Sunday, 19 December 2010

Against liberal humanism: why Terry Eagleton is wrong about 'the death of universities'

I've noticed various fellow socialists posting this Terry Eagleton article on Facebook. When I finally got round to reading the piece, I was surprised to discover I mostly disagree with it.

This is especially surprising as I've always admired Eagleton, and would recommend books like 'After Theory' and 'The Meaning of Life' to anyone on the Left. His starting point, furthermore, is fierce opposition to the massive cuts lined up for university funding. In that respect I obviously agree.

The problem is we need a strong political basis for defending our universities. We need intelligent and informed arguments, not the historically and politically dubious assertions Eagleton gives us.

He begins by asserting the absurdity of the prospect of humanities disappearing from our universities, comparing this to a pub without alcohol. He says a 'technical training facility or corporate research institute' will not be 'a university in the classical sense of the term'.

I share Eagleton's hostility to the corporatisation of higher education. But why 'the classical sense of the term'? At one time the humanities, as I understand this term (Eagleton unfortunately never defines the term 'humanities', an odd slip for an academic), had no place in universities. Even a century ago most of the humanities disiplines we have today did not yet exist, or were extremely marginal.

What constitutes academic knowledge has evolved enormously over the centuries. How that knowledge is compartmentalised has also changed - indeed it has changed, in what can broadly be called the humanities, out of all recognition in the last few decades. Eagleton fails to acknowledge this. The result is a strangely ahistorical and simplistic view.

Eagleton also indulges a romantic view of the past, which can't be justified by the facts, at the same time as having an excessively grim view of the present.

He writes:

'When they first emerged in their present shape around the turn of the 18th century, the so-called humane disciplines had a crucial social role. It was to foster and protect the kind of values for which a philistine social order had precious little time.'  

Really? That's the kind of soft liberal humanism Eagleton would have once ferociously critiqued. While acknowledging the humanities could be 'ineffectual', this is meant primarily as praise. There's no attempt to justify this view with any historical reference.

Eagleton laments: 'Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines.'

But there's been specialisation in academia for a very long time. The humanities are separated from the sciences. Humanities subjects are separated from each other. This degree of specialisation has increased in recent decades and is certainly nothing new. It is a hallmark of intellectual life in capitalist society, which is characterised by fragmentation.

Eagleton writes 'The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name.' Why the core? A case could also be made for making mathematics, say, the core of a university.

Doesn't this unsubstantiated statement just reinforce the separation between 'humanities' and 'sciences', insisting that one of them must be the core? Eagleton also seems to be assuming that 'sciences' lack any critical content whatsoever, and are purely 'technical'.

Eagleton claims:

'If the humanities are not under such dire threat in the United States, it is, among other things, because they are seen as being an integral part of higher education as such.'

This is a rhetorical flourish, with no grounding in reality. The real reason for the difference is to do with university funding. It isn't ideological, as Eagleton implies.

It's a ludicrous claim when you recall the fierce 'culture wars' on American campuses, with conservatives periodically over the last 40 years attacking supposedly 'liberal' disciplines in the humanities (cultural studies, gender studies etc).

Eagleton writes:

'From time to time, as in the late 1960s and in these last few weeks in Britain, that critique would take to the streets, confronting how we actually live with how we might live.'

Eagleton is arguing here that the social critique involved in studying the humanities is the driving force between student revolts. So much for a materialist conception of history - it's a weirdly idealist view, which exaggerates the role of the leftish/liberal academic and grossly downplays economic factors. I suspect the prospect of 9k-a-year fees has rather more to do with it.

It's especially unlikely as an explanation for current upheavals, when most protestors haven't even reached university yet. And don't science, maths and engineering students ever participate in demonstrations? It's true that univeristies can introduce young people to different, and radical, ways of seeing the world, and this is a factor in generating revolt. But let's maintain a sense of perspective.

Eagleton is correct when he concludes that contemporary capitalism is incompatible with the kind of univeristies we need and deserve. But his journey towards that conclusion serves as no basis in the struggle for a different kind of higher education.



  1. I was just about to write something similar to this, but you've saved me the trouble. Was very disappointed with Eagleton on this one.