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Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard University Press, 1996)

This book is important for any reimagining of the university's place in the current moment of globalization, and specifically addresses the tenuous place of the humanities.

Readings's book, no less provocative and disturbing ten years after its initial publication, has generated a healthy yet discomforting conversation within higher education. His analysis of the state of the university in North America argues that "the wider social role of the University as an institution is now up for grabs. It is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is, and the changing institutional form of the University is something that intellectuals cannot afford to ignore" (2).

Readings, who taught comparative literature at the Universite de Montreal before his death in a 1994 plane crash, grounds his critique of the university in what he sees as the erosion of its founding mission, i.e., to engage in the production and analysis of culture on behalf of the nation-state. "The University … no longer participates in the historical project for humanity that was the legacy of the Enlightenment: the historical project of culture," he states (5). The reason for this is what he understands as the decline of the nation-state in the wake of the globalization of capital production. "…[T]he general thrust of my argument that the notion of culture as the legitimating idea of the modern University has reached the end of its usefulness may be understood to apply to the natural sciences as well as to the humanities, although it is in the humanities that the delegitimation of culture is most directly perceived as a threat" (5).

As he unfolds his argument, the "end" of education itself comes into question. "The University no longer has to safeguard and propagate national culture, because the nation-state is no longer the major site at which capital reproduces itself," he suggests. "Hence, the idea of national culture no longer functions as an external referent toward which all of the efforts of research and teaching are directed. The idea of national culture no longer provides an overarching ideological meaning for what goes on in the University, and as a result, what exactly gets taught or produced as knowledge matters less and less" (13).

The result, Readings posits, is "the university of excellence," a term that is empty of meaning and thus can be filled with any meaning that has cache at the moment. In exposing the ways in which the university has become "posthistorical," then, Readings suggests that the task of pedagogy must be to encourage the development of a "social bond" that no longer depends upon a unifying idea-whether the nation, national culture, or the "good of the individual."

In opposition to the empty idea of "excellence" Readings offers what he refers to as "the name of Thought." "Excellence" functions so well in the university system because no one is invited to think anything about that term. This means that the term can be filled with any meaning an administrator or administration likes (e.g., more students getting jobs, no matter what kind of jobs they may be, can be a sign of an excellent university; more students writing best-selling mass-market novels can be a sign of excellence; higher scores on standardized tests can be a sign of excellence; etc.). The idea of "excellence" thus means that it allows the system of education to unthinkingly support the circulation of capital and other systems' agendas without question. It offers, in other words, no critical component to the forms of circulation in power. The "name of Thought," however, is a fundamentally different idea. It too is empty (which is precisely why it is a "name"), but unlike "excellence," Thought does not function as an answer to be complacently accepted, but as a question that foregrounds the necessity of discussion, rather than the circulation of an empty idea that is to be "worshiped and believed in" (161):

Excellence works because no one has to ask what it means. Thought demands that we ask what it means, because its status as mere name -- radically detached from truth -- enforces the question. Keeping the question of what Thought names open requires a constant vigilance to prevent the name of Thought from slipping back into an idea, from founding a mystical ideology of truth. We can only seek to do justice to a name, not to find its truth. Since a name has no signification, only a designatory function, it cannot have a truth-content. The meaning-effects of a name are structurally incapable of final determination, are always open to discussion. ... [T]he name of Thought cannot be given a content with which consciousness might fuse, or a signification that would allow the closure of debate. … Nothing in the nature of Thought, as a bare name, will legitimate any [single person's or institution's idea of truth]. To put this another way, any attempt to say what Thought should be must take responsibility for itself as such an attempt. (160, emphasis added)

The "name of Thought" is therefore not a commodity, but an event---the event of making an audience of questioners, questioners that take responsibility for the attempts they make.


Henry A. Giroux and Kostas Myrsiades, eds., Beyond the Corporate University: Culture and Pedagogy in the New Millenium (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

This collection of essays by education theorists takes Bill Readings's book The University in Ruins as its point of departure and attempts to offer strategies for reconceptualizing the role of the university in the era of global capital.

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