Critical University Studies

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Are students being taught how to write effectively across disciplines and subjects? What is the role of the arts in post-secondary education? How do we instill a sense of entrepreneurship, among other intangibles, in the people walking across the stage each spring?

These difficult questions are increasingly asked at many institutions, including our own. But how to even pose them effectively? An article in Chronicle this week takes on the budding issue of formalized self-criticism in higher education:

In some ways, critical university studies has succeeded literary theory as a nexus of intellectual energy. A dominant tenor of postmodern theory was to look reflexively at the way knowledge is constructed; this new vein looks reflexively at "the knowledge factory" itself (as the sociologist Stanley Aronowitz has called it), examining the university as both a discursive and a material phenomenon, one that extends through many facets of contemporary life.

Critical university studies especially evokes critical legal studies because they both scrutinize central social institutions, and a comparison of the two gives a fuller sense of the new field. Critical legal studies, or CLS as it is often known, began in the late 1970s and became established during the 1980s among a group of American legal scholars who wished to show that the law was not neutral or impartial, but served dominant social and economic interests. In a similar way, critical university studies, CUS, turns a cold eye on higher education, typically considered a neutral institution for the public good, and foregrounds its politics, particularly how it is a site of struggle between private commercial interests and more public ones.

Another similarity is that both fields argue against academic practice as usual. Critical legal studies distinguished itself from standard legal history, suggesting that law was an instrument of its social structure, therefore serving the interests of propertied classes, as well as tried to find ways that law might contribute to more equality. Critical university studies distinguishes itself from the standard history of education or the palliative tradition of "the idea of the university," which projects an ideal image, and analyzes how higher education is an instrument of its social structure, reinforcing class discrimination rather than alleviating it.

Read the whole thing.

Image: UGA Chapel and students, courtesy of University of Georgia photographic services.

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