I suppose. Sounds like a recipe for disaster on many fronts to me.
      The literature debate crept in I think because I was somewhat clumsily drawing a line between literature as a political frame-up and the conservatism of universities, in relation to liberal arts at any rate. And because I wonder who Grayling and co would consider an adequate head of a creative writing program, if they had one. As with another commenter my money would be on McEwan. Or Attwood. But my point was that if such a position were established we might be surprised by the number of writers of the Left who would be desperate to be on the shortlist.

  9. Hey, I was at the Student Services desk in the Dixon Library at the UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND, ARMIDALE last Wednesday seeking help to complete the enrollment process for a post-grad degree. I had a finger pointed at me and was told I was ‘lazy’. Ok, I’m a fifty plus male, but without the slightest justfiable cause this representative of the organization proceeded to treat me as if I were no more than a germ. I can only conclude, because there was no hint of compunction, that this officer was truly representative of the organization.
    As to the question of what’s to be done, I think we’re doing it.

  10. The Armidale Waldorf Steiner School and its community won’t talk about the politics of this brand of education AND actually have a working mini Utopia with some medieval occult form of governance. Free speech and democratic values are non-existant and and the place reeks of consumerist superiority.

  11. Going to have to explain to me the difference between promoting excellence and promoting culture (isn’t the pursuit of culture using framed as pursuing/conserving the best of culture – ie, excellent forms of culture?)

    • ‘Excellence’ as a political term used in education (and other areas of corporate life) is not the same as saying one might have specific standards for something. In the corporate discourse, Excellence is always measurable and quantifiable and seen as irreducible. It is usually tied to methodologies associated with the making of financial profit and is always non-negotiable.
      As far as how universities constructed what was valuable in ‘culture’, different methods of exclusion were practiced at various times and places. For example it was once axiomatic that women would never produce any artistic practice of any worth, and so on.

      • This might relate a lot: Timothy Morton on various uni management buzzwords: excellence, inter-disciplinarity, sustainability and now impact.
        http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2011/11/impact-this.html

        But there is still a problem here for me Stephen, that I think your post and replies touch on, but which I’m not sure has been dealt with overtly. And it is this: if we are going to have publicly funded, widely distributed public activity (such as education) then we are going to get notions of public accountability, and therefore there is always going to be invoked some comparative measure that gives govt some sense of the value that public money is able to achieve (bang for buck). Which leads to comparing one university, faculty, academic with another, whatever the currency used to make the equation (standards, excellence, impact, etc). That universities now have to make money on top of govt funds means that these comparative measures turn on monetary figures, but even without the financial user-pays pressures, there would still be pressures of accountability and measurement.

        So. What are we do to about this? If you want public funding of activities made available to as broad a section of the public as possible, how would you go about dealing with public accountability?

        Or, we could give up on caring how public money is spent, or leave it to the experts – who might want to just deal in very particular educational terrains with the in-crowd (ie, particular demographics).

        What would you do about this?

  12. You know, when I write at Overland I try to avoid ‘this is how I would do things’ statements. I dislike utopian thinking and utopian thinking seems to me to be something that the Left have in common with the Right. I spent yesterday morning conducting job interviews, and the thing about job interviews is how difficult it is to turn them into conversations and how important it is to avoid ‘what would you do in this situation’ questions.
    I have professional responsibility for spending a large sum of public money each year and the accountability processes don’t allow for ethical responsibility, or discussion of same, but they do construct a whole phalanx of barrage-balloon-like activities that mimic a bureaucratic of what is considered ethical debate; for example, requiring development of complex documents on Vulnerable Client Access Policy which do anything but guarantee access for the vulnerable.
    When accounting for public money there could be a very interesting debate as to how that money could be accounted for. At the moment there is none. Government institutions continually change their procedures for accountability depending on political interest and are not actually interested in investigating what constitutes social or political well-being. So, your question ‘how would you do it’ seems to be beside the point. The question might be rather ‘what do we want to be accountable for?” What actually constitutes well-being socially, and personally and politically?

  13. Okay. The next thing to do, you suggest, is have a debate concerning: “what do we want to be accountable for?” “What actually constitutes well-being socially, and personally and politically?”

    I suppose that is what you would do about it. Ask and debate the next question that needs airing and answering.

    It’s strange to me to equate talking about strategies/actions/methods/proposals with utopian thinking (the bad sort of utopian thinking I’m guessing), as you seem to here. I’m sympathetic to this link on some level. In that I think there are ways of talking about strategies etc that are really suspect, when formulas are prescribed for situations that are usually very contingent and emergent. (Thus, asking hypotheticals in interview situations probably is not that useful.)

    But that’s not the only way we can talk about strategies etc.

    Another approach could involve the gathering of stories, ideas, trials, tests and principles, rules of thumb, tid bits of knowledge, which could form some patchy repertoire that we could draw upon and re-interpret, re-form, re-fashion in whatever ways seems appropriate to the contingencies of the moment.

    Otherwise, it seems to me that the important work of asking the right sorts of questions might remain detached from the important work of changing our environments, actions etc when we can and when we should.

    BTW, I’m wondering also whether another question to ask and answer is: “would the notion of accountability in itself preclude certain things we want – and to look for such things in social structures bound up with accountability measures is just never going to work out?” Of course, the way I frame the question already assumes a certain sort of answer, but it is very much an open question for me.

  14. As this discussion is fast becoming Hydra Headed, I’ll be stupid and tackle the What would I do? Culture, Excellence, Equitable Distribution of Government Funds: are these related activities and entities? To ensure they were related and to acquire some sort of social equity in respect of financing social needs I’d scrap the notion of Excellence and the corporatism it entails; convert Culture into the broader social term, Ethnicity; and in respect of bourgeois economics and associated enterprises, cease measuring deviations from imaginary norms that cannot be, and never are articulated or explained equitably. Well, it was a “what if” question.

  15. As this discussion is fast becoming Hydra Headed, I’ll be stupid and unsubtle and tackle the Utopian, What would I do(?) question.

    Culture, Excellence, Equitable Distribution of Government Funds: are these related activities and entities? To ensure they were related and to acquire some sort of social equity in respect of financing social needs I’d scrap the notion of Excellence and the corporatism it entails; convert Culture into the broader social term, Ethnicity; and in respect of bourgeois economics and its associated enterprises, cease measuring deviations from imaginary norms that are constructed to profit the few rather than the many, and which cannot be, and never are articulated or explained equitably.

    Well, it was a “what if” question.

    • Luke and Dennis, I’m not equating “talking about strategies/actions/methods/proposals with utopian thinking” but wanting to distinguish between the two. The 20th century was an utter graveyard of utopias, and I don’t think that we can adequately respond to that by trying to distinguish between bad and good utopias. Can we strategise without being utopian? I think you are both raising many interesting questions and ideas for debate. The idea of a ‘patchy repertoire’ that is contingent to the moment seems like an attractive one to me Luke, and I think I can take Dennis’ wish-list in that way.
      One of the interesting things about Occupy is that it seems to me to be limiting their utopian aspect, which has confused commentators on botht he Left and the Right.

  16. Mostly everthing so far said here seems at least to be for free speech and democratic values. Rampart idealism in power is not a pretty thing. The ideal of democracy was almost destroyed by the Nazis and the ideal of free speech was taken to ludicrous extremes by Assange.
    The worst most dangerous utopians are sections of the green movement. However, while the idealism of the left has been widely and effectively condemmed, Stephen has pointed out the same utopian faults in such enterprises as the Great Books and
    the NCH.
    But condemnation, breathtaking in its offhandedness of biological (home)families leaves me somewhat uncertain.

    • It’s starting to seem as though whenever I write at OL I spend large amounts explaining what I have just written. There really must be something seriously wrong with my writing.
      Those exemplars of the greens who call for suspension of democracy while we get the planet into shape, might be mad, but I don’t think they are dangerous. Free market proponents are much more utopian.
      I said that we hopefully learn that biological families are not enough, that there are more ways to relate to others than the ones we learned in our families of origin, just as there are more way to read than the ways the academy approves, and more ways to grow up than the ones that are psychologically approved.

  17. One of the positive qualities of Stephen’s writing, if I may presume to say so, is that he does not try to explain or teach. In post-Post discussion I do try to address myself to the group, but it’s pretty futile and we commentors end up as grasshoppers to an unwilling master, a Krishnamurti perhaps, which of course Stephen would dislike.
    I am entangled with some pseudo-greens, the Steiner movement, who actually have historical-ideological affinities with Nazis. Because of that and because the free market proponents have
    held the ascendancy for the last thirty years, I haven’t thought of the right as dangerous utopians.
    I totally agree with Stephen about families and it’s a view not often aired I would imagine in the current climate.
    Woolworths are currently promoting a ‘My Family’ campaign and the white My Family figures on the rear windows of cars espec SUVs continue to proliferate, at least in Armidale. (I put my own in the shaded top part of the windscreen and called it Our Family for interior consumption.)
    BTW Dixon library UNE does not and never has had a copy of the University in Ruins.

  18. Nothing wrong with the writing, Stephen: seems to me to be more about you tackling issues of concern and controversy from a particular political perspective, about which other readers are unwilling to concede ground in respect of their own ideas and opinions, and you end up attempting to explain your position over and over in different ways. For my own part in this post, I understood clearly your distinction between a contingent political commitment and utopianism. My previous comment, a position too far, was intended as a circuit breaker- throwing in my own hand in the hope of altering the course of a discussion going nowhere.

  19. Dennis, thanks for the circuit-breaker an’ all, and it would of course be easier to acknowledge that others don’t want to cede ground, but I think the problem most likely lies in the expression of the post/s and it’s something I need to think about, or at least put in the box marked ‘Stuff to think about later’.

  20. I got my BA from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI as a Spanish major. All Spanish majors had to read Don Quijote, in the original old-fashioned Spanish. It was a bit like reading The Canterbury Tales in OIde English. I did my Quijote class while spending a semester in Guanajuato Mexico with a Lawrence program and a Lawrence professor. We all believed being surrounded by Spanish, in beautiful Guanajuato which resembles an old city of Cervantes time, actually, made it easier.

    It was a wicked tough rite of passage and I was stoned the whole time, which, I can’t remember, made it easier or harder.

    My point: some people actually read Don Quijote.

    • Hi there. Thanks for dropping by. I’m sure many many people read DQ. That wasn’t really my point. My point was concerned with literary canons as political frame-ups and the way universities now work as framing-up certain kinds of knowledge.
      I have no idea what a Lawrence program is I’m afraid, but getting through university study virtually requires one to be stoned. It’s too weird otherwise.

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