Deconstructing Academe: The birth of critical university studies

The Bourdieu tradition lives on…

Over the past two decades in the United States, there has been a new wave of criticism of higher education. Much of it has condemned the rise of “academic capitalism” and the corporatization of the university; a substantial wing has focused on the deteriorating conditions of academic labor; and some of it has pointed out the problems of students and their escalating debt. A good deal of this new work comes from literary and cultural critics, although it also includes those from education, history, sociology, and labor studies. This wave constitutes what Heather Steffen, a graduate student in literary and cultural studies with whom I have worked at Carnegie Mellon University, and I think is an emerging field of “critical university studies.”

Often criticism of the university seems a scattershot enterprise. A scholar from almost any discipline might have something to say about higher education, but it’s usually an occasional piece that’s a sideline from normal work. There is, of course, a sizable body of scholarship coming from the field of education, but it largely deals with elementary and secondary schooling. Or it follows established scholarly channels; for instance, it might gather and present data about the student body, or it could deal with administration, or fill in a segment of the history, sociology, or financing of education.

In contrast, this new wave in higher education looks beyond the confines of particular specializations and takes a resolutely critical perspective. Part of its task is scholarly, reporting on and analyzing changes besetting higher education, but it goes a step further and takes a stand against some of those changes, notably those contributing to the “unmaking of the public university,” in the words of the literary critic Christopher Newfield.

To give it a name recognizes that it has attained significant mass and signals a gathering place for those considering similar work. “Critical” indicates the new work’s oppositional stance, similar to approaches like critical legal studies, critical race studies, critical development studies, critical food studies, and so on, that focuses on the ways in which current practices serve power or wealth and contribute to injustice or inequality rather than social hope. “Studies” picks up its cross-disciplinary character, focused on a particular issue and drawing on research from any relevant area to approach the problem. “University” outlines its field of reference, which includes the discourse of “the idea of the university” as well as the actual practices and diverse institutions of contemporary higher education…

While those of us affiliated with critical university studies tack to a progressive ideal of free and open public education, teaching the university does not presuppose any political position. Instead, it puts the issue in front of students for them to question, investigate, and judge. After all, they are not only the subject of higher education but will soon be our citizenry, so they might more knowledgeably decide what system they want, how it might promote an enhanced public life, and how it might contribute to the flourishing of those who pass through its classrooms, quads, and online portals.

By Jeffrey J. Williams.

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