Teaching Culture

By Simon During

© all rights reserved

The heyday of English literature as an academic discipline is over. As worldwide enrolments show interest in English is losing ground to a wider spread of contemporary culture forms from advertising and the internet to cartoons and art movies — what we call cultural studies. Here is a story about interactions between universities, literature and students which reflects on this important turning point and helps us respond to it.

Let me begin my story when what is often deemed the first truly modern university was about to be established in Berlin in 1810. It is here that the question of literature’s relation to the university first clearly emerges in its current guise. Perhaps the central conceptual plank of the German reforms was the distinction between what Schiller called the “philosophical mind”, interested in knowledge for its own sake and in its totality, and the Brotsgelehrte – (literally “bread scholar” the student who went to university simply to prepare to earn a crust), the German university reforms were designed to encourage philosophical minds. Yet it is not as simple as that, because, as even the most radical policy papers which led to the establishment of Berlin University concede, the pure student needs a job too.

The difficulties of managing the pure and the vocational aspects of the university together are clearest in a proposal for Berlin University drawn up by its first rector,Johann Fichte. For Fichte, the University, as a crucial element of German nation-building, exists at the summit of a national education apparatus. Nonetheless he respects Schiller’s division between students pursuing knowledge for its own sake (whom he called novices) and those not (whom he called associates), proposing that all novices should first become academics and then, when their youthful vigour had run out, the best of them anyway, senior civil servants. So in Fichte’s plan, knowledge for its own sake meets very practical needs. And knowledge’s outcomes – encyclopedic breadth, objectivity and disinterestedness, the ideal of service, flexibility- are ideal prerequisites for a state bureaucrat. Yet knowledge for its own sake means something more. It permits the best students to be trustees of their culture and bearers of the destiny of their nation. 1

How to produce such individuals? Fichte’s answer was to rationalise and discipline the academy. This meant that, for instance, universities would become, as they had not always been before, all male and all white institutions. 2 His novices would be funded by scholarships based on school-exam results and “inscripted” into the university as others are conscripted into the army, living a communal life in dormitories under surveillance, wearing uniforms, with limited spending money, ruled by regulations tighter than those of the civic police. So it may come as a surprise to realise that the novice (and thus the academic and senior civil servant) was marked off from “associates” by a “love of art (Kunst)”. This love of art is not itself an outcome of discipline: it is an innate disposition which is transmitted in an “invisible manner” and “vivifies what surrounds it in an ungraspable way.” In this pared-down and displaced form Fichte reaches back to an idea of Schiller’s – that education in the humanities is a means of producing independent and balanced individuals through aesthetic appreciation. We here begin to glimpse one connection between literature and the academy.

In imagining his disciplined, autonomous University, Fichte was also addressing a much more local problem: the unruliness of German students. For over a century, German students had posed a social problem. They had not been wholly been brought into the fold of the state. Many were not citizens of the principalities which housed their University; academic freedom meant, as it had in medieval times, the students’ right to be tried in their own courts under their own codes. In Germany students formed a separate, internally hierarchical estate, prone to violence and drinking, with their own secret societies and carnivals. Particularly common was the establishment of mock Universities, which conferred doctorates of drinking in faculties of Beer presided over by a festive Dean. It should not be forgotten that students had real power: their fees were the direct source of most academics’ income who often taught them in their houses and lodged them too. Academics’ wives worked as boarding house keepers; their daughters’ sexual favours were often expected by aristocratic students. 3 Students were economically important to University towns, so that civic corporations were unwilling to constrict them.

But of course being a student did not mean that later employment was guaranteed. Many students remained in the student estate for years. The vitality of their secret and mock-institutions was, amongst other things, an index the size of the gap between acquiring a degree and finding a job. Fichte’s reformist university, ultimately pivoted around a “love of art”, was at least part designed to eliminate this student culture by policing and acculturation as well as by adroit management of the slack between certification and employment. By the same stroke it immeasurably increased academics’ security and prestige.

The slack between certification and employment is not easy to manage but, as it turns out, this is a difficulty which has, paradoxically, been very productive for literature. I want to argue that the direction and force of modern literature is in part an expression of students’ resistance to teachers, a resistance which is often mobilised by resentment of universities’ failure to place students in society. An example: in 1787 a young student named William Wordsworth went up to Cambridge, intending an academic or, failing that, a clerical career. His student experiences are remembered in his autobiographical poem The Prelude, probably the single most important British nineteenth-century poem as far as academic English has been concerned. Wordsworth’s account of university life was written from a student’s (and future poet ‘s) perspective as defined against his teachers. Cambridge had nothing to say to him. It provided him with an education, he writes, only insofar as the dons’ behaviour warned him off vices he might later meet in the world: “envy, jealousy, pride, shame, ambition, emulation, fear or hope” (534-5). As a spectator of the academic tragi-farce, Wordsworth too became a university reformer in his poem. Like the Germans, his ideal university seeks knowledge “for its own sake” (398) and is ascetic: neither official honours nor a craving for publicity nor the academic vices just outlined have space to develop there. In Wordsworth’s imaginary university, “antiquity” can live again and reverence for old poets might be revived.

Yet despite Wordsworth’s efforts to imagine a university that might encourage true spiritual development, his own encounters with what he calls his “quickening soul”, have nothing to do with anything that could ever be taught in a university. His truest self is developed in private spiritual exercises: walking, remembering childhood freedom and spontaneity, training himself to “pore” “watch”, “listen” to, and “spread” his thoughts in complex techniques of self-examination whose purposes are to empower him to imbue the world with “moral life” and to prepare him for states of inspiration in which he can view the world not as a tutored person but as one of “the first men, earth’s first inhabitants”. As it turned out, Wordsworth passed his degree though it did not lead to a job. It was only as a famous poet that twenty years later he entered the public service: as distributor of stamps in the county of Westmoreland.

What actually triggered the emergence of modern literature as an academic discipline – English – in the twentieth century was an intensification of European national rivalries for global domination. The call to take English seriously as an academic discipline came in the period around World War One as a riposte to Germany’s successful integration of the academic humanities, especially philology, into its state-forming agencies. The irony is, of course, that the literature called upon to achieve this function was anti-bureaucratic and, in cases like Wordsworth, explicitly anti-academic.

Even before literary criticism became a discipline, the university system had itself begun to nurture strongly anti-academic, life-affirming theorists – most notably Friedrich Nietzsche. In a series of essays written while he was a Professor of Greek Philology at Basle in the 1870s, Nietzsche mounted a devastating and highly influential attack on the German university system; his primary target the violence committed against culture by research-based disciplinarity. For him, the academic humanities were entombing vital culture. Pedagogy no longer grasped its moral purpose; it no longer encouraged students to be simple, graceful, honest, to live truth rather than know it. His solution was to insist on “untimeliness”, on the need to remain a stranger to the contemporary world and to listen to other values, other appeals.

Nietzsche’s condemnation of the humanities was directed to a particular social sector – youth. It is only the young – students – who can resist the dead hand of academic knowledge. Behind his beautifully written call to the young lie memories of those German student estates which Fichte’s university had tried to destroy. But Nietzsche’s critique came to be widely welcomed not just because it flattered students but because it was directed precisely against the particular mix of capitalism and statism which, with some variations, had come to dominate European nations. That is, it was directed against an education based on what he called the “greed of the money-makers” and their “chain of command” which he describes as, “as much knowledge and education as possible, therefore as much [consumer] demand as possible, therefore as much production as possible, therefore as much happiness and profit as possible.” And his critique is also directed against what he called “the greed of the state” which “desires the greatest possible dissemination and universalisation of culture” because it sees that “the dissemination of education among its citizens can only be to its advantage in its competition with other states.” For Nietzsche there can be no moral reason why a German should be richer or happier than an Australian or a Chinese. Furthermore, in a situation where the real purpose of life was competition, consumption and production, culture had become merely decorative – despite the seriousness with which it was taken officially.

So Nietzsche broke the nexus between morality and education. After him it became difficult seriously to affirm that the work of the modern university, as an integral tool of national will, was in the interests of wider morality or, to use a still more problematic word, of the spirit. His alienation from administered and commercialised culture was so intense that he perceived its central instrument-language- in quite a new way. He began to regard language itself as implicated in the system which governs relations between knowledge, money and the state. That system, which requires what he calls an “unliving and yet uncannily active concept- and word-factory”, detaches language from personal needs and wills, objectivises it, and silences what it cannot encompass. Most of all, it deprives society’s most energetic force, its youth, of a name: “youth can discover no concept or slogan in the contemporary currency of words and concepts to describe its own nature.” 4 Instead of being the vehicle of feeling and understanding that it was for Wordsworth say, language draws individuals into what Nietzsche calls “empty Being” – no true subjectivity at all.

From about 1890 many young intellectuals would repeat and extend Nietzsche’s arguments but young poets drew similar conclusions independently . Here is the 17 year old Arthur Rimbaud writing a letter to his teacher in May 1871 – the Commune still undefeated in Paris – in what was to become probably the most widely cited literary document of the period:

Dear Sir:
You are a teacher again!
You have told me we owe a duty to Society.
You belong to the teaching body: you move along in the right track. I also follow the principle: cynically I am having myself kept. …
In reality, all you see in your principle is subjective poetry: your obstinacy in reaching the university trough – excuse me – proves this. But you will always end up a self-satisfied man who has done nothing because he wanted to do nothing. Not to mention that your subjective poetry will always be horribly insipid. One day, I hope . . . I will see objective poetry …
Now I am degrading myself as much as possible.
I want to be a poet and I am working to make myself a seer: you will not understand this, and I don’t know how to explain it to you.
It is a question of reaching the unknown by the derangement of all the senses.
The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be strong, one has to be born a poet, and I know I am poet. This is not at all my fault. It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: people think me. [a phrase which contains a pun – it can also mean “people groom me”]
I is an other.
You are not a teacher for me.
I give you this: is it satire, as you would say? Is it poetry?
It is fantasy, always.
But, I beg you, do not underline it with your pencil or too much with your thought. 5

For Rimbaud, to become a poet is to invert his teacher’s teachings, to mess with all arrangements in place. This is the only way that he can creatively exploit the social conditions in which he is not an autonomous individual but one thought and groomed by others: I is an other. Where does Rimbaud’s inversion lead? Not towards Nietzsche’s simplicity, courage, grace and untimeliness. Rather towards abjection and a form of prostitution (a critical mimicry of his teacher’s dependence on the state). And towards a “derangement of all the senses”, the hallucinatory path of drink and drugs. Rimbaud shares Nietzsche’s sense that language as no longer an effective medium for personal expression but he invests this insight with a different value – an affirmative and universal value. Nietzsche’s scorn of the poverty and exteriority of language in contemporary society becomes, in Rimbaud, a joyful grasping of a transcendent discourse adequate to the self’s otherness.

For my argument what is important about this amazingly unsettling letter is that it is written to a teacher. Indeed its hidden purpose is to explain Rimbaud’s failure to pursue his education further. This connection between modernist literature and anti-pedagogy is almost structural, especially in France where the system of national education was most secure. Another brief example helps us recognise this: a central document of the French avant-garde, Ubu Roi was written by the schoolboy Alfred Jarry and his mates in the 1880s as a joke against their physics teacher though it was first performed in public in 1896, to much scandal. Jarry and his extraordinary play helped inspire a whole series of later subversive modernist cultural movements from cubism through Marcel Duchamp‘s anti-art to dadaism and surrealism.

Ubu is the pompous physics teacher portrayed, with a cartoon-like vividness, as a greedy, incompetent tyrant so remote from any thinkable morality, imagination or spirituality that he achieves a weird innocence. It as if Wordsworth’s tragi-farce of academic vice were being presented from Bart Simpson’s point of view. In his grotesqueness and crudity, Jarry’s Ubu becomes an icon of contemporary stripped-down state values in general. Fichte’s claim that each student is representative of national culture has been turned upside down and mockingly sent back to teacher.

German youth circa 1900 sent messages to their teachers in a different form. There, where organised student and youth movements had been revived, scholarly rejections of the academy were articulated, not least by the young critic, Walter Benjamin who was much later to become a hero of many cultural-studies academics. Like Jarry, the young Benjamin wrote under the influence of Nietzsche, like Rimbaud he held to an “objective” theory of language. But he had studied the history of education and, as a member of a student organisation, formulated what he called an “anti-reformist” project. This did not propose a humanist “fabulous realm of ‘harmonies’ and ‘ideals'” but rather an ideal like that of “that misogynist and homoerotic Greek culture of Pericles, aristocratic, based on slavery and the dark myths of Aeschylus.” 6 Later, in joke, he set up his own mock university with a friend and declared himself its rector.

And let me add one further German example, that of Hugo Ball, who had written his thesis on Nietzsche in Basle, and after absconding from an academic career, went on to found the Dada movement in Zurich in 1916. This was the first cultural group to turn a rebel style partly based on Jarry, into an internationally recognised program which could be consistently exploited for publicity and commercial purposes. Persuasively proclaiming and enacting the bankruptcy of the notion that art and literature transcend the dirty world of war, politics and economics, harking back to the long history of carnivalesque inversion of official institutions and values, Dada publicly marked the end of the sanctity with which Schiller, in particular, had invested literature and high culture.

Obviously these various modes of modernist anti-academicism are very different from one another, though I must draw attention to the explicit homoeroticism in three of these cases (Jarry, Rimbaud and Benjamin), encouraged by the old “rationalising” exclusion of women from higher education. But I hope that my point is clear: what they do share is a refusal of the models of personhood, language and cultural values which uphold the academic humanities. The result was once again to intensify the old paradox in which the humanities were situated but this time at the very moment when literary criticism was being spawned.

The early twentieth-century avant-garde rejection of traditional humanist cultural values is now being absorbed by the academy, but in a very different form. The academic appropriation of the avant-garde transfiguration of values is happening as what I am calling the departure of English – as the relative decline of literary studies alongside the emergence of cultural studies. I am certainly not claiming a causal relation between modernism circa 1900 and academic cultural studies today. Rather I want to argue that cultural studies has become popular in large part because students’ preferences have a growing influence on curriculum. It is student choice which leads to more and more courses on rock culture, television genres like soap opera or talk shows, the theory of popular culture, aboriginality, relations between postcolonialism and postmodernism.

Behind the proliferation of such cultural studies subjects lie policy shifts but also, more profoundly, the deep economic transformation we can call globalisation. At the level of policy, contemporary educational bureaucracies have moved from idealist and collegial models to market, corporate and student-based ones so that student enrolments are an important source of funding, and student evaluations are an important measure of quality-assessment. These policies are implemented because they are considered to produce more responsive training in a situation where national competitiveness is a priority. And, of course-to put a complicated matter far too simply- national competitiveness is a priority ultimately because of the emergence of non-Western nations as trading powers and the subsequent deregulation of national economies.

Globalisation has multiple effects on the humanities: it is a stimulus for the departure of English because it detaches postcolonial nations like ours from the anglocentric, monocultural heritage which has been embodied in academic English. It distances Australia from Europe just as it compels Europe towards unification. The disciplinary divisions between French, German and English, which mirror old European national rivalries, grow more and more meaningless. Globalisation also means that (high added-value) cultural production is increasingly important to advanced economies so that an increased proportion of jobs are found in the cultural sector. Cultural studies prepares students for these jobs. It also prepares them to become canny and picky consumers of the products of increasingly sophisticated cultural industries.

All this is felt, once more, most strongly by the young. So the fact that the global political economy encourages students to choose cultural studies is another moment in the triangulated history of literature, students and teaching that I have outlined. Not that the cultural studies student is conceived of in the same way as the old humanities student from the administrative point of view. Today, a student is no longer a blank to be filled by education, but a developed personality making rational choices. This permits the academy to move away from its aim to inculcate students with an autonomous, balanced personhood based on the reading of a traditional canon. By the same stroke, it opens the way for identities that once went unrecognised by universities – ethnic, sexual, gendered, classed identities – to become points of departure for academic work. Thus, as cultural studies rejects the old way of thinking which thought of as the ideal nation as possessing one history, one culture, one ethnicity, one sexuality and one language, it becomes the first academic discipline to be defined by consciously political orientations.

Simon During is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne.
His books include the Oxford ‘Austalian Writers’ series: Patrick White.
His on-line articles include: “What Was the West?: Some Relations Between Modernity, Colonisation and Writing,” uploaded from Sport (4: 1990): 79-80.


1. Werner Fläschendräger, Werner Klaus, Roland Köhler, Aribert Kraus, Günter Steiger, Magister und Scholaren, Professoren und Studenten: Geschichte deutscher Universitäten und Hochschulen in Überlick Leipzig: Urania-Verlag 1981, 74.

2. In 1730 Anton Wilhelm Amo from Guinea in Africa was enrolled in Wittenberg and received his MA four years later with a “disputio” on the relation of reason to the soul. He had been seized by slavers as a child, transported to the Dutch West Indies and presented to the court of Herzog Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig-Wofenbüttel. After further study, he returned home and died in a Dutch fort.

3. Fläschendräger et al, p. 69.

4. “Schopenhauer as educator,” in Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Intro. J.P. Stern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 164; p. 165; p. 119 and 121.

5. Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters. trans Wallace Fowlie. Chicago: University of Chicago 1966: pps 303-4. Translation modified.

6. Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin: an Intellectual Biography. trans. James Rolleston. Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1991:p. 24.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]