In 1837, the university system in England was celebrated by some for its slow-moving nature, its resistance to change. This, of course, is important to remember when we think about the knowledge universities offer the public. In the midst of debates about the university’s proper relationship to the church, the value of the university was that it was a force of faith, tradition, and moderation in times of conflict, transition and debate. It was an institution grounded in the past, not futurity. As one 1837 article asserts:
“[universities] may remain, relics of a system which has passed away – relics like those noble buildings which that old system raised among us, so massive in their construction, and so cemented in all their parts, that nothing but a barbarian violence can overturn, and no art adapt them without absurdity to the false, frivolous, pernicious purposes of modern innovation” (445)
Universities, here, are not a site of “modern innovation,” they are threatened by it. Today, in a moment of much literal and metaphoric violence against the university, such a conservative assertion could perhaps be useful. For we so often claim the university in the name of the future (for good reasons, of course), but we forget that the university also connects us to both important and problematic pasts.
Such a passage also reveals the difference of our historical moment: we no longer have faith that universities will persist – that they cannot be easily overturned, or adapted. But in thinking them frail (which they are, of course) we forget the ways that they have endured, not simply as bastions of learning, but also as relics.
To argue for the importance of the university today, we have to recognize its contradictory position – how it aims to advance learning and knowledge but perpetuates old forms of power (class-based hierarchies, ‘manliness,’ nationalism, whiteness).