22 July 2007

Surviving in a mediocracy (part 5)

Parts 1 to 5 in full here.

Daring to question the consensus

Fairly or unfairly, Robert Fisk is a man not much loved by the blogosphere. Yet perhaps there is something to be said for him. When doing research for the Mediocracy book I scoured the pages of dozens of publications, looking for criticism of the prevailing state of academia and its "high on technicality, low on content" approach. Surely there were some journalists or intellectuals out there, not academics themselves, prepared to question this ludicrous state of affairs? In fact, with the exception of a few people like Ophelia Benson pointing out the absurdities of one specific area (postmodernism), I found not a single instance. Except this one allusion to there being a problem — by Mr Fisk.

It's a new and dangerous phenomenon I'm talking about, a language of exclusion that must have grown up in universities over the past 20 years; after all, any non-university-educated man or woman can pick up an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or '30s and — however Hegelian the subject — fully understand its meaning. No longer.
Other mainstream commentators don’t question this state of affairs, perhaps because they no longer think of research as something which is capable of being done outside academia, but simply as whatever happens to be done at universities. The definition of e.g. philosophy has become, “whatever is done under that name at a recognised academic institution”. Certification has become more important than content, and quality is no longer seen as assessable by an untrained person. The fact that many of the key innovations in the history of knowledge were made outside universities is conveniently forgotten. Someone working outside a university today can be ignored, since by definition they cannot be doing research.

An alternative response for critics — particularly popular among the Right — is to belittle academia in toto, and support demands for it to be selectively dismantled (e.g. keep applied sciences, ditch humanities), pseudo-marketised*, de-funded, monitored or otherwise penalised. One American columnist has even suggested that "by having leftist academics on college campuses, the rest of us have them right where we want them." A possible (though short-sighted) response for non-academics; not so good for those of us whose chance for making a living out of being an intellectual has gone down the sewer.

The few within the academic system who are still prepared to criticise publicly the changes being forced upon them (e.g. Antony Flew, Anthony O’Hear, Frank Furedi, Kenneth Minogue or Larry Summers) come from the older generation. When they’ve gone, there may be no one to remind us how things could be different.

[to be continued]

* The issue of whether it would do good to marketise the university system is a complex one, not least because any strategy would almost certainly involve partial marketisation. For some background to this, see here.