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  • Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education
  • Steve Fuller
Paul Axelrod , Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003, 203 pp.

This work, authored by a distinguished historian of Canadian education, will be of most interest to those concerned with the marginalization of the liberal arts perspective in the wake of the increasing commercialization of Canadian universities. However, latecomers to the last fifteen years of Euro-American debate over the future of higher education will find the first two of the book's five chapters a reliable guide for the perplexed. The last three chapters are focussed on the Canadian scene — and mainly on Ontario. For readers relatively ignorant of the uniqueness of Canada's situation (such as this reviewer), the book does a good job of providing the key markers, especially the role that the country's 'land rich, population poor' status has had in shaping a managerial mentality toward universities (and other public services), first through the welfare state and now neo-liberalism (p. 89).

Invariably a book of this sort invites the question: Does it add anything to the global debate or is it mainly for domestic consumption? My guess is the latter, though it certainly provides some convenient facts, figures, and events for those engaged in comparative studies of higher education. Perhaps a more productive way to read this book is in terms of the distinctive emphases it gives to stories about the changing nature of universities that have been now told many times before. Generally speaking, Axelrod wants to uphold the fundamental values of liberal education but without turning back the clock and, whenever possible, by taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by, say, new information technology and general corporate awareness that academic specialization is an inadequate breeding ground for creativity and leadership (p. 67). At the same time, he has no illusions about the uphill battle he faces, given the few effective defenders of the classical university ideal on campuses today combined with the multiple incentives available to make commercialization the 'fourth mission' (p. 101).

A running theme through the book is that liberal education has been a rather unstable ideal throughout history, often threatening to turn into its opposite. For example, in the Victorian era, self-declared defenders of liberal education began to associate its classical goals of 'creativity, autonomy, and resilience' with a propensity toward gainful employment and a capacity for gentlemanly discretion. The former opened the university to the market values that are now so dominant and the latter continued elitist social structures that have only begun to be overturned in the last quarter-century. Moreover, the American backlash to these self-inflicted subversions of liberal education only complicated the problem. Charles W. Eliot's introduction of the elective system at Harvard in the 1870s attempted to render liberal education 'reflexive', as the rational [End Page 121] exercise of freedom was made integral to the process, and not simply the product, of liberal education. Yet, the structure of accountability within which courses are offered and evaluated has now become such a creature of the marketplace that even Eliot's experiment has been perverted.

It is a sign of our neo-liberal times that Axelrod underplays the traditional role of liberal education in nation-building, a function still recalled by the now hollowed out resonance of terms like 'citizenship' and 'civic responsibility' — but even that new mantra of the marketplace, 'leadership'. An interesting witness here would have been that other great Harvard president, James Bryant Conant, who famously placed science's cultural heritage (the forerunner of today's controversial science studies) at the heart of 'general education in a free society'. Even as the Cold War gathered steam, Conant firmly believed that free inquiry had less to fear from the military than the industrial side of America's military-industrial complex. He reasoned that the success of the atomic bomb project set a clear precedent for the value of letting scientists get on with their work without having to worry about regular returns on investments: Only a state, not a business, would...


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pp. 121-123
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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