11 March 2009

The University of Utopia conference

Please note this conference on 4th June in Lincoln:

The University of Utopia - Radicalising Higher Education

Conference description follows:

Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) sets out, for the first time, the paradox of the modern (new) world: the possibility of abundance (freedom) in a society of scarcity (non-freedom); and the dangers that are inherent in this paradoxical situation for the development of the emergent capitalist society.

More suggests the universality of education as a way of resolving this paradox. For the humanist More, the highest pleasures are those of the mind, and true happiness depends on their realization. On More’s fantasy island, Utopia is a universal school for all its citizens, where all civic life is education. Citizens attend public lectures in the morning, participate in lively discussions during meal-times, and, in the evening, receive formal supervision from scholars. (Meiksins Wood, 1997).

In 1953, with the publication of The University of Utopia, the educational philosopher Robert Hutchins extended More’s allegory to a liberal humanist reappraisal of higher education. Anticipating the vocationalist critique of contemporary higher education, Hutchins wrote ‘The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens’ (p.3). Hutchins’s views have been repeated and endorsed in the increasing volume of critical literature on the commercialisation of higher education.

However this critical literature has struggled to provide any convincing alternatives to ‘academic capitalism’ (Slaughter and Leslie, 1997). This absence of any radical alternative, occurs not because of a lack of imagination, but by virtue of the nature of liberal-humanism itself. For Zizek (2002) liberal humanism ‘precludes any serious questioning of the way in which this liberal democratic order is complicit in the phenomena it officially condemns, and, of course, any serious attempt to imagine a different socio-political order’ (167). What this amounts to, for Zizek, is ‘a prohibition on thinking… the moment we question the liberal consensus we are accused of abandoning scientific objectivity and recourse to outdate ideological positions’ (168).

The aim of this conference is to recover the freshness of More’s critique, while going beyond Hutchins's liberal fundamentalism, in order to imagine some real radical futures for higher education. The conference addresses the problem of inventing a form of radicality that confronts the same paradox that emerged in Tudor England, and continues to undermine the progressive development of the postmodern world.

The conference will be of interest to all staff in further and higher education who are concerned about the future direction and role of the changing university within the emerging global knowledge economy.

Keynote Speakers

Professor Ron Barnett, Institute of Education. “The Utopian University: Challenges and Prospects”.
Professor Antonia Darder, University of Illinois. “Breaking Silence: A Study into the Pervasiveness of Oppression”.

Thematic Workshops

Patrick Ainley, Joyce Canaan. “The Student Experience”.
Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, Jon Nixon. “Academic Labour”.
Cath Lambert, Mike Neary, Elisabeth Simbuerger. “Teaching in Public”.
Dennis Hayes, Terence Karran. “Academic Freedom”.