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  • Stanley Cavell and Criticizing the University from Within
  • Michael Fischer

Stanley Cavell has spoken often of his "lifelong quarrel with the profession of philosophy" but he has said less about the university as a whole and its pressures on all academic disciplines, philosophy included. 1 In Cavell's work, "academic" or "professional" philosophy takes shape in an institutional context he has not yet fully analyzed. I want here to extrapolate from Cavell's work a critical, yet sympathetic, response to the university that I think is especially needed today, when the rise of the so-called corporate university is intensifying some of the professional pressures that Cavell resists.

Cavell's discomfort with academic philosophy stems in part from what he regards as its narrowness, specifically, its marginalization of Ludwig Wittgenstein and other philosophers, not to mention Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the comedies of remarriage, and other work that Cavell cares about. In his view, the professional marginalization of these writers partly results from their exemplifying what can seem to be a vague moral seriousness, even at times a prophetic urgency, that calls for something akin to conversion rather than issuing in specific conclusions or reforms. According to Cavell, academic philosophy, by contrast, subsumes moral concerns under ethics, a separate field in which the "point of conversation is getting the other to agree to, or to do, something." 2

Although Cavell does not systematically analyze the institutional pressures on academic philosophy, he does drop some hints. As befitting a subject seeking legitimacy in the university, academic philosophy has aligned itself with teachable subjects such as science, as opposed to more elusive pursuits such as painting and creative writing, which [End Page 471] have been less at home in the university and where the necessity of university instruction may be less clear and the line between success and failure harder to draw. 3 What can be taught in academic philosophy is a method of analysis, mastery of which can be certified in students by professors and in professors by journals, promotion and tenure committees, and administrators. Subdividing philosophy into discrete fields such as ethics makes it even more manageable, or less susceptible to sweeping pronouncements that cannot be tested by experts. Finally, the interest in getting "the other to agree to, or to do, something" associates academic philosophy, or at least ethics, with measurable results and maybe even progress.

The rise of the so-called corporate university has exacerbated the emphasis on teachable expertise and definable outcomes that I have been describing. Take the largest private university in the United States—the University of Phoenix—as a model that some state and non-profit private universities may be emulating as they struggle to cut costs, meet external expectations, and work with reduced budgets. At the University of Phoenix, the interest in measurable results gets recast as learning outcomes that teachers enable students to reach as efficiently as possible. Specialization narrows these learning outcomes to sharply defined skills, such as writing business memos, which students can master and build on. Finally, the emphasis on method does not simply depersonalize instruction; it reduces the need for instructors. Each instructor is tasked with teaching as many students as possible, sometimes through distance learning, with class size reaching a limit only when the learning outcomes cannot be delivered. Lacking tenure, these instructors can be replaced, like interchangeable parts, when they wear out or their student customers become too dissatisfied with them. At another rapidly growing for-profit university, DeVry, students unhappy with their instructors are assured, in the words of a campus dean, that "weak links" will be "fixed" in a "total quality management" environment. 4

Along similar lines, Lindsay Waters has recently explored how "the corporate makeover of the university" and "the commercialization of higher education" have affected academic publishing. 5 Universities compete in an increasingly cutthroat marketplace and face an escalating insistence on results from state legislatures, federal agencies, accrediting associations, and boards. Capitulating to this "accountability culture" (EP, p. 20), bottom-line driven administrators have stepped up demands for faculty productivity, measured in quantitative terms by numbers of students taught, grants won, and, what most concerns Waters, books and [End...


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