On “The Birth of Critical University Studies”

The first sentences of Jeffrey Williams’ essay in the Chronicle
of Higher Education
, “Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical
University Studies”,
sounds like an introduction to the many conservative and libertarian critiques
of higher education that have appeared in recent decades, starting with Allan
Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Martin Anderson’s Imposters
in the Temple
, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal
and Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue.  The
sentence reads:

“Over the past two decades in the United States, there has
been a new wave of criticism of higher education. ” 

But the second sentence dispels them all.

“Much of it has condemned the rise of ‘academic capitalism’
and the corporatization of the university; a substantial wing has focused on
the deteriorating conditions of academic labor; and some of it has pointed out
the problems of students and their escalating debt.”

The capitalist/corporate target of this “new wave of
criticism” limits it to left-wing approaches, but this doesn’t prevent Williams
from characterizing it as an “emerging field,” an area of study that qualifies
as academic and scholarly.  He terms it “critical university studies,” the
label tallying with “critical legal studies,” “critical race studies”, etc. in
their common focus upon “the ways in which current practices serve power or
wealth and contribute to injustice or inequality rather than social hope.”

It is tempting for conservatives, libertarians, and
neoliberals, too, to regard this conception as ideologically-loaded and
narrowly-envisioned.  In fact, the leftist critique of higher education as
outlined by Williams has much to offer critiques from the Right–and vice versa.
 They may have different reasons but they often have the same targets, for

—–university leaders who are beholden to deep pockets of
one kind or another;

—–bloated and costly university administrations that
function the way bureaucracies always do, that is, self-justification and

—–the reliance upon adjunct and graduate student labor;

—–the compromise of intellectual standards so that the
institution may continue running smoothly;

—–the rise of “spin” and campus marketing.

Williams wants to plant critical university studies into the
curriculum, and he seems to acknowledge a bias problem at the end when he says,
“teaching the university does not presuppose any political position.”  To
prove it, though, let’s see some of the books listed above on the syllabus.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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2 thoughts on “On “The Birth of Critical University Studies”

  1. One problem with universities is that anyone would seriously consider adding “critical university studies” to a university curriculum. What next: critical studies of critical university studies?

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