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COUNTERPRESS | Rethinking the University
Escaping the discursive ruts that characterize debates in higher education. Author: Soo Tian Lee, ISBN: 978-1-910761-06-9, Price: 15 GBP, Length: 224 Pages.
University, Higher Education, Karatani, Instrumentalism, Idealism, Community, Vocation, Critique
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Rethinking the University: Structure, Critique, Vocation

Soo Tian Lee

B & W 229 x 152 mm | Perfect Bound on White w/Matte Laminate | 224 pages | Paperback ISBN 978-1-910761-06-9 | E-book (PDF) ISBN N/A | 11 June 2017

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Rethinking the University: Structure, Critique, Vocation is an attempt to escape the discursive ruts that characterize debates over higher education in the United Kingdom. It explores three distinct perspectives inspired by Kojin Karatani’s ‘triad of concepts’ — instrumentalism, idealism, and community — which the author further develops trans-genealogically to open the way to a heterodox reading of the post-war British university. To deal with the co-existence of these three perspectives, this book focuses on the idea of vocation and concludes with a plea for a university oriented towards the future, engaged in the present, and grounded in an appreciation of the past.

Read interview with the author on Critical Legal Thinking.

How did the British university arrive at its present impasse—and with which concepts can we grasp its contradictions? Lee’s timely book provides fresh answers to these questions by historicizing the post-war university while subjecting its ideals to a fundamental critique. Drawing from the philosophy of Kojin Karatani, Lee unfolds a powerful, novel theory of the university within which there is no a priori standard by which to judge its success or failure. The result is an erudite study of the post-war British university and the concepts by which we judge higher education. A major contribution to study of the university ideal.

— Joel Wainwright, Professor (Ohio State University), author of Decolonizing Development, Geopiracy, and Climate Leviathan (with Geoff Mann).

This eloquently written and engaging account of the trajectory of the British university is an important addition to the literature on the topic. It presents a bold and original treatment of recent history and future implications of higher education that is a must-read for researchers and commentators in the field. While being theoretically complex, it manages to avoid obscurantism, and provides a constructive response to the threats to the public university so evident in contemporary times. The book provides a response that is hopeful but without naïveté, and that recuperates fundamental principles of the university without slipping into romanticized golden-ageism. A breath of fresh air in this perennial debate.

— Tristan McCowan, Reader in Education and International Development (Institute of Education, University College London).

table of contents


A Karatanian Interrogation
The University Triad
The Three Perspectives

Ch. 1 / A University Not for Itself: The Rise of Instrumentalism in Higher Education

The University without (Its Own) Content
Post-war Keynesianism and the Dawn of Economistic Instrumentalism
The Myth of the Two Ruptures
Keynes Contra Fabianism and Others: The Pattern of the Post-war Consensus
The Beginnings of Economistic Instrumentalism in the Post-war University

Ch. 2 / Self-(Mis)understanding After the Fact: The Formation of the Idealist Conception of the Public University

The University with a Single Unifying Ideal
The Public University and its Founding Myth
Robbins: Social Democrat in Neoliberal Clothing, or Vice Versa?
Examining the Structural Place of the Public University

Ch. 3 / Torn Between Common Life and Individualism: 

The Thorny Issue of Community
Community and its Discontents
The Post-war British University and Community
Students and Community
Non-Academic Staff and Community
Academic Staff and Community
The (Al)lure of Non-Substantialist Community
Prolegomena to an Associationist University

Ch. 4 / Singularity, Particularity, and Structural History: On Personal and Collective Vocations in a Plural University

On the Singular Person and the Specific Context
Singularities Seeking Universality in a World of Particularities
The Invention of Vocation
A Very Brief History of Vocation in the Christian Context
Versions of Academic Klesis
Partiality and Integration in a Web of Pluralism and Exclusivism
Charismata: The Counterpart that Provides Form to Klesis

Conclusion: Toward a Past-Future University

Appendix A: On the Reception of Karatani’s Writings in the Anglophone World

Appendix B: Foucault’s Genealogy and Karatani’s Transcendental Retrospection Compared

Appendix C: The Structure of the Book



author bio

Soo Tian Lee, PhD, is an independent researcher and a former sessional lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. He presently lives in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. His current research interests circle around the intersection where politics, faith and spirituality, as well as communal and family life meet.

how to cite

Example using Chicago Manual of Style:


Soo Tian Lee, Rethinking the University: Structure, Critique, Vocation (Oxford: Counterpress, 2018)


Lee, Soo Tian. Rethinking the University: Structure, Critique, Vocation. Oxford: Counterpress, 2018.