Who should decide what students learn at university? Traditionally, especially in the humanities and social sciences, individual academics have constructed a curriculum based on an established body of knowledge, often encapsulated in the works of canonical authors. More recently, the academic project of transmitting knowledge to the next generation has been called into question. Instead, the idea that students themselves should be able to determine the content of the curriculum has come to the fore. Economics students from Manchester University have been lauded for challenging the neoliberal, market-driven assumptions of their course and their success in having the curriculum changed to reflect the impact of the latest financial crisis has been celebrated.
Some academics do bemoan the fact that ‘my students are trying to run my course’ and blame this trend on the prioritisation of the ‘student experience’ in universities. Elsewhere on spiked, I have argued that frequent soliciting of the student voice erodes both the autonomy of both academics and subject knowledge. However, this offers only a partial explanation as to why lecturers capitulate to students’ demands on the curriculum; it’s also important to look at what has occurred within academic disciplines as well as policies that have been imposed on academics. With the recent death of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, it is time to assess the impact of cultural studies on higher education. The Australian academic Toby Miller, a leading light in cultural studies, argues his subject has had a profound impact ‘on a host of disciplines’ and that it ‘accretes various tendencies that are splintering the human sciences: Marxism, feminism, queer theory, and the postcolonial.’
Cultural studies began life at the University of Birmingham in 1964 led by Richard Hoggart, academic and author of The Uses of Literacy. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was to play a leading role in Britain’s New Left, a loose political grouping influenced by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and so-called structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers like Louis Althusser. The key moment was when Hoggart invited Stuart Hall, founder of the New Left Review, to join him at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964. In 1972, Hall took over as the Centre’s director.
The New Left itself arose out of disillusion with Stalinism abroad and the failure of the working class to bring about revolution at home. Hall acknowledged as much when he wrote: ‘The Centre for Cultural Studies was the locus to which we retreated when that conversation in the open world could no longer be continued’ (emphasis in original). The New Left rejected the perceived economic determinism of Marxism and argued that the hegemonic role played by contemporary culture cohered the working class to the dominant ideology of the ruling elite. The founding assumption of cultural studies was that mass or popular culture needed to be studied in order to understand ‘what was wrong with Britain in particular and capitalism in general’. In other words, the working class had been duped by popular culture into accepting capitalism as natural; only through studying topics such as the pervasive influence of the media could some people hope to understand the deception at play.
In his 1990 article, The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities, Hall argued that cultural studies ‘emerged precisely from a crisis in the humanities’, which had arisen because they ‘were conducted in the light, or in the wake, of the Arnoldian project. What they were handling in literary work and history were the histories and touchstones of the national culture, transmitted to a select number of people.’ Hall was critical of the elitism inherent in the ideas of both Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis. Leavis and Arnold argued that it was possible to discern quality in the arts and that educators had a duty to promote high culture. Through cultural studies, Hall sought to develop ‘an ideological critique of the way the humanities and the arts presented themselves as parts of disinterested knowledge’ and did not allow contemporary cultural forms to ‘constitute a serious object of contemplation in the academic world’.