J.M. Coetzee says the university is finished. Why? It is no longer devoted to free inquiry, and it is no longer interested in the humanities.

The essay is written in the form of a letter to John Higgins, a fellow professor at the University of Cape Town, and is the forward to Higgins’s new book Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa. Coetzee:

 There are two main reasons for my pessimism. The first is that you somewhat underestimate, in my opinion, the ideological force driving the assault on the independence of universities in the (broadly conceived) West. This assault commenced in the 1980s as a reaction to what universities were doing in the 1960s and 1970s, namely, encouraging masses of young people in the view that there was something badly wrong with the way the world was being run and supplying them with the intellectual fodder for a critique of Western civilisation as a whole.

The campaign to rid the academy of what was variously diagnosed as a leftist or anarchist or anti-rational or anti-civilisational malaise has continued without let-up for decades, and has succeeded to such an extent that to conceive of universities any more as seedbeds of agitation and dissent would be laughable.

And regarding the lack of regard for humanistic studies:

A certain phase in the history of the university, a phase taking its inspiration from the German Romantic revival of humanism, is now, I believe, pretty much at its end. It has come to an end not just because the neoliberal enemies of the university have succeeded in their aims, but because there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.

Coetzee  suggests that his comments apply not only to South African universities but also to all universities in the West. I don’t know much at all about the situation of South African schools, but I can say that while Coetzee is perhaps right about the decline of freedom and lack of interest in the humanities, his suggestion that the enemies of “neo-liberalism” are to blame is a bit confusing and conflicted.

It’s not exactly clear who Coetzee has in mind when he refers to the “neoliberal enemies of the university.” He mentions the ANC, South Africa’s left-leaning governing party, but he also suggests that those on the right who have opposed the “critique of Western civilisation as whole” are to blame for the university’s decline. In fact, he says they have “won.”

Coetzee’s politics are hard to pin down, but he seems to me to be speaking as an old-school liberal who is against progressivism but who has a somewhat ambivalent relationship to tradition. He is for freedom and reason, but against traditional values and morals, hierarchy and so forth.

So what happens when a full-throated support of human autonomy (against all tradition) creates a beast (progressivism) that eats its children? Where is a figure like Coetzee to turn? I don’t think he knows, which is why we get this sort of essay that contains some really insightful comments mixed with ones that are, quite frankly, out there.

First, his claim that folks who have defended Western civilization at universities have “won” is patently false. Attacking the West is engrained at most universities and is itself at least partly to blame for the lack of freedom. Anything defending tradition, anything critiquing the multicultural, constructivist, egalitarian line, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is often—though certainly not always—dismissed and sometimes attacked.

Second, if no one really cares about the humanities anymore, the very attack on Western civilization that Coetzee seems to find so laudatory is at least one reason. It is in some respects deeply anti-humanist, marked by a critique human exceptionalism, reason, and so forth (which Coetzee himself notes but dismisses with a wave of the hand), with a low, often condescending view of the great writers and thinkers of the past. As Albany says in Lear, “That nature, which contemns its origin, Cannot be border’d certain in itself.”

He wants to blame those that defend “tradition” at the university for the current lack of freedom. They are, he writes, “the ideological force” behind the current lack of freedom even though this does not square with reality. At the same time, he himself wants to return to that tradition for protection from the somewhat terrifying techno-progressive reshaping of mankind:

A certain phase in the history of the university, a phase taking its inspiration from the German Romantic revival of humanism, is now, I believe, pretty much at its end. It has come to an end not just because the neoliberal enemies of the university have succeeded in their aims, but because there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.

You argue that only the faculties of humanities are equipped to teach students the critical literacy that allows a culture to continually renew itself. But I envisage a telling question will be asked of you: even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses–courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enrol–one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

Coetzee is right that defending the humanities on the grounds that they provide students with critical reading and writing skills does not, in effect, defend the humanities. Mark Bauerlein makes exactly the same point in this month’s New Criterion. The question, then, for Coetzee is why should we even bother to teach the humanities? On what basis would he defend them?