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Speaking of Universities

reviewed by Daniel Davis - May 17, 2018

coverTitle: Speaking of Universities
Author(s): Stefan Collini
Publisher: Verso, Brooklyn
ISBN: 1786631393, Pages: 304, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the essay collection Speaking of Universities, literature scholar Stefan Collini deploys his finely honed analytical skills to examine narratives that attempt to define and illuminate the universitys purpose. Collini, Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University and Fellow of the British Academy, expands on several of his essays and lectures in this collection to create a multi-layered discourse on the importance of how we talk about the university.


Many other authors have diagnosed, documented, and lamented the sweeping changes in higher education (in the United Kingdom, the United States, and beyond) which have led colleges and universities to adopt a greater neo-liberal market orientation. While Professor Collini also makes this several-decades-long commercialization process the subject of his book, he approaches the issue uniquely. Unlike other writings that depict the potential negative outcomes of university marketization (my own book included), Collini brings into question a more meta argument: where did this language of outcomes, optimization (or excellence), student consumers, and the like come from anyway? He argues that the ways we talk about the university have historical origins, and that the taken-for-granted character of much of the language used to describe universities shrouds the highly era-contingent nature of the terms themselves. Just as people in previous centuries spoke of universities as existing to proclaim the gospel or promote moral character, language which would be untenable in most universities today, modern universities are now described as existing to train workforces, grow economies, and foster entrepreneurial innovations, terms which would have seemed odd if applied to higher education in other eras.


Overall, Collini is a perceptive writer, and while the chapters are sometimes excursive and meticulous, they are also punctuated with his dry British humor. Readers looking for empirical analysis or policy recommendations should be reminded of Collinis perspective as an intellectual historian and language critic, not a social scientist or policy expert. But while his greatest recommendation is to pay attention to the language we use when we talk about the university, this is not entirely an exercise in hand-wringing (his own self-effacing label). After all, Concepts colonize our minds and we become used to thinking about ourselves and our world in their terms (p. 3). In short, all action emerges out of shared social meaning, and language is the central unit of that shared meaning. Therefore, paying greater attention to the language we use is a first step in subverting the actions that such language enables. Speaking of Universities thus serves as thoughtful prerequisite reading for those embarking on more empirical or tactical projects.


While most of the essays could easily be read as stand-alone thought pieces (as this is how most were originally published), the book is broadly organized into three parts. Part One concerns itself with an analysis of the current situation. Here we find material situating the debate about what a university is and what purpose it serves from historical and comparative perspectives, from John Henry Newmans seventeenth century philosophical and theological descriptions of universities all the way to the more bureaucratic managerialism we find today. One essay, Measuring Up: Universities and Accountability, pushes the analysis more specifically into language usage by illuminating the problems that arise when higher education leaders try to quantify concepts like quality learning, teaching, and research. While done in the name of accountability, Collini notes, Everything that tends towards greater performance-management increases the power of the managers (p. 47).


Part Two further elevates the critique of the modern situation and its market logic run amok. The McKinsey-ization of universities into value-added cost centers, the privatization of universities (especially the rise of for-profit universities), and the stripping of public funding for higher education (just as universities have enrolled several times more students than in previous decades) all exacerbate the problem. Collini also points out several reasons why students should not be seen as a market, such as: universities select the students (to some degree), student satisfaction is not equivalent to learning, and teenagers are often not sure what they want from higher education. The result of all this is the creation of a two-tier system of higher education in which the children of the elite continue to receive a high quality education from well-resourced universities, while others are stuck with subprime degrees sold to them from University of Phoenix-type vocational colleges, not unlike the subprime mortgages of the Great Recession sold to consumers who were equally unaware of the con unfolding around them.


Part Three presses not so much for solutions, but for occasions: occasions to speak up and speak out for the university as a public good. The essays here range from comparing funding models for higher education in England and Scotland to a soliloquy on the future of the humanities. Collinis critique of mediocrity parading as the pursuit of excellence particularly stands out for its penetrating insight into good intentions executed poorly. He writes, Excellence is the term reached for by the bureaucratic mind when it has no idea how to identify real achievement (p. 188). Because everybody strives to be excellent, it becomes a vague and fairly meaningless concept. However, it is nevertheless used to justify the slashing of budgets and rearranging of universities into organizational formats that weaken disciplinary traditions. This last part especially troubles Collini, as he believes that a real education comes via, not despite, disciplines. Collinis final piece exhorts the reader to understand that the true value of a university lies not in its historical achievements or current efficiencies (or lack thereof), but in its promise of passing down the knowledge entrusted to us to future generations.


As a sequel of sorts to What Are Universities For?, published in 2012, Speaking of Universities is a well-articulated essay collection decrying the current state of colleges and universities and emphasizing the need to speak up for them against the dehumanizing (or, for universities, the de-humanities-izing) march of cold marketization. The time-strapped reader will benefit from selecting particular essays of interest, as the same general sentiments are repeated across the individual pieces, which do not depend on one another to build up a line of argument. Collini delivers many impactful one-liners that are sure to buttress future works of a more applied nature as we decide what to do about the dire situation fastidiously illustrated for us in this book.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 17, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22369, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:17:26 AM

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About the Author
  • Daniel Davis
    University of California, San Diego
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL DAVIS is a visiting scholar at the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at the University of California, San Diego. His research interests include the sociology of higher education; college-to-career transitions; organizations, occupations, and work; and entrepreneurship.
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