The university looms in the American imagination as well as its politics and culture. It is often dismissed as an “ivory tower” but it is actually a foremost civic institution, drawing the participation of an overwhelming majority of Americans as well as a major portion of resources. Unlike healthcare, which is more of a reactive institution, the university represents perhaps the most consequential proactive social institution in the US, at the threshold of social entry if not its best hope, variously offering a path to a career, an education for citizenship, and a place for self-exploration and development. With nearly 85% of younger Americans attending some form of college, 30% attaining BAs, and 20% attaining advanced degrees, we live in the age of higher education. The American university is not only a formal institution but permeates our cultural imagination—in its bearing as an idea, a historical story, a cultural image, a political conception, and an object of policy. Thus I propose that we consider the extent of “universityism” in American culture and beyond. In some ways, I borrow from Edward W. Said’s framing of Orientalism, looking at not only at the concrete reality of the university but at the discourses, images, and ideas that circulate around it, regulate it, and construct it. In the period after World War II to now, given the expansion of higher education in the US and its dominance in our culture, we might call it the age of higher education. “Universityism” names both a way to describe and an attempt to analyze the age of higher education.
Jeffrey J. Williams is Professor of English and of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He writes on the problems and prospects of contemporary higher education, particularly in the US, and has helped establish the field of critical university studies. He also writes on the history of modern criticism and theory, focusing on the way it has been shaped by its institutional conditions, and on contemporary American fiction, in public as well as academic venues. Alongside his own writing, he has developed ‘The Interview Project,’ publishing more than 70 substantive interviews with critics, philosophers, writers, and others (jeffreyjwilliams.net). His most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham UP, 2014), and he is completing Brave New University (Johns Hopkins UP). He also serves as co-editor of the series “Critical University Studies” with Hopkins, and of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (3rd ed. 2018).