But What’s It Really For? by Robert DiNapoli

The present state of tertiary education and the external forces that inflect the governance of universities in almost every quarter of the globe beg some fundamental questions about the purpose of the modern university that its current managers have little interest in answering except in the brochure-speak of the fund manager’s report. The story so far is by now an oft-told tale. The presidents, vice-chancellors, deans and everyone else who officially ‘run’ the universities of our time, under the pressure of sundry fiscal crises, have been compelled to respond to government funding imperatives that, commonly, have pursued the mercantile, utilitarian and monetarist principles of neoliberal economics. These read all social exchanges in the light of reductive cost-benefit analyses comparable to deciding whether or not to purchase this expensive cut of meat or that insurance policy. ‘Economic rationalism’, it’s sometimes called. The marketplace, along with the rational (or so at least it is assumed) choices we make among the goods and services it offers, constitutes a mechanism for assigning value to every aspect of our lives.

Since the onset of the industrial revolution, a number of mercantilist assumptions have become embedded in our thinking, not just about economics but about what we take as the whole of life, the universe and everything. The partisans of efficiency and profit have proselytised with the unshakeable belief of the newly converted in the self-evident good of their shiny new faith. And a faith it is, never more than in our era of the latter-day capitalist saint, where governments dominated by acolytes of the driest economic rationalisms have sought to make real their vision of the world as a not-so-fun-house of price-tag, contract and the calculating, narrow-eyed gaze of homo economicus, who negotiates among them. No policy gets debated seriously except in terms of what material benefits it offers and whether ‘we’ can afford it.

Politicians remain partial to that cosy first-person plural pronoun that gives grammatical sanction to the notion that they and the rest of us share a common interest in their deliberations. In grim fact, however, their pursuit of banking, brokering and book-keeping heaven has left an increasing proportion of that ‘we’ in economic purgatory, as their policies encourage managers to pursue cybernetically pimped efficiencies in both manufacturing and service provision. In this they have been abetted by revolutions in machine intelligence (from the first Jacquard loom punch-card to the latest computer) and automation that have allowed them to disenfranchise ever larger proportions of traditional work forces, for whom the reject bin of economic history very rationally gaped.

In a recent segment from America’s National Public Radio broadcast on Australia’s Radio National, I heard President Obama lamenting the questionable recruitment practices of some of America’s ‘for-profit’ universities, which encourage students to enrol in courses with promises of either content or future prospects that never materialise. (The ‘for-profit’ qualifier appears to have taken over from the more elegant ‘private’ in a bold acknowledgement of what sort of game is really being played here. Score one for brutal honesty, but surely this bland adoption of what, not long ago, would have sounded like a crude vulgarity marks a dieback in the intellectual forest-canopy.) The President castigated these institutions for ‘not delivering good product’. I find the mercantile cast of Obama’s criticism a little more disquieting than its deserving target. To regard education as a ‘product’ is to reduce it to an inert object and commodity, upon which any number of impersonal and, indeed, mechanical forces act and impose, like peaches plucked from a living tree and dispatched to sorting centre, cannery, more transport, warehouse, supermarket, checkout, and, finally perhaps, fallout-shelter pantry, along the way moving ever farther from the living powers of sap and sky amongst which they took shape. In my experience, teaching resembles gardening far more than it does manufacturing, and the attempts over the past half-century by various authorities to subject tertiary education to the ‘discipline’ of the market have exacted a calamitous toll on both the collegial spirit of academia at its best and on the quality of such teaching as it still offers.

Exceptions exist, of course. The good teacher will still shine in such dark times as ours, but then candles look their most brilliant when all else has been dimmed, and most of the authorities that now fund or govern all levels of education in the developed world (with very few exceptions) seem on their worse days to be bent on quenching whatever lights might still be glowing out there in the deepening gloom. In the name of economic and bureaucratic necessities identified with big abstractions such as ‘accountability’, ‘consistency of outcome’, ‘compliance’ and ‘best practice’, the whole idea of teaching as an inspired art is succumbing to the same kinds of mass-production techniques that overtook artisanal manufacturing in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Now we come to the encounter that sparked this essay. By chance, I recently saw an issue of the glossy alumni magazine published by the University of Melbourne, under the cryptic title 3010. It did all the usual things, mostly touting the university’s and its former students’ high-flying achievements, here and there venturing a timid peep about old-school humanist values, all in the good cause of cadging pots of money from well-off graduates. Its very top executive, the Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis, composed a substantial comment piece–cum–mission statement about his university’s achievements and aspirations. Davis opens by drawing on its motto, a Latin tag from the ancient Roman satirist Horace: postera crescam laude (‘I shall grow in the esteem of future generations’, in Davis’ translation), both to salute his institution’s many achievements and to sound a note of caution—however tall we stand upon the world stage, he intones, we must neither rest on our laurels nor succumb to hubris.

Worthy sentiments, even if they lean a little hard on commencement-day boilerplate. Later he will return to Horace to round off his rhetorical exercise. The details don’t really matter here, but the Vice-Chancellor’s facility with Horace, in one of many grim ironies, reflects his familiarity with classical studies, one of the disciplines harried to the brink of oblivion by the bouts of rationalisation and forced redundancies undertaken by Davis’ own administrative regime. But maybe his easy acquaintance with Horace is not all it appears.

Davis translates Horace’s laude (literally ‘praise’) as ‘esteem’, a PR tag that has adorned banners, posters, committee reports and mission statements in every quarter of the university’s culture since it was taken up in 2005. But ‘esteem’ may not be the best rendering of laude into modern English. Its usual translation as ‘praise’ is nearer the mark, something concrete that others, perceiving your worth, actively bestow upon you. ‘Reputation’ (in the sense of a good one) also gets nearer the meaning of laude. A reputation is out there, more or less concretely, in the public domain. It can be plausibly nurtured and made to grow by those who enjoy a good one. ‘I want to establish a good reputation’ is a proposition that can be acted upon. But ‘I hope to win your esteem’ voices the lickspittle fawning of a professional courtier. Such ‘esteem’ is an inner disposition of those who feel it, in response to their perception of worth in another, usually a person or their behaviour rather than an institution. To win esteem, you must act virtuously, precisely without that esteem as your primary aim: it’s the virtue that you must aim for. Only in the dark arts of modern marketing and advertising do we find operators seeking to manipulate, often by less than direct or forthright means, the minds of their ‘target’ audience in order to play for their esteem through hype and showmanship rather than through virtuous conduct. A close reading of the Vice-Chancellor’s essay will show how he rises to his task of solicitation.

First, a little more background. In my erstwhile work for the University of Melbourne as a sessional lecturer, I received more than one letter of commendation when certain ticks my students had put on computer-readable evaluation forms had registered their opinion of my lectures and the tutorials I conducted with them. Deep in the office of the Dean of Arts, a computer responded, each semester, with yet another billet-doux singing my praises, which was then signed, as per the Dean, by one of his office staffers. The last of these offered the same identically worded laude of my teaching abilities for the three medieval-literature courses I had taught in 2008, whose titles were singled out in boldface type at the head of the letter. The wording of those letters included fulsome praise for my contribution to ‘our [my italics] growing esteem’. But, alas, my ‘esteem’ was not growing with the Dean. That last letter was dated 14 May 2009, the very time at which I learned that those same courses were being permanently axed. Across a few subsequent semesters, I continued teaching a final more general course, for which I received more letters of commendation. At last, the trickle of work dried up and I needed to find other ways of employing myself. Which I have done, in a fashion, teaching courses for the public well outside the university’s zone of ‘growing esteem’. So the glossy alumni mag threw me into a thoughtful state, whose fruits I’d now like to share.

The Vice-Chancellor gets into what George H. W. Bush might have called ‘the esteem thing’ early:

One hundred and sixty years since the University’s founders adopted the motto postera crescam laude [Horace’s esteemed tag], the prophecy of growth and esteem is being fulfilled.

Here the motto’s literal reference to Horace’s hope of a growing esteem for his poetry metamorphoses into a ‘prophecy’ of the university’s ‘growth and esteem’, which now, mirabile dictu, we can see fulfilled in this our day. This verbal legerdemain allows an elision of the semantic nullity of ‘growth and esteem’ by hiding it behind a marmoreal classical façade. Yet beneath such aspiring rhetoric stirs a play of trapdoors, smoke, and apparitions that look imposing but prove, on closer inspection, to be mere ectoplasmic phantasms.

The Vice-Chancellor warns that the university’s achievements may breed ‘hubris’—invoking an even older classical tradition, perhaps more aptly than he realises. But he sums up this humble admonition thus: ‘Self praise does not bring further accomplishment’. But neither is it really ‘hubris’. That flaw of the protagonist in classical Greek tragedy combines a fatal lack of self-awareness with a burning itch to overachieve, and it is the latter that eventually invites Nemesis’ tap on his shoulder. The invocation of ‘accomplishment’ as a good from whose pursuit an undue self-regard might distract the university turns us, at a stroke, from the language of Aristotle or Sophocles to that of the modern manager, whose pursuit of efficiency and profit will not stick at any linguistic excruciation. It’s in his ‘accomplishments’ that the classical protagonist’s hubris most powerfully manifests itself. To sound the klaxon of ‘accomplishment’ in this context is wholly to misrepresent the notion of hubris, which has nothing at all to do with slacking off and everything to do with compulsive ‘accomplishment’. So early in the piece, with no definition of what that desired outcome might actually entail, it also smacks of the factory steam-whistle hurtling workers from their beds to another day at the assembly line.

Davis begins his proper pitch by noting a sequence of ‘discussion’ papers promulgated by the university at regular intervals—2005, 2010 and 2014—each bearing the title of ‘Growing Esteem’, asserting that the last of these outdoes its predecessors in that it ‘takes for granted’ the agenda they established and addresses the ‘task’ of completing their ‘vision’. Again, disparate languages, this time of the corporate conference room and the Book of Revelation, combine to queer effect—with not a lick of content yet, mind, 237 words into the piece. The next paragraph I quote in its entirety:

There is no destination for a university, no landing point. Our tasks repeat, as we offer knowledge, learning and engagement to each new generation. Mission is shaped by present circumstances, but profoundly attached to a long tradition.

I find it hard to keep the voice of that windy dispenser of maxim, apophthegm and pro forma virtue, Hamlet’s Polonius, out of my head at this juncture. His ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ routine sits quite nicely against the idea of offering ‘learning and engagement to new generations’. How do you ‘offer engagement’ other than on one knee, with a ring? The Vice-Chancellor is trafficking in aspirational abstraction, of the kind routinely deployed by advertisers keen to talk big while promising little: of course you want your offerings to be engaging in a broad sense of not being mortally dull, but that’s as far as such abstraction can reach in the absence of any concrete specifics.

Beyond this the rhetoric proves so malleable that it can point in two or more directions at one time while eliding any overt contradiction. Davis begins with the metaphors of ‘destination’ and ‘landing point’, ruling them out for the university as it pursues its ceaseless quest for deeper and more meaningful engagements—a worthy enough nod to the free, exploratory élan that ought to propel any good teaching and learning. He follows with ‘Our tasks repeat’—which sounds like the description of a number-two wing-nut spinner’s post on some assembly line—as we ‘offer knowledge, learning and engagement’. The three grammatical objects sound a plausible if abstract note, but to ‘offer’ them jars it a little. If these words mean anything here, they name processes rather than objects or substances. They can be fostered, nurtured, encouraged, cultivated, disseminated: with so many more appropriate verbs to choose from, why has Davis gone for ‘offer’? Your host can ‘offer’ you drinks and canapés. Mobile phones can be offered for sale in a shop, and I suppose antagonists might ‘offer’ each other insults and threats. A university might ‘offer’ places to successful applicants. In all these usages, what is ‘offered’ is a material good or a gesture of a highly defined character, wholly at the disposition of the party who ‘offers’ (or, by implication, ‘withholds’).

I would suggest that the rhetoric of adventure and open-ended exploration is subtly belied by the language of iterative manufacture and the distribution of reified substance. Universities shouldn’t traffic in stuff, except maybe in their gift shops. (A friend who recently submitted a finished PhD dissertation at the University of Melbourne was shocked to be handed in return a balloon on a stick, like those given to very young children at birthday parties, in the university’s colours and bearing its logo with the ubiquitous Horace tag. Quid multa? Growing esteem? This is simply a demeaning—to both parties—exercise in gormless PR.) The Vice-Chancellor spreads before us a vista of discovery only to reduce it at once to a production line, which is pretty much how those who traffic in this sort of corporate brochure–speak have sought to transform the modern university.

As if this did not sufficiently harness the Pegasus of inquiry and speculation to the plough of efficiency and outcomes, ‘mission’—again more or less in the abstract—connotes the very antithesis of the freewheeling, landing-zoneless romp through the meadows of learning where the piece began. And this mission is ‘shaped’ and ‘profoundly [my italics] attached [ditto]’ to a ‘long tradition’. Poor Dobbin is set to plough a very long row indeed, under the encumbrance of all sorts of external drag and compulsion. On the one hand, there’s no fixed destination, but on the other there’s a formidable train of determinants.

The feel-good language is meant to tickle the fancies and wallets of well-to-do graduates. This is button-pushing on a grand scale, to which forensic logic or nuanced semantics will always take a back seat when the rhetoric seeks to cajole so fulsomely. And none of it surprises me. I have been mooching around the university sector as a bottom-feeding sessional lecturer for far too long not to know the lie (so to speak) of the land. When the loftier sort of academic administrator starts spouting aspirational rhetoric, those of us slaving down in the delta know another brick-making efficiency wheeze is on its way. Lately population culls have begun to figure prominently in the mix as well. No reed baskets in sight, alas. It’s all prettied up for public consumption by the PR consultants, but it’s enforced on our end of the business with the overseer’s lash. Today’s Vice-Chancellor, in order to do the job for which he or she will be handsomely remunerated, must be more of a Donald Trump than a Dumbledore, a crude fact that grows more glaringly obvious as the pitch to stockholders gathers momentum.

What follows are more anodyne generalisations about the university’s ‘service’ to its ‘communities’: undergraduate (‘breadth of learning’) and graduate (‘professional education’). This is the mantra of the so-called ‘New Melbourne Model’, under which chirpy rhetorical banner many harsh economies have been enforced. In my neck of the English literature woods, as in a number of other humanities disciplines such as classics, it has amounted to a kind of clear-cut logging. The new ‘breadth’ courses, servicing students in batches of hundreds, have supplanted a number of older courses grounded in traditional historical periods and genres, which would commonly have been taught by a larger number of senior academic staff across a greater number of lectures and tutorials containing fewer students. You can argue the merits of both approaches till the cows come home, but what stand out a mile in this root-and-branch redesign of teaching and curriculum are the efficiency gains and cost reductions. Fewer high-paid staff teaching larger groups of students for fewer hours. Smells like Ford spirit to me: the ergonomics of the assembly line, managed to ensure that the fewest possible workers can ‘output’ the maximum units of production, largely by restricting their freedom of movement and individual initiative. When I first taught at the University of Melbourne, enrolments in tutorials were capped at twenty, already a number that made a hollow pretence of the close engagement that a ‘tutorial’ ought to involve. Within three years that twenty rose to twenty-five, and in another three to thirty. And in that last bump-up contact hours for all courses were reduced from three hours a week to two and a half by shortening tutorial hours. Improving students’ educational experiences? I don’t think so.

Manufacturing industries have, in our time, approached ever nearer to the manager’s asymptotic Nirvana: the completely robotic factory, sans workers, sans sick leave, sans unions, sans everything. In our larger digital world, where corporations pursue maximal profits for minimal outlays on staff and plant, the machine will trump the human every time, anywhere its capacity for tireless and uncomplaining iteration can be brought to bear. Messy, complex humans really don’t stand much of a chance in that game.

Long ago, as its primitive technology betrays, I once heard the following anecdote:

A lecturer in sociology, infamous for the numbing tedium of his performances, began another semester of SOC101 one resplendent autumn morning. The following week, he noticed an empty seat in the front row, whose former occupant had deputised a mini-cassette recorder to listen on her behalf. The week after, he noticed that there were two seats where mini-cassette recorders were capturing his wisdom for their owners. The next week there were six, the next twelve, and so on, till, in the penultimate week of that semester, the lecturer found himself orating to a room of empty seats, on each of which was perched a mini-cassette recorder. In the final week, a cleaner, sweeping the corridor outside the lecture hall, passed the open door and beheld within a large reel-to-reel tape machine and state-of-the art stereo system booming the lecturer’s final performance to the same audience of mini-cassette recorders.

At first hearing, this story seemed an obvious comment on the foibles of both lecturers and students—the former often boring, the latter constitutionally lazy. Only a few decades later, however, its reductio ad absurdam vision of the machine as an ad hoc means of redressing human limitation has taken on some heft as a quirky (but spot-on) prophecy of the online module and its gargantuan agglomeration, the MOOC. The notion that teacher and student need never share the same space is no longer a joke but a major efficiency gain nearly all the vice-chancellors of the world are dying to cash in on.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne speaks of ‘new technologies’ that allow worldwide multitudes to enrol in his university’s courses, and then proceeds without pause to magic up, like Prospero (or Macbeth’s weird sisters), a pageant of MOOC, TED and Google to remind his stockholders that ‘university lecturers and libraries no longer hold a monopoly on knowledge’. Well, no, they don’t, but in truth they never did. And what’s with the business-speak again? In commerce a monopoly involves total control of the supply of a scarce commodity. But if you look closely, you’ll see he is not saying that knowledge ought not to be treated as a commodity, only that ‘knowledge’ is de facto no longer a restricted commodity. In his attempt to suggest that this brave new world involves some sort of freeing up or opening of frontiers, he uses language that still characterises knowledge as commodity.

But knowledge is not like cotton, oil or pork bellies. If I share some of mine with you, my store is not reduced. Of course, the Vice-Chancellor speaks metaphorically here, meaning universities and libraries can no longer control access to what they offer. But what is that, exactly? This is the question that gives this essay its title, and it strikes to the heart of the ramifying pathologies of the false commercial analogies and principles that have overtaken the administration of higher education during the past fifty years. If we cannot speak plausibly about universities ‘creating’ or ‘offering’ knowledge, as the Vice-Chancellor does here, then what can we say they do? I will defer my attempt at an answer to the end of my discussion, but we can note here that, once he gets the digital bit between his teeth, the Vice-Chancellor is keen to run with it. Sticky questions about worth and purpose can wait. In his next observations he lets so many cats out of their bags that I need to herd them across an entire paragraph to keep them all in view:

Digital technologies and the ubiquity of knowledge have particular implications for students and learning. With the prevalence of wholly online and blended (formal programs in which students learn in part through online delivery of content), alternative economic models for tertiary delivery are likely to emerge. Universities must innovate to meet student demand for technology-enabled learning.

Note how, once again, his rhetoric allows him to combine contrary sensibilities in a seamless flow. Work it backward here: he ends on the good old liberal economic notion of the provider responding to the demands of a market. Students are consumers whose demands the university is obliged to meet. Provider sells, user buys, and everybody goes home happy, right? But what is this thing called ‘student demand’? In my experience, most students appreciate the occasional convenience of not having to trek to the lecture hall or classroom, but most of those same students find entire online units depersonalising, dispiriting and, at their worst, demeaning. They know they’re being fobbed off by an institution that can’t drum up the staff and plant to teach them properly.

Of course a good online lecture, all other things being equal, will offer more than a bad live lecture, but that’s only a Band-Aid argument. Inspired teachers need audiences, not mini-cams, and the most inspired performance, once sealed in video amber for the rest of its downloadable life, will never pack the same punch as it did viva voce. Nor can video conferencing substitute for live, face-to-face exchange except, again, as an occasional necessity. The intimacy and the immediacy of living presence drives whatever good might emerge from the collective enterprise of teaching and learning. Lesser goods may be had by lesser means, but the Vice-Chancellor touts his cyber campus as standing tall in the world of educational ‘achievement’; the insertion of substantial online content into students’ primary experience is no innovation but rather an admission of limitation and incapacity. Its greatest triumphs will be budgetary, not pedagogical. But that suits the managers just fine.

Of course, they have little choice. Since the boom years of the sixties and early seventies, universities have been subjected to a neoliberal regime of financial strangulation, as obsessive tax cutting became the idée fixe of most governments in the developed world. For the politicians and the dumbed-down media circus they inhabit, tax reduction has been electoral angel dust: irresistible and fatally addictive. The very thought of tax revenues being lavished on education as a species of social investment long ago lost all credibility, and as a result universities have faced a perfect storm of budgetary axes falling faster and harder than those that split the skulls of the monks of Lindisfarne when the Vikings came knocking in the eighth century. The managers and education ministers who wrought this have possessed about as much feel for the real dynamics of teaching and learning as those Vikings did for the texts they ripped from the gospel books whose gem- and gold-encrusted covers they coveted. The pages that carried those texts’ real, living purpose they chucked into a convenient bog on their way back to their ships. Efficiency rules, for plunderer and executive alike.

Trust me, that’s what ‘alternative economic models for tertiary delivery’ feel like from their pointy end. Good teaching is an art, just as weaving used to be—and still is, among the few retro-artisans who still practice its old methods of hand and eye. The digital revolution in education is recapitulating the fates of other arts after the advent of the machine age. Machine looms vastly improved the consistency and efficiency of cloth production. They reduced the cost of attiring a family in decently made clothes. But they also reduced weavers to the nothing more than indentured servants to machines. The horrific conditions endured by workers in the Manchester cotton mills in the nineteenth century or in Bangladeshi sweatshops today are the logical telos of the whole process. That same reverse alchemy, which transforms traditional artisans into lower-skilled and lower-paid piece-workers in the name of a mechanised efficiency, is now reconfiguring the landscape of higher education.

The Vice-Chancellor goes on to elaborate his vision of how the university is to pursue its ‘growing esteem’ along an ever-loftier ledge of eminence in the thin, high airs of academic excellence. His bullet-pointed aspirations are predictably anodyne and boil down to encouragement of better research and teaching ‘outcomes’. Who could argue with that? But the very devil is in the detail. A few core samples will serve to illustrate this:

Articulating these research goals has been an important step towards greater research impact. Our next step toward greater impact will include working with individual scholars on how they contribute to the wider picture, recruiting more senior researchers with a capacity for impact, and more closely aligning our research training offerings with the strategic big picture. [my italics]

Amid the flurry of abstractions here, one is entitled to wonder what exactly is meant by Davis’ triple-thudding hammer of impact. Ironically, it is, again, a highly malleable term—does it mean something like Blake’s blacksmith of eternity, Los, pounding with his hammer at the boundaries of knowledge and the limits of the imagination? Or does it mimic the machine press in a modern metal works, stamping out the same die time after reiterative time? The more I stare at this passage, the more it sounds like simian chest thumping, a territorial display of male aggression. Intriguingly, the last phrase, which invokes some unspecified ‘strategic big picture’, sounds like the mission statement of a NORAD general delivering a report on Cold War ICBM throw weights.

All the soft-focus classical humanism of the Vice-Chancellor’s opening has evanesced like morning mist, retreating far into the background. When it’s time to get down to brass tacks, he takes up the language of the CEO and the brigadier general. These archetypal modern figures inhabit a world of mechanism and externally applied force, in which their job is not patiently to cultivate living forces like a gardener but forcibly to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN, in which objectives are sized up and seized—this is a world of things to be worked for one’s advantage. The Vice-Chancellor goes on to speak of how the university ‘seeks to build innovative, blended learning opportunities into all its programs to improve student experience and learning outcomes’. How do you ‘build’ an ‘opportunity’? (Blended learning, he has already explained, involves the use of online modules to attenuate the amount of time students spend in a room with a live teacher, thus saving stacks of money.) This is the language of the construction site. A similar near-solecism dogs the bureaucrat’s beloved ‘outcomes’, a term, like its cousin ‘output’, coined in the science of cybernetics, which studies complex mechanical systems. The third bullet point argues the need ‘to develop new incentives to encourage more academics and research higher-degree students to engage with industry’—a big ask for someone who wants to study Chaucer (or Horace, for that matter), I should think.

Next comes the vital contribution of alumni to his big picture—money again, of course—with another appeal to Horace, who’s been waiting patiently (and invisibly) in the wings since his invocation at the start of the piece. The accompanying illustration Photoshops an Ionic pilaster to serve as the pedestal to a computer monitor flashing that crescam laude bon mot and a marble bust looking appropriately classical. Someone’s thoughtfully added a live laurel crown to the marble head: the classical dude may be long dead, but his laude is fresh as. Davis quotes the famous tag from Horace’s Tu ne quaesieris, the much quoted and oft misinterpreted carpe diem (‘seize the day’). He rightly takes it as a Stoic injunction to pay heed to one’s immediate circumstances and not yield to anxiety about what the tides of chance may bring. But, flattening out the tag’s full context, he interprets carpe diem thus: ‘One should not leave tomorrow to chance, but rather take action for the future today’.

What Horace really enjoins is a careful, measured composure in the face of fortune’s inevitable uncertainty, more or less the message of Boethius’ later Consolation of Philosophy. It’s not about mission statements, forward planning or agendas. It’s not even a ‘vision thing’, but rather a direction to find your place within the flux of chance and change you encounter in your day, which by its very nature you can’t manage, direct or master. While it may be subtler than the common misreading of carpe diem as a motto for live-for-the-day hedonists, the Vice-Chancellor’s reading is more insidious, reducing a nuanced philosophical proposition to shallow advertising puff. But nuanced philosophy is not really on his agenda. He’s got a job to do: raising money. Horace makes for good humanist tinsel around an agenda that is almost exclusively corporatist. But that window dressing serves primarily to direct attention away from what has really been done to higher education over the last fifty years.

So what is it all for, then? In my experience, the university spread a varied panorama before me: part laboratory, part madhouse; part gymnasium, part playground; part archaeological dig, part time machine; part garden, part desert. There I passed through states that have ranged from mountaintop exaltation to howling despair and futility—perhaps inevitably, since I wound up sticking around longer than many others in my circumstances. Of course a university is a place to study and learn, in disciplines that take you sometimes far beyond what everyday experience can bring you. Of course it’s a place to acquire skills and training that might (if you’re lucky) suit you to a worthy career. But it might do neither of these things, and, if you approach it in the right spirit, it just might do almost anything.

There. That’s the best I can do. It’s not what you’ll find in the glossy brochures. ‘Ask me if I care’, as we say in New York, and I certainly wouldn’t, if it weren’t for my having been forced to witness the unedifying spectacle of tribes of swarming bureaucrats reducing the dishevelled but magic wood through which I had wandered to a supermall parking lot.

Let me give the last word to a far wiser and more accomplished scholar than I. In a letter of 1 November 1963 (collected in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien), J. R. R. Tolkien tells his son Michael,

Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright. ‘What do you take Oxford for, lad?’ ‘A university, a place of learning.’ ‘Nay, lad, it’s a factory! And what’s it making? I’ll tell you. It’s making fees. Get that into your head, and you’ll begin to understand what goes on.’

Alas! by 1935 I now knew that it was perfectly true.

Perhaps the crisis I have cried up is neither new nor a crisis but simply a further manifestation of how the business of higher education has always been run by those who really run it. But those with the slightest instinct for teaching know their subject is not a product, not a widget to be spruiked, but a passion to be shared. The rhetoric of the reigning tribes of university CEO wannabes is transparently hypocritical, its pedlars ever more frank in their mercantile indifference to the old pieties of liberal education that are still allowed to sound that occasional peep to pretty up the aggressive ad-speak of their web pages and glossy brochures. Despite their sloganeering, vision has dwindled to careers advice, idealism to ‘strategies’, service to marketing. Those responsible have squandered a great good they were scarcely fit to recognise.

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed. —Milton, ‘Lycidas’

Robert DiNapoli is a freelance medievalist and the founder and principal lecturer of The Melbourne Literature Seminars www.themelbourneliteratureseminars.com.au

About the author

Robert DiNapoli

Robert DiNapoli is a poet, translator, essayist and erstwhile lecturer on English language and literature. His books include A Far Light: A Reading of Beowulf (2016), Engelboc (2019) and Reading Old English Wisdom: The Fetters in the Frost (2021).

More articles by Robert DiNapoli

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