Oer the past decade, Stefan Collini has won widespread recognition at home and abroad for his incisive criticism of British higher education policy as it has developed since the 1980s, under Labour and Conservative governments indifferently. He has not been alone in this, of course: Andrew McGettigan has been tireless in unpicking the tangled threads of wishful thinking, cynicism, dogma and sheer recklessness that pass for rational financial policy and practice both in government and in the academic institutions themselves, while Helen Small—to take just one more notable example—has struck a contrasting emphasis, undertaking a critical appraisal of the current array of arguments in defence of an education in the humanities.footnote1 But Collini’s record has been outstanding for its stamina and critical range: within the past decade there have been lectures to universities in Australia, Portugal, the us, Italy and the Netherlands, as well as several vintages of the uk system, addresses to conferences of various kinds, unions and a Westminster parliamentary committee, articles for the print platforms where he has long been a familiar name, the London Review of Books and the Guardian. His range of topics extends from finance to axiology, bookends of a comprehensive engagement including the apotheosis of management and metrics, the follies of official research and teaching assessment, the status of students and the relative merits of different kinds of support for research and scholarly activity. From these diverse occasions, so many interventions in a single field of engagement, come the texts making up the bulk of his second book on the subject, Speaking of Universities.footnote2
This has always been Collini’s preferred mode of operation. He is a committed and skilled practitioner of the higher journalism, a master of what Bagehot in the middle 1850s characterized as ‘the review-like essay and the essay-like review’.footnote3 Most of his books are focused compilations of such occasional pieces. The twin volumes Common Reading and Common Writing, from 2008 and 2016 respectively, are noteworthy cases in point. Between them, they contain thirty-seven chapters largely made up from thirty reviews of some sixty titles, the first offered as ‘essays on literary culture and public debate’, the second on ‘critics, historians, publics’. They are evidence of enviable productivity and of the freedoms inherent in this prose form, even if those subtitles seem a little strained, not quite equal to their role in containing the miscellaneity within. Collini’s intellectual histories lean towards portraiture rather than conceptual schemes: he has a liberal’s suspicion of ‘the pretensions of a full-blown ism’ and so of what is pejoratively called ‘labelling’—of others as well as himself.footnote4 At the same time, he is wary of the kind of history that provides the occasion for many of his essays—biography, which normally privileges the detail of an individual life over social-structural conditions—while showing what may be done in the frame of the genre with a virtuoso one-sentence exercise in the cultural stratigraphy of the subject, in this case the conservative historian Arthur Bryant:
The figure whom Britain’s cultural and political establishment had gathered to honour in Westminster Abbey in the 1980s had sustained into the 1950s a relation with a public defined in the 1920s and 1930s while writing in the manner and with the confidence of an Edwardian man of letters who in turn was striving to emulate the achievements of Victorian historians.footnote5
Collini’s Bryant is the ‘historian as man of letters’, and Collini himself is the historian as writer, self-consciously working with a rhetorical palette more varied than that of conventional scholarly discourse. Playful as well as ‘pin-striped’, his critical resources include all the ranges of mockery from mischief-making to satire. It is striking too how often his texts are shaped by a single presiding metaphor. Cyril Connolly is associated, not for the first time, with fine food and wine. The historian A. L. Rouse’s writing habit appears akin to dipsomania: ‘It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that he was a teetotaller: he didn’t need it.’ And Stephen Spender, as editor of the cia-backed Encounter, emerges as a self-deceiving cuckold.footnote6
Not too much should be made of that inevitable element of miscellaneity, however. Collini’s historical coordinates have been constant over time: his field is English intellectual culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with strong leanings towards historical and literary thought—and occasional excursions to the us, as in his treatments of Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. And within that field, a particular concern has been critical resistance to ‘declinism’, which Collini regards as a fixation of the culture. He has recently devoted a book-length study—originally the Clark Lectures given in Oxford in 2017—to this topic, arguing that English literary criticism as it took shape in the first half of the twentieth century was in effect a kind of cultural history, and one governed by declinist assumptions, a redoubt of ‘the nostalgic imagination’ and, as some would more bluntly judge, a ‘misplaced cultural imperialism’.footnote7 The general thesis, in its broadest terms, will be familiar to many readers but has never been elaborated in such fine detail or with the same archival support. However, the book was a long time in the making, and years before the lectures were given, Collini had opened a second critical front. Declinism was no longer the main object of engagement, which was now something like its opposite: a thoroughly modern and thoroughly destructive programme of ‘reform’ of the Anglo-British higher education system—no decline this time, and not so much a fall as a wanton felling.