Requiem For Universities

21 January 2021. Updated 7 March 2021.

by Sinéad Murphy

Giorgio Agamben

Universities have been dying for some time. As their prospectuses have grown glossier, their gateway buildings more spectacular and their accommodation for students more stunningly luxurious, the Humanities subjects have been gradually hollowed out.

Academics’ intellectual work has been streamlined by the auditing procedures of the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ and by growing pressure to bid for outside funding, which is distributed to projects that address a narrow range of approved themes – Sustainability, Ageing, Energy, Inequality…

Student achievement has been dumbed down by the inculcation of a thoughtless relativism – Everybody’s different; That’s just my interpretation – and by the annual inflation of grades.

The curriculum has begun to be tamed by continual revision – never broad enough, never representative enough – and by the drive for ‘equality and diversity’.

And teaching has been marginalized by the heavy requirements that it represent itself on ever proliferating platforms and review itself in endless feedback loops.

Universities, in short, have been gradually transforming into what they proudly trumpet as a Safe Space, a space that has been cleared at greatest expense to Humanities subjects, a space in which the slightest risk – that a thought might lead nowhere, that a student might be uninterested, that an idea might offend or that a teacher might really persuade – has been mitigated by so many layers of bureaucratic procedure that most of everyone’s time is spent in wading through them.

Safe Space universities have been divesting themselves of real educational content, their plush marketing ploys concealing the decline – of their Humanities subjects at least – into little more than holding patterns for directionless youths.

But up until March of last year, there was still some space and time to act as if. To attempt, in the midst of the decline, to teach, to learn, to think, as if it were really possible to do so.

Because you could still meet your students, and use the small chance you had to teach them to introduce ideas which they might just be taken by and which you, in the process, might deepen your understanding of. And because students could still meet each other, form friendships, gather together, lift themselves out of the lives they grew up with, if only as a temporary reprieve.

It was not much, that is true. And acting as if can too easily collapse into the corruption of an all-out cynicism – quoting Heidegger in the original German to students who are visibly disengaged.

But acting as if can also, sometimes, work; the pretence can actually catch on. Two centuries and a half ago, Kant urged us to act as if human beings are rational, convinced that that would eventually make us so; and it did seem to work… for a while, at least.

But even the pretence is over now; even acting as if, no longer an option. Safe Space universities have come to their culmination. No space is safer than an empty space. And universities are empty at last. The shell has cracked and fallen away. The university is no more.


A couple of weeks ago, following a year’s leave, I stood in a tiny office on the tenth floor of a university tower.

From here, all teaching for the coming semester was to be done.

Lectures were to be given into the void, recorded for access in a space and at a time of students’ choosing. Hour-long tirades, with only your Panopto reflection for your guide, without even commonplace reference points to scaffold the event – the time of day, the weather outside, the furnishings, quirks in the technology: no experience shared, nothing to bind you to your crowd.

Seminars were to be run from here too. These, at least, were to be ‘live’; when it was morning for you, it would be morning for everyone else too. But – open and earnest discussion with students locked up in their family home, sitting on the bed they tossed in as a child? I am told that they turn off their video, sometimes their audio too, attending the class in name only, suspended in a box on the screen.

A brand new desktop computer blighted the tiny office on the tenth floor. Its oversized screen: the black hole into which teaching and learning were set to disappear.

For how long? Long enough, I am sure, for the sheer implausibility of the prospect to lose its edge. Long enough for what is now deemed necessary – the remote university – to begin, at last, to seem possible.

But it is not possible. Philosophy, at least, cannot be taught by giving a speech to yourself in a room on the tenth floor. Philosophy cannot be taught by orchestrating a grid of nametags. Philosophy cannot be taught on a screen.

The classic model of Western Philosophy is Socrates, who wandered about asking questions of those who would listen, inviting his fellow citizens to discussion of the good life. The gadfly method, it is called – meant to get under your skin. Exactly the opposite of Covid-compliant.

Philosophy does have other models – the grand treatise, or, most suitable now, the solitary meditation. But for teaching Philosophy, dialogue has never been bettered. And dialogue is live, up close, and between bodies.

In any dialogue, most of what is communicated is non-verbal, even if the dialogue is formal, even if it is aimed at instruction. You pause for effect, your muscles stilled. You raise your eyebrows in scepticism. You circle your hands in approximation. You deepen your tone for emphasis. You move from side to side to keep your thoughts in train. You repeat yourself at the sight of a furrowed brow. You re-energise at slumped shoulders. You play for laughs. You stop for hands in the air.

And philosophical dialogue goes even deeper, making your stomach churn with existential abandon, your heart beat at the reason of humanity, your head throb at the nature of the sublime.

Add to this the surface body-language of dialogue generally – the still muscles, the raised eyebrows, the circling hands and the rest ­– and the room in which Philosophy is taught should be a theatre of bodied intensity, a far cry from the tenth floor with its grotesque blank screen.

In the tiny office on the tenth floor, you cannot begin your lecture with a question, or an accusation, or a taunt, or anything else that might get your students involved. There is no one there and you cannot be a gadfly alone. You must speak instead as if from the podium, body hemmed in, a talking head. Except that, from the podium, you might still at least feel your audience there, and what you say might still have a chance of sinking in.

In the tiny office on the tenth floor, you cannot act as if. There is no one to play to, nothing to get the show on the road.

And what must it be like, to sit on your bed in a room in your parents’ house and switch on a tirade-from-nowhere? With your social life (or what passes for it) pulsing through competing portals, does the window to your Philosophy class let in any light at all?

Real learning is done by our bodies – by heart, it used to be said, though the phrase is out of favour. An argument should be grasped, rhetoric should be savoured, and metaphysical truths should make our hairs stand on end. Anything else is just words.

And just words are not only lifeless and cold; they suck the life from you, they leave you cold. Remote teaching and learning actually do you harm.

The university now continually directs its students to its twenty-four-hour support service, in implicit acknowledgement of the harmful effects of its remote provision, which does not merely fall short of the mark but imposes the kind of out-of-body experience that most students find disheartening and many cannot cope with at all.

We are told that it is necessary, the Safe Space university of just words – to save lives. (Our union has just invited us all to an event called “Saving Lives At Work”.) But that something is deemed necessary does not suffice to make it possible – of all lessons, that is the one we ought most to learn from this past year.

We are told also that it is temporary. But we will only ensure that it is temporary if we do not act as if it is possible. We should refuse to carry out their exceptional arrangements, or their exceptional arrangements have a chance of becoming the rule.

The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, as early as May of last year, wrote what he titled a “Requiem For Students”, in which he described very well the impossibly corrupted character of the Covid university, whose technological barbarism he called out for what it is, and whose students he exhorted to refuse to enrol.

As educators, we are supposed to lead forth. We should go first, and refuse to teach on screens.

It is time to stop acting as if.

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