University Inc.

A few years ago, during a course on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, ANU lecturer Professor Udo Thiel noted in passing the decline in popularity of post-modernism and post-structuralism on university campuses. In a show of hands it emerged that only a handful of students in his class had read any of Michel Foucault’s writing.

As Professor Thiel pointed out, twenty years ago the popularity of the “posts” was such that all of the students in a philosophy class would likely have read Foucault and other post-structuralists besides. At the time this comment went largely unnoticed, the students perhaps too engrossed in Professor Thiel’s sartorial choices. (He always seemed to come to class in a leather jacket, an interesting choice for an Enlightenment scholar.)

Over the course of my undergraduate career, however, the implications of this classroom moment seem to have become clearer. At around the same time, The Australian’s Higher Education supplement ran a series of comments from various academics debating the decline of the humanities in Australian universities. Some scholars contended that the case was grossly overstated, while others sought explanations for the mooted decline. A common element to some of these critiques was the claim that the rise of the “posts” was largely responsible, because the destruction of disciplinary meta-narratives and the rejection of universalising theories had left students unsure about how to approach the humanities in a meaningful way. Looking back on these comments now they seem to tell only one side of the story, placing undue emphasis on causal factors within the academy.

One of the most visible trends on university campuses in Australia in the past few years has been the increasing corporatisation of universities, and the effect that this has had on the student body. This has occurred partly in response to domestic industry pressures and partly in response to overseas demand for quality training in obviously productive areas of study. The model of the privately run elite US university and the endless ranking of global educational institutes is also partly responsible. Among humanities scholars it is a generally accepted fact that this corporatisation has come at the expense of less apparently productive courses of study, such as literary studies, the social sciences and the creative arts.

The student body appears to have responded to corporatisation with alacrity. It has become entirely ordinary to see students striding through the campus in business attire, advertising their placement in industry internships.  The very idea of the fully-employed student has itself become commonplace, something that was not the case among previous generations of university students. This is largely due to the decline of Whitlam-style welfare programs. We should not unduly judge such changes, but note that these are new phenomena that define our generation of undergraduates. In the 60s, 70s, and perhaps even 80s, to dress on university campuses according to current fashions as dictated by high street clothing shops would have been regarded as gauche. Today even many lecturers feel compelled to dress the part with brand shirts, heels or sports blazers, reflecting industry best practice.

While it may be easy on the eye to see well-heeled students on campus there is a drawback to all of this. The downside is that in general we appear to have lost some of our critical acuity and worldly interest. Part of the reason Foucault and the “post-ers”, for example, were popular in days gone by is because they were inspired by intellectual traditions such as the Enlightenment or Marxism, and significant events like France’s general strikes of 1969 and the struggle for self-definition in a world riven by the struggle between communism and capitalism.

In the age of late-capitalism, students no longer seem to be motivated to struggle much over anything, perhaps reflecting the apathy of advanced capitalist societies more generally. We are content to follow the latest twitter trend, or the most popular youtube video documenting someone’s particularly undistinguished achievement. The fetishisation of the “built” body seems to be running at an all time high, with no parallel in the mental arena. The question, then, is where are we headed?

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman, and even Barack Obama, pointed out that in the US the nexus between elite higher education institutions and corporate law and finance firms had produced a culture of contentment, where fewer and fewer students had the courage to venture off the beaten path that leads from graduation stage to corporate desk. That admonition has gone largely unheeded in the US, but it may be time we also think about its import here in Australia. We should not reject professionalism wholesale, for to do so would surely be to discard both baby and bath water. Nevertheless, universities should remain permissive spaces, nourishing alternative thinking, and not merely accepting uncritically the narratives of our time.

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