Impossible Professions


I must say with regret that none of these books seems to me quite worthy of its subject—with the exception of Nussbaum’s, a book that needs to be read and heeded, but may not make much headway against the critical consensus. To me, the university is a precious and fragile institution, one that lives with crisis—since education, like psychoanalysis, is an “impossible profession”—but at its best thrives on it. It has endured through many transformations of ideology and purpose, but at its best remained faithful to a vision of disinterested pursuit and transmission of knowledge. Research and teaching have always cohabited: anyone who teaches a subject well wants to know more about it, and when she knows more, to impart that knowledge. Universities when true to themselves have always been places that harbor recondite subjects of little immediate utility—places where you can study hieroglyphics and Coptic as well as string theory and the habits of lemmings—places half in and half out of the world. No country needs that more than the US, where the pragmatic has always dominated.

An excerpt from an NYRB article on Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa,  Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities by Mark C. Taylor  and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum.

3 thoughts on “Impossible Professions

  1. On a related note, this sounds ominous: “Ronald Barnett’s Being a University (Routledge, 2011). There are many ways of writing about universities, and Ronald Barnett has chosen one of the less likely: the Heideggerian. The notion of ‘being’ is employed as an antidote to the tendency to seek ‘the idea’ of a university, a Platonic essence of university-ness against which to judge our fallen, empirical institutions.” (Times Higher Education Supplement, 21.4)

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