So what was the point?

My post on the ontology of academia seems to have been widely misunderstood. Indeed, this was so much the case that it pushed me to the brink of despair about blogging as a pursuit — a dynamic that people’s insistence on reading my descriptive account of the U.S. as a party state as a list of recommendations for reform only exacerbated. While there are external reasons (mainly faculty meetings) that the latter, written over two weeks ago, was my last substantive post for the blog, the sense that anything I wrote was going to be met with incomprehension did not encourage me to make time.

That being said, any misunderstanding is obviously at least partly the author’s own fault, and so I will try to get at what I was doing in the post. My goal was to try to isolate what it is that academics do that no one else does. What is their “product”? It can’t be learning, because everyone is learning all the time and in many ways. In the last analysis, what they produce is grades, which are then agglomerated into degrees. Their activity is fundamentally one of certification. Yes, it’s meant to be certification of knowledge, but we all know that the certification does not always correspond closely with knowledge.

I wanted to suggest that the certification aspect is ineradicable — no employer, no publisher, no one can know in detail all that another person knows and can do. To some degree or other, we all need to take someone’s word for it. Normally we’re not willing to take the person’s own word for it, and that’s where recommendations, etc., come in. From this perspective, university degrees serve as a very expensive and highly ritualized way of obtaining a certain widely-recognized, institutionalized form of recommendation. Further, the gap between certification and what it certifies — the room for undeserving people to get unearned certifications — is also ineradicable. If there were a way to rigorously guarantee that the person getting a certification had truly earned it, then there would be no need for a certification at all. The academic enterprise works in the tension between the pure act of certification and the knowledge that legitimates it.

Having isolated that, I wanted to give a different account of the crisis of academia than one normally sees. I said that the two pressures academia faces are either to become a meaningless free-floating form of certification that claims competence to assess literally every aspect of life or to attempt to get rid of the “dangerous supplement” of certification altogether and cut to the chase of knowledge itself. The two aspects of academia — its certification function and the knowledge that legitimates it — are coming apart, but at the same time trying to become identified with each other. The free-floating certification is a way of saying, “Since we have the power of certification, we must know and be able to judge everything.” Meanwhile, the attempt to cut to the chase wants to eliminate the gap between certification and what it certifies from the other direction, to equate the certification with the knowledge itself. The former is a metastasis of meaningless authority, while the latter represents an attempt to eliminate authority altogether — and with it any space for human judgment. It’s no accident that the advocates of collapsing certification into what it certifies are also hoping to make academia more responsive to market forces, which are fundamentally a mechanism for occluding all human freedom and responsibility.

In a sense, I could have called the post “Academia and Political Form,” since it in some way rearticulates the argument of Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form in terms of academia. I don’t think that the university is eternal like the Roman Catholic Church claims to be — there is no external, divine guarantee of its authoritative status. I don’t want to perform a Schmittian short-circuit where I say, “Since authority is an ineradicable fact of human life, therefore we must preserve our particular existing form of authority at all costs.” And yet I would claim that something like the university may be worth preserving if we can do it, though here “preserving” necessarily means figuring out how to do things very differently from how they’re done now and probably how they’ve ever been done.

This was implicit at best in the post, but I also want to suggest — Agamben-style — that as the university breaks down, it’s not automatically going to open up the space for something new. It’s going to continue to metastasize and become more and more destructive. If we want an alternative, we have to think an alternative, and just meeting up at Barnes and Noble to talk about books does not strike me as a viable replacement plan. Creating our own little bubble alongside it is not going to stop the damage that the self-delegitimizing university has done and will continue to do — including the havoc it will inevitably unleash on our little bubble as well. (And, also Agamben-style, I don’t claim that my post includes immediate plans for action or sheds direct light on how to deal with adjunctification, the decline of tenure, student debt, etc.)

So that was what the post was about. I hope everyone found this informative and clarifying.

19 thoughts on “So what was the point?

  1. Is it not the case that the university as we know it is the offspring of Leviathan? Is it not also the case that anyone who suckles the teat of the university is a grandchild of Leviathan? (Alternately, is not the university as we now know it the Madame de Maintenon of Leviathan? And those who call her “alma mater” thus the bastard children of an illicit union?)

    The problem, of course, is not the institution per se, for all institutions are a fiction (legal, literary, theological, etc). The problem is the Teacher. Anyone who aspires to be called Teacher is taught to teach and teach and to hear themselves talk. Abolish the Teacher and you abolish the labyrinth that is the university. But this is impossible, because the young (low level bureaucrats) adore their mother (the university), and, more to the point, creatures love to hear themselves chatter.

  2. Apologies, Adam, as I have been terribly ill and have been lax in following my RSS feed. I hope that you’ll forgive me.

    For a change of pace, why don’t I say that this is terribly unclear. that you’re mistaken, and a commie sympathizer.

  3. Adam,

    Is there anything here that wasn’t reasonably implicit in your first post, and is there’s some tension here that you’d like to work with. This really does appear just to be a clearer formulation of the prior post, but I may be missing some implications.

  4. I guess it is mainly a clearer formulation. It’s obvious in retrospect that “showing my work” (in terms of working through concepts of professionalism, etc.) produced insuperable obstacles for many readers.

  5. I would like to buttress a claim that Adam makes:

    “the two pressures academia faces are either to become a meaningless free-floating form of certification that claims competence to assess literally every aspect of life or to attempt to get rid of the “dangerous supplement” of certification altogether and cut to the chase of knowledge itself. ”

    The former pressure already exists. How many of us have gone through an utterly meaningless form of certification? The most common type that I have completed are the numerous mini-certifications that employers require in order to protect against legal liability or for propaganda purpose. I’ll have you know I’ve taken more cultural sensitivity training than I can recall! And, most recently, became a “certified” instructor of my current employer, which was a joke and every participant knew it. In fact, during the sessions we discussed how we were using the time to discuss real issues while ignoring the actual certification curricula though we still completed its requirements, which were trivial. These are precisely the “meaningless free-floating form[s] of certification” that Adam is talking about. A college degree in general is becoming this.

    Concerning the latter pressure, I see the “cut to the chase of knowledge itself” in at least one form: students who are convinced that my courses in philosophy are mostly about memorizing definitions and facts. It’s really difficult to teach critical thinking, perhaps the most important general course objective, to students who are so thoroughly trained in gaming the system by calculated regurgitation that they cannot actually think through the concepts they name. It really doesn’t matter which philosophy course. So, when I read those words, I understood them in part as indicating how “knowledge” has become instrumentalized to what students really want: a good job leading to a desired life.

    Perhaps Adam can expand on the other possible implications. Or not.

  6. Are comprehensive exams no longer used at Shimer College? Surely they are still used in Britain and elsewhere in Europe? Their specialty is that the exams are not graded by the teachers, hence student and prof are in league to beat the final exam. Not only are the students measured but the profs also, by implication. Back in those days it took only a B+ average to make it into PBK. These days that’s required for a degree.

  7. The comp system at Shimer underwent a major overhaul around 1976 (for various reasons that are somewhat fascinating to untangle, but which certainly included the lack of resources to sustain the old system).

    There are still comps — I took the Basic Comp, Nat Sci Comp, and Soc Comp — but I’m not sure if they would be recognizable to those who went through the earlier Shimer or U of C comp systems.

  8. Cutting to the chase of knowledge itself: colleges need to directly provide “job skills.” Rote memorization has always been with us — it’s not a new development.

    Free-floating certification: the proliferation of degrees and majors in everything. I recently learned that my alma mater is now offering a degree in event planning, for instance. One could point toward MFAs as a kind of bizarre institution as well — I’m sure that creative writing and artistic practice can be taught, but why did it occur to anyone that the university was the best place for those kinds of creative endeavors?

  9. I’ll admit that the most salient example of free-floating certification is fictional — the courses that the wife in White Noise teaches at the community college, such as “Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters.”

  10. In that case the two pressures are aligned, right? “Job skills” are precisely what a degree in event planning would purport to provide.

  11. Following up from this and the Agamben post:

    I would argue that it is precisely the problem with early modernity that it rejected the admittedly quite chaotic jumbles of educational / philosophic institutions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. To attempt to elaborate: in the Middle Ages, there was no one single locus of intellectual activity: rather, intellectual (or philosophic) activity was happening in many different settings: the medieval university, of course, but also the training facilities of the religious orders (some of which were closely connected with the universities but others not) , monasteries, the legal inns (see the career of Sir John Fortescue), the literary societies, the rabbinate among the Jewish community, the secular clergy and many other places.

    Modernity to a large extent centralized intellectual activity into a restructured and remodeled secular public owned university and restructured and remodeled k-12 secular public owned school system. So, by the nineteenth century, you have the “traditional” great intellectuals, who are salaried professors at the major public university with a external bohemia that is semi-supported by working in journalism (broadly defined) primarily. But this is a much more limited landscape than the medieval or Renaissance one. In modernity, an intellectual is effectively either a professor at a comparatively large university or a journalist. (Yes, there were many outliers, of course). But this streamlining made intellectual activity much more vulnerable to being controlled by the state and it’s often changing needs.

  12. I thought the original post was a helpful framing for a recent debate between Sherman Dorn and “Dean Dad” about “credits” vs “credit hours” (most recently updated here) that’s seems to be working through the same issues.

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