Rethinking the University

Counterpress are pleased to announce the publication of Rethinking the University: Structure, Critique, Vocation by Soo Tian Lee. Dr Lee answers questions about his book.

You use the theoretical framework of Kojin Karatani as inspiration for Rethinking the University. Can you tell us what specifically attracted you to his thinking?

I was first introduced to the work of Kojin Karatani by Edia Connole, an Irish activist-academic whom I met during the May 2010 occupation of the Mansion Building as part of the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign. It took me a fair bit of time to assimilate his ideas into a framework which could be used to analyse the subject of my doctoral work, namely the postwar British university. However, looking back, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Karatani’s work for me was his focus on triads, which provided a way out of the many false dichotomies which I felt the discourse surrounding British higher education was stuck in. I was frustrated, for example, with the way that people spoke about the necessity of defending the “public” in higher education and attacking the turn towards what was termed “privatization,” because underlying their defence of a “public university” was a reaffirmation of the state and social democracy. I had come to suspect that a revival of the social democratic project was not a viable way forward, and when I read Karatani’s argument in the closing chapter of Transcritique that such a movement would only perpetuate the “unholy trinity” of Capital-Nation-State, I realised I had found something which could help me begin to make sense of the conjuncture of British higher education I was trying to analyse. Karatani’s argument, in essence, is that the forces of capital, nation and state often appear to be opposed to each other, but in reality they are an interlinked trinity or “Borromean knot.” When the system is challenged, a new configuration of these forces often rises and creates the semblance of change, but in reality it’s a plus ça change situation. Karatani gives two examples from the 20th century to illustrate his argument. He argues that fascism is the rise of nationalism which at first looks to displace capital, while state socialism is the deployment of the state against capital, but in both cases the trinity of Capital-Nation-State is not destroyed but rather revived, albeit in a different combination of the three elements.

These moments of epiphany that came to me through Karatani’s work, however, were only the beginning of what I ended up formulating in Rethinking the University. Although I started by trying to make use of Karatani’s arguments about Capital-Nation-State directly, these attempts were theoretically unsatisfactory, so reformulated another of his triadic frameworks, which I found in a series of less well-known essays on Kant in the 1990s. In them, Karatani’s reading of Kant is founded upon what he calls a “conceptual triad” of phenomenon, idea, and thing-in-itself. I seized upon Karatani’s point that this triad is not specific to Kant but recurs in various philosophical frameworks, and the abandonment of any of the three elements creates theoretical distortions. From this starting point, I reworked the Kantian triad into a framework which I argue is specific to the postwar British university and yet is connected to other similar triads, which I decided to call the “University Triad” of Instrumentalism, Idealism and Community.

The book is a very rich interweaving of both historical and theoretical elements. If you were to pick out one thing that you would like the reader to take away from the book, what would it be?

Every reader is different, and so I imagine readers of differing political and theoretical opinions would be interested in different aspects of the book. Perhaps I could be cheeky and address myself to two ideal types of readers. What I hope left-wing or left-leaning readers would take away in relation to my narrative of the postwar British university is that we should seriously question — and, I believe, abandon — the idea that there was a golden age of public university education that began to be built following the Second World War and lasted up until the 1970s or so when neoliberalism came along and paradise was lost. I will acknowledge that the British university in that period had characteristics which social democrats, for  instance, would consider rather ideal, but in the book I endeavour to prove that the desire to return to such a system is founded on shaky ground, historically and conceptually, and thus to fight for such a return is a misguided strategy. In other words, I wish such readers would reconsider their “Idealist” impulses. As for readers who are closer to the other pole of the traditional left-right political divide, I hope that those who hold to an “Instrumentalist” understanding of university education — that is, one which focuses on the practical gains that one may derive from a degree, such as better career prospects — will similarly query their underlying assumptions. I recognise that I have in this answer invoked a classic dichotomy — between the political left and the political right — rather than use a triadic frame, but given the fact that many of us still identify in terms of this one-dimensional spectrum, it is difficult to avoid such a recourse when trying to speak to readers where they currently are.

Given that you see a Karatani-inspired framework of instrumentalism, idealism, and community at play in the postwar British university, how does this relate to higher education more generally? In other words, can you abstract from your conclusion a point or points that you might argue are universally applicable?

For the purposes of the book, I explicitly chose to confine my arguments to the postwar British university, but you are right in suggesting that there was an implicit assumption that the triad of instrumentalism, idealism and community is one which can be used to analyse not just British higher education but higher education in every place and time. However, I would be most happy for others to refine the terms I use for my triad to ones which are more universal, if the triad is used to study universities in other jurisdictions and time periods. However, I would go even further and say that the triad of concepts, when abstracted into their most general forms — what I term action-centricism, thought-centricism and feeling-centrism — can be productively used to analyse pretty much any subject in which humans are the primary actors. 

In the book you appear to make a link between idealism, academic excellence and elitism. Is this link necessary (even in the case of elite vanguards of revolutionary thought) or is there an idealism which is not inherently exclusionary of those who do not think academically?

Oh, I wouldn’t say that there is a necessary link between idealism and academic excellence or elitism. In fact, I think that in a way the perspective of instrumentalism can be more easily connected to both an obsession over “excellence,” whether defined academically or in any other fashion, as well as elitism, in the sense of the top-down policy-making of capitalist-oriented technocrats. Having said that, I do think that proponents of certain idealist visions such as the public university are completely puzzled when iconoclastic academic or, perhaps, “post-academic” activists attack the ideological foundations of higher education and propose, for example, that the university or at least the system of accredited qualifications be abandoned. I’ve certainly seen such mutual incomprehension between these two broad groups of people at a number of conferences I’ve attended.

But at the end of the day, the idealist approach is a form without a definite content. As I argue in the book, the essential aspect of idealism is its elevation of principles and rational frameworks over that of practical calculations and emotional or affective considerations. The reason I chose to focus on the public university ideal was due to its prominence in certain forums of debate, but it is not the definitive version of idealism in higher education. So it’s certainly possible to fashion an idealism within the university which is able to encompass more than academic advancement. Indeed, those who advocate for a revolutionary overturning of the present system may indeed be operating primarily in an idealist mode.

How would this year’s lecturer’s strike in the UK over pension changes be analysed within the discursive framework of the book?

This is a very interesting question, but I offer my thoughts with quite a bit of hesitation due to the fact that the strike took place after my return to Malaysia, and so I was not on the ground to absorb the discourse, feelings and the lived actuality of the struggle. However, I can speak as an observer from a distance, and one who was involved in previous strikes around the USS pension reforms in previous stages of the conflict.

I think the book’s discursive framework can be helpful in breaking down some of the unruly elements surrounding the strike and organising them into a more intelligible whole. All three perspectives in the University Triad have been active in the struggle. The instrumentalist approach to higher education can be seen, for example, in the actions of non-supportive students who organised petitions to demand compensation for hours of instruction that were lost. On the other hand, some of the discourse justifying the strike was founded — including in the speeches and writings of Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary — invoked the notion of university education as a public good. Finally, the most essential factor in the success of any extended strike action is solidarity, not just amongst the strikers but also with allies such as sympathetic students and other workers. What is this but the perspective of community coming to the fore? In the swirl of arguments, actions and emotions, we can see these at work, and thinking through them with the concepts in the book may prove helpful to some.

Are you optimistic about the future of the university?

The university or studium is a very old institution, one of the three pillars of medieval Europe, together with imperium and sacerdotium. Each of these has, of course, evolved and morphed in interesting ways since the unraveling of the medieval synthesis and the beginnings of modernity. The Holy Roman Empire was long gone in influence even before its long-awaited formal demise, and so we have seen very different modulations of empire over the past five hundred years or so. The former monolith of the Church has continued to splinter in the years since the Protestant Reformation, even though the ecumenical movement over the past hundred or so years has succeeded in bringing a greater sense of the old words, “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” Yet the university has, in my view, continued to maintain the facade of an enduring coherence in its overall identity and raison d’etre, even through the immense changes which have taken place.

Am I optimistic about the university’s future? It depends on what we’re taking about. It is certainly going to persist, and appears set to continue to expand in its scope and reach. But if the measure of our optimism is based not on growth and influence but rather on a certain radicalism of going back to the roots, I think the romance of intellectual enquiry is increasingly going to become a rare treasure rather than the common experience of university students. To return to the terminology of the book, I think instrumentalism will continue to rise so long as capitalism continues, while state-centric efforts to reintroduce idealism will moderate the excesses of this dynamic. As for community, it will probably continue to wane or turn into a submerged undercurrent, but we may see a reactionary return founded on nationalism and other particularisms. To attempt to end on a Karatanian note, I still hope for some sort of radical associationist university taking shape to transcend these trends, but in order for that to happen, we will need both local initiatives and international solidarity. With my limited human vision, I cannot claim to know how exactly such an expression will come about, but I sure hope it does. In the meantime, we can definitely take a Woodcockian strategy of nurturing the positive trends, and thus keep the faith.

Find out more about Rethinking the University from Counterpress, the fair access academic publisher.

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