Universities and especially the humanities, whose use for job markets and economic growth tends to be called into question, are often asked to justify their existence and their use of tax payers’ money for seemingly non-useful endeavours. How about turning the argument around?
by Anna Katarrh
Image: stained glass of the Parish of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts) / Wikipedia
The Ideal Ivory Tower
Instead of being seen as a possibility of retreat and distance from the business of the world at large, the image of the ivory tower is often used as a critical description of the removal of universities from society. However, the idea of an ivory tower could also be partly reclaimed as something to be defended: for instance, a place for developing knowledge without immediately having to prove its applicability or economic use; a space for intense, deep or broad, research whose direction is not governed by economic or even social necessity but by interest and curiosity; room for teaching and learning which allows for individual development beyond direct usability and for critical thought beyond the many ideological legitimations of the status quo. In this sense, an ideal ivory tower should be a place we can all retreat to as often as we would like to: to study on our own or to debate in smaller or larger circles removed from the distractions as well as the necessities of everyday life. In this ideal sense, the ivory tower’s gates should be open to everyone, not just the select few, but its construction should allow for withdrawal, productive isolation as well as concentrated interaction. Conceived as an ivory tower of temporary retreat for everyone, the university loses the stigma of being a space for elites and scientists caught up in discourses of little interest or relevance for ‘the general public’.
The Real Ivory Tower
University is one of the institutions of class society and is instrumental in keeping up class divisions.
In order to get out of the elitist ivory tower, academics often plan to ‘reach out’ to ‘the general public’. But this conception, important as it is, already implies a division between the university and society. It reveals an attitude which assumes that the university can never fully be for and of ‘the general public’. It is conceived as a space for the few—with a mission to ‘reach out’, but not with a mission to include everyone. Indeed, the university is an ivory tower in this sense. It is one of the institutions of class society and is instrumental in keeping up class divisions. It helps to select a future elite of managers, politicians, law makers and enforcers, lawyers, civil servants, educators, doctors, engineers, journalists, writers and media producers etc.—members of society with influence and money, the ruling class.
As such, the ivory tower is an integral part of a society which is, as a whole, structured by many ‘exclusive’ spaces, from large entities like nation states with their border politics to class-based spaces of difference where access is regulated more indirectly but not less strictly. In this sense, the ivory tower and its inhabitants, its staff, as well as those who pass through it, its students, are an integral part of society, not removed from it. The division between academics and ‘the general public’ is rather a division between upper and lower classes, and this division, of course, characterises society at large.
You may be able to climb up to the ivory tower, even from an underprivileged background: but the chances you have to reach the upper floors, nevertheless, reproduce the discriminations and exclusions of the rest of society.
Indeed, the university reproduces the existing class structure when, despite growing numbers of university graduates, social background still significantly determines the level of (higher) education reached. Through its various selection processes, on entry and through every exam, and also its rituals of academic discourse and habitus, the ivory tower helps to ensure that there is no large-scale social change, no large-scale emancipation of everyone, no leveling of inequality. It is an instrument of social control, a watchtower over class differences. You may be able to climb up to the ivory tower, even from an underprivileged background: but the chances you have to reach the upper floors, nevertheless, reproduce the discriminations and exclusions of the rest of society.
Sometimes, the distinction between academics and ‘the public’ is thought of as a distinction between the intellectual and the practical realist, mostly with a bias for the latter and some suspicion towards the former. Such a division is another ideological one. It exists in current societies, but it is based on a specific division of labour which creates such distinctions. It is not the result of a necessary opposition that has to be bridged. In fact, every practice is accompanied by thought, planning and evaluation. Only in a hierarchical society, such as the current one, these human activities are separated from one another.
It points towards overcoming a social order which creates monotonous, solely physical work for many and creative, intellectual work only for some.
This separation, then, is not an issue of the university alone but a larger social issue and should be conceived as such. It points towards overcoming a social order which creates monotonous, solely physical work for many and creative, intellectual work only for some. This division, of course, also comes with further benefits, financial and status benefits for the higher classes. Therefore, a range of behavioural and linguistic patterns reinforces and justifies these distinctions. For example, it leads to the use of specialist language in order to exclude the other from knowledge and to create a barrier which strengthens social divisions. This barrier is carried from university into society when, for instance, lawyers and doctors communicate in a language designed to make it clear to client and patient that they are in need of the experts’ (pricy) help but unable to fully share their insights. Such language use, as well as the many other practices of class distinction, serves to legitimate a hierarchical and exclusionary social order—an order with many removed ‘ivory towers’, villas with fences, nation states with walls, or ‘exclusive’ commercial enterprises with high prices.
The Intellectual in the Ivory Tower?
The intellectual in the ivory tower is often seen as a theorist or even an idealist disconnected from the real world. This conception of the bearer of intellect, of human reason, demonstrates a further issue of current capitalist societies. It is linked to an economic system where practical realism is structurally opposed to the values, ideals, complexities and critical issues potentially explored by the intellectual. In capitalism, the realist has to act solely according to economic principles, not according to any other principles an intellectual might take into consideration. But this is an issue in itself: Why should we be content to live in a society where economic realism and general human reason, economic necessities and universal values are systematically placed in opposition to each other?
The privileged inhabitants of ivory towers have also adopted a self-perpetuating habit of trying to outdo others.
In this sense, however, the university is giving up its ivory tower status more and more. Academic publishing, for example, has become such a large business that it is not unusual today that academics receive spam-emails advertising publishing opportunities. The privileged inhabitants of ivory towers have to a large degree also adopted the behaviour and logic of the market economy: competition instead of collaboration, research according to its academic market value, not its intrinsic interest. This is, indeed, a necessity for those looking for jobs in this competitive environment. When those in permanent positions retain the same market-oriented behaviour, which is frequently the case, it becomes a self-perpetuating habit or a continuation of trying to outdo others.
Academics regularly present themselves as tirelessly working, coffee-addicted enthusiasts for research on social media, little thinking, it seems, of the effect such self-images can have on considerations of working hours and a sensible work-life balance within academia, as well as how such self-presentations can add to stress and anxiety felt by those who struggle to keep up such self-perceptions or -projections. It is good to see others who have started to use social media as a forum for exchanging information and experiences of psychological issues typical of university life: burn-out, depression or writer’s block, which can contribute to or be caused by the former conditions, potentially creating a vicious circle which can be difficult to escape from.
Internal competition for funds and resources and, for those waiting to enter the ivory tower, a struggle for recognition and for jobs often create an atmosphere of competition and anxiety instead of cooperation and (self-) trust.
Internal hierarchies and power structures, formal ones as well as informal ones, such as a more or less implicit patriarchalism, make the ivory tower itself a mirror of socio-political orders at large. There is a lack of democratic decision-making processes and there are institutional as well as personal positions of power, sometimes hard to understand or to appeal to: a top floor governing the tower, the routes to which are often hidden. Internal competition for funds and resources and, for those waiting to enter the ivory tower, a struggle for recognition and for jobs often create an atmosphere of competition and anxiety instead of cooperation and (self-) trust. This makes it harder for more sensitive or self-doubting and less conformist personalities to climb, or even get a first foothold on its career ladders. This increasingly leads to serious psychological problems amongst post-graduates.
The university is much less a space for the development of critical, let alone idealist, intellectuals than a place for pragmatists adapted to the status quo and ready to compete for success. This is also true of the university’s concept of its students. When research and teaching have to prove their relevance to ‘employability’ this is not the general employability of a topic to other fields of inquiry, but obviously relates to the production of graduates fit for the job market. Flexible skills are not trained because they enhance one’s intellectual capacities but because they can be adapted to the respective needs of shifting markets. So, graduates are supposed to be made ‘future-proof’, not in the sense of a holistic understanding of human beings with a strong interest in their futures but in the sense of being able to adjust to the changing demands of work, which has become increasingly stressful and unbounded, pushing work-life-balances towards work not life.
Employability is not something universities can transfer to students, but it is something ultimately decided by the job market.
However, much as universities may try, in this sense they remain an ivory tower: employability is not something universities can transfer to students, but it is something ultimately decided by the job market. A graduate may be knowledgeable and skilled—if there is no market demand for their particular skills, they may still be in theory employable but unemployed. The unpredictability of markets makes it hard to advise which skills and which subjects may be needed, and in which fields saturation may already have been reached. Yes, it would be unfair to students not to try and help them in finding good jobs, but the university should not foster the illusion that this is up to its syllabi or teaching methods: it is solely up to the logic of the economy. In this way, without always admitting it openly, the university is not a beacon showing what kind of knowledge and skills humanity will need or want in the future, but it is a humble follower of the decisions made by markets and the economic subjects acting within them. The ivory tower bends to economic necessities.
Claiming the Ivory Tower for All
In the current society, universities and especially disciplines such as the humanities whose use for job markets and economic growth tends to be called into question are often asked to justify their existence and their use of tax payers’ money for seemingly non-useful endeavours. To counter this, it has often been argued that skills learnt in such subjects are, indeed, increasingly useful within economies which depend on knowledge, transferable ‘soft skills’, the ability to analyse large amounts of information and to communicate effectively. However, should this marketability be the criterion by which we evaluate every subject and each topic of enquiry? How about turning the argument around?
Teachers and students interested in all sorts of different subjects could demand a society which is precisely about creating spaces for the pursuit of such interests.
Rather than asking universities, teachers and students interested in all sorts of different subjects to justify their interests, we could demand a society which is precisely about creating spaces for the pursuit of such interests. This would be a society with the development of knowledge, thought and communication as one of its core practices. The continuous deliberation, debate and actualisation of different ways of social life, of knowledge, creativity and practices should really be at the centre of any political community; not only in the sense of producing useful knowledge and skills but also as a value in itself. The ivory tower, then, would become a large open space with many routes of access and support, many chambers of retreat and of meeting, of concentrated studying and of open conversations—an essential space for a democratic society.
Within this social order and in view of an increasing economisation of all aspects of life, including the university, we should fight as much as we can for possible spaces of critical thought, of experimentation, rigorous debate and controversial, dissenting research and learning—for everyone, not just for those preselected by the educational system. We should create many small ivory towers, open to all—within or outside of university—but removed from the constraints and dictates of the capitalist economy. Until a large, democratic ivory tower can be built together with a different political system.
Anna Katarrh works at a real ivory tower, her teaching and research are in the fields of cultural studies and political theory. She is also a member of the Institute of Utopian Studies, which is—for the time being—a utopian institution seeking to provide a platform for debate about ideas of radical socio-political change, a small, virtual ivory tower for all.
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