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The University in Ruins [Paperback]

Bill Readings
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 29, 1997 0674929535 978-0674929531

It is no longer clear what role the University plays in society. The structure of the contemporary University is changing rapidly, and we have yet to understand what precisely these changes will mean. Is a new age dawning for the University, the renaissance of higher education under way? Or is the University in the twilight of its social function, the demise of higher education fast approaching? We can answer such questions only if we look carefully at the different roles the University has played historically and then imagine how it might be possible to live, and to think, amid the ruins of the University. Tracing the roots of the modern American University in German philosophy and in the work of British thinkers such as Newman and Arnold, Bill Readings argues that historically the integrity of the modern University has been linked to the nation-state, which it has served by promoting and protecting the idea of a national culture. But now the nation-state is in decline, and national culture no longer needs to be either promoted or protected. Increasingly, universities are turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture is being replaced by the discourse of "excellence." On the surface, this does not seem particularly pernicious.

The author cautions, however, that we should not embrace this techno-bureaucratic appeal too quickly. The new University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought. Readings urges us to imagine how to think, without concession to corporate excellence or recourse to romantic nostalgia within an institution in ruins. The result is a passionate appeal for a new community of thinkers.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Books on the future of higher education are a booming business these days. Readings situates his discussion of the modern university in the context of decades of debate over the role of education in the 20th century. He draws on Kantian ideals of the university as a unit dedicated to a single agenda to demonstrate how the modern university's pursuit of "excellence" is a meaningless search. In fact, the very idea of "excellence" is devoid of meaning, he argues, merely a rallying cry to unite the academic troops as bureaucratic administrations attempt to keep their universities financially sound. Once the university was the repository and defender of national culture, but now it is an institution whose decline coincides with the rise of postmodernism. How can universities teach truth and objectivity when the relation between subject and object is in doubt? Unfortunately, there are no new answers here. For decades, academicians have sounded the death knell for culture; Marxist critics long ago decried the corporatization of the university; and discussions of the aim of pedagogy, even those like Readings's that stress the importance of community and obligation, are easy to come by. Readings's proposal, which does not make its full appearance until the final 10 pages of the book, is that the university adopt a course of study that emphasizes how we think and how such thinking intersects with and affects the outside world, but it is incomplete and too optimistic and makes for a disappointing ending to a largely disappointing work.

Copyright 1996 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Readings argues compellingly that the university has outlived its purpose--a purpose defined two centuries ago, when the nation-state and the modern notion of culture came together to make the university the guardian of national culture...What, Readings asks, "is the point of the University, if we realize that we are no longer to strive to realize a national identity, be it an ethnic essence or a republican will?" What happens when the culture the university was meant to preserve goes global and transnational along with everything else? This is an intriguing argument. helps to explain much. From this perspective, for example, Readings is wonderfully insightful on the "culture wars" that have wracked universities and bewildered the public for two decades...Readings offers a call to arms to those of us who live and work in universities as well as to those on the outside--a call to better understand our position in a changing world, to come out of our professional shells, stop pining for a lost world, and actively seek to construct something different...[This is] a remarkable contribution. (David Harvey The Atlantic)

The University is a ruined institution, forced to abandon its historical raison d'etre and enmeshed in consumerist ideology...The task that substitutes for the pursuit of culture is the adherence to Excellence, which relegates the university to the treadmill of global capitalism. It turns out graduates as objects, not subjects, at so much per head, under the scrutiny of the state bureaucracy. That is the nub of Bill Readings's superbly argued pessimism...His essay provides an insight into contemporary vexation as experienced in every form of society and community obliged to exist in the new globalized economy. The university has always suggested an institution immune to wider trends, but Readings...argues very convincingly for its fragility. It is a microcosm caught in the coils of consumerism, and forced to act as a satrap in that kingdom...The dysfunction, as he envisages it, is very deeply pondered and rather brilliantly expounded. (Anthony Smith, President, Magdalen College, Oxford New Statesman and Society)

Bill Readings...presents a comprehensible and intelligent interpretation of the status and meaning of the university today which draws inspiration for its ideas from paradigms as diverse as Jean-Paul Lyotard's seminal The Postmodern Condition and the cult movie of the late 1980s, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure...Anyone who has been through the academic mill in the English-speaking world at any level in the last decade will certainly have no problem perceiving the truth of Readings's observation that corporate-style management has become part of the fabric of university administration. (Natasha Lehrer Jerusalem Post)

[A] fiercely intelligent polemic about the contemporary university...Whether they're polishing off the latest bit of research or merely fishing in some desolate sound during the summer break, The University in Ruins is a book that's indispensable to everyone working in or attending post-secondary institutions. If they're not in ruins yet, they're certainly under siege. (Stan Persky Toronto Globe and Mail)

[An] acerbic, often witty critique of the University...[Readings] would have made a formidable opponent in the debates that his book will surely occasion...[W]e should be thankful [for Readings' book] because it raises precisely the large theoretical questions that university types often prefer to ignore. (Sanford Pinsker The Georgia Review)

Bill Readings' scholarly work The University in Ruins is one of the most challenging and critical books of this genre. He argues compellingly that there is a crisis of purpose in the modern university...Readings' arguments about the linkages between globalisation, corporatism, culture and the university provide an important insight into the malaise of the contemporary university...This highly intelligent and fiercely written book is a fine epitaph to a scholar of rare distinction. (Mal Logan Quadrant)

The University in Ruins is both challenging and accessible. Readings can discuss the German Idealists and Macro-Economists, F. R. Leavis and Francois Lyotard, Beavis and Butt-Head, even Bill and Ted and (of course) their Excellent Adventure-all without obfuscation or condescension. His book offers acute assessments of higher education, its architects, and its critics. There is much material for reflection and debate here; that's the way Bill liked things and what he liked best about the university. (Stephen M. Buhler Journal of English and Germanic Philology)

Sadly, Readings died in a plane crash shortly after this acerbic, often witty critique of the University was completed. He would have made a formidable opponent in the debates that his book will surely occasion…But what we have is Readings' book, and for that we should be thankful because it raises precisely the large theoretical questions that university types often prefer to ignore. (Sanford Pinsker The Georgia Review)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (November 29, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674929535
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674929531
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 6.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #417,914 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
56 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Faculty will read this book and say, "Ah, yes!" January 18, 1997
By A Customer
Readings describes why he feels that universities are in ruins and what faculty might do about it. He traces the history of the university from Kant to the present time and argues that it has gone through three phases or forms: the University of Ideas (Kant), the University of Culture (Humboldt), and now the University of Excellence (based on measuring quality). His argument is that the U has now become a business, and "excellence" is now being defined in business, rather than in intellectual, terms. Perhaps the most important point that he makes in the book is that he feels excellence has no intellectual reference point.

His conclusion is that there is no turning back. If faculty do nothing, then the option is for them to mourn or to be scorned...unless they make the attempt to look for "open spaces" where they can focus their work on Thinking (he uses an uppercase T on purpose). He especially encourages Thinking that spans disciplines. He also argues that scholars need to be aware that, in the University of Exellence, accounting systems prevail. In pursuing these open spaces, scholars must still be able to provide what he calls "techo-bureaucrats" with the numbers that they need to run their accounting systems.

Sadly, Readings believes that the University has lost its soul and, today, is no longer the pivotal cultural institution that it once was. To the contrary, he suggests that it is now a business that is being evaluated as a business and is in competition with other businesses.

This book will not be an "easy read" for many. Readings' meanders: making a point here and drawing a conclusion there. Some administrators might not finish reading it for that reason. Having said that, anyone who is interested in the present status and future direction of higher education should read this book. It is a sobering and important piece of work.

Frank Fear,
Michigan State University
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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Bill Readings' book is an important contribution to the
growing debate about the functions of the University in the
present world. It was published posthumously as Bill died in
that tragic plane crash of the American Eagle flight between
Indianpolis and Chicago on October 31st, 1994.

Readings' book is important because it carries us beyond and
above the usual debates about excellence to bring us to a
different level of analysis. After recounting the German
foundations of the current conceptualization of the university,
Readings show how the present obsession for excellence betrays
these 19th-century ideals under the guise of of preserving
them, and how excellence has actually become a management tool
which, in actuality, refers back to a principle of performance. But
Readings' book is also important because it does not suggest
we should simply hark back to Humboldtian ideals or those
of the German idealists; instead, he invites us to construct
new meaning to words that have perhaps been used too lightly
and cynically in the recent past -- namely "value" (instead
of excellence) and "thought" (instead of performance). Readings'
suggestion - or rather challenge - is to propose the construction
of a materialistic content to such idealistic terms. His untimely
death has transformed a challenge into a legacy - an important
one, I might add.

Based on a wide knowledge of university conditions (Germany,
France, Britain, the U.S.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What it is and what it isn't August 1, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Actually 4 and a half stars.

What it is not is what the title implies: a culture-war polemic. This is a heavily theorized account of the state of higher education. Moving from Kant, though the German Idealists and Humboldt, Readings traces the notion of a university anchored in rationality to one anchored in culture, in particular the culture of the nation-state, which the university is to inculcate in its students. In Germany this happens through philosophy, in England through English literature. Now, with the decline of the nation-state because of the triumph of transnational capitalism, there is, in effect, no nation state with a culture to inculcate. Hence, we have the university of `excellence', a nonreferential term that can mean anything.

Since this `excellence' subsumes everything previously considered counter-cultural, it turns all to a marketable commodity. (You want radical professors? You want radical cultural studies? Come to Old Siwash. Ours are Excellent. Just like our excellent dormitories and excellent exercise facilities.)

Ultimately this is an assault on the technocratic/bureaucratized/commercialized modern university, which measures all with quantifiable `metrics', accountability always being equatable with accounting, but what Readings offers in its place is somewhat vague, highly theoretical, unintelligible to bureaucrats and unlikely to ever happen: a community of `dissensus' rather than a search (as with the Germans) for not just the truth but its underlying unity.

The book is very provocative, deeply-considered and interesting. It is fair to say that it is most heavily tilted toward the German side of things rather than the English side of things (American higher education having been heavily influenced by both).
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