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Research University

Wendell Berry recently decided to pull his personal papers from the University of Kentucky, and it got me thinking.

While I know this news story isn’t directly related to the topic of poetry (and this is–loosely–a poetry blog), I can’t help but feel it connects on some other level as we (poets) think about the relationship of our poetry to the world around us. Most of my exposure to the world of modern poetry has taken place through the university system. And while I know there are many poets writing and thriving outside the university system, it seems to me that the relationship of modern poetry is hopelessly enmeshed with our modern universities. Let’s admit it, the modern university (as well as the various foundations, titles, etc.) gives us poets the prestige we desperately desire. Would we be satisfied reading in bars the rest of our lives? Some of us would, but many of us would feel cheated. We want, as it were, to be “overheard.”

Most modern universities are “research universities.” I find even explicitly “liberal arts” universities cast their value in scientific terms. If you’ve been to a grad conference recently, you know as well as I do that academics dutifully toils away in a very narrow slices of their field, increasing knowledge (wherever that is stored…), writing books, gaining tenure. The language of conferences and academic panels has become scientific, calculated, professional. When you are asked about your studies, you must cast it in “pitch” it, so as to demonstrate the entrepreneurial value.

How much of this has seeped into the world of modern poetry?

Does the modern university ennoble (if I may use such an unfashionable word!) those of us (I’m still there!) who dwell in its halls? Consider Berry’s excoriation of the “research university”:

At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against “the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’ These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the ‘industrial model,’ no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. … The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”

There is little doubt also that the modern university is, as one thinker put it, “the handmaiden of the military-government-industrial complex.” Certainly the poet can be the voice of conscience on the campus, but at what cost? Berry has the strength of his convictions (and the status to sustain them).

Then again, he also has a farm if it all goes to hell.