10 April 2007

More on academic phoneyness

Further to this.

3) Academia, but not as we knew it

Sad, but true: this reflection from Madsen Pirie, President of the Adam Smith Institute, on how to get by in a mediocratised university system.

Lecturers solemnly assure [students] that they want [them] to be able to articulate and argue for their own views, and will not be marked down because they disagree with the views held or the conclusions reached by their teachers. Although they say this, and many of them believe it, I have encountered innumerable cases where it is not true. In some university departments there is a general presumption in favour of collectivism, and sometimes even of Marxism. ...

Many students quietly pay lip-service to their teachers' views, collect the marks, and forget about it afterwards. This is what I usually advise. If students express conflicting opinions, some teachers conclude that their understanding is deficient, or that they are in error rather than disagreement. ...

... the grades gained [at university] often have consequences in later life, perhaps providing entry into higher level jobs. The safest course is probably to do what it takes to get the good marks. ... I asked an investment banker how he coped with graduate recruits who might have been filled with ideas of little merit. Did his firm need to deprogramme them? He laughed and said, "No. The real world knocks that stuff out of them within three months." I wonder if it does?
In answer to Madsen's question, I would say: yes, in the sense that graduates don't apply any of the ideological teachings directly in their work (at least not in the private sector) or they'd soon be pulled up short by economic reality. But no, in the sense that those teachings probably colour their political views for the rest of their lives. Which may help explain why, for example, there seems to be general apathy about the proposal to strip 17-year-olds of their freedoms — although it strikes me as naive not to worry that this might be the thin end of a new wedge.

Madsen's counsel to students may seem cynical, but I might well give the same advice to people who don't have the stomach for making a fuss and evoking hostility. Which means the vast majority of people, in practice. (I made a fuss, sort of, but it didn't do me any good. Not that I'm sorry I did.)

On the other hand, I have considerable sympathy with the following comment on Madsen's post, by Shelagh Shepherd.
I think we all know this happens on a huge scale. The interesting question is what should the independent-minded student do about it. The answer is definitely not, as Madsen advises, to pander to the examiners’ prejudices in order to collect good marks. What ever happened to the idealism of youth? How will anything ever change if we don’t all speak out against this left-wing monopoly in education? If a young person starts on the slippery slope of compromising their principles while still at school/university, just think how practised and comfortable they are going to be with that process by the time they reach positions of power and influence.
"Think how comfortable they are going to be with compromising their principles by the time they reach positions of power." Yes, well, certain people come to mind, including certain leaders of certain opposition parties.

Chris Dillow writes that he found the 'ideological teachings' of his Marxist economics tutor "tremendously helpful". What he actually means, I think, is that he found the offbeat economic models of Michal Kalecki, which his tutor imparted to him (partly, it appears, because said tutor shared Kalecki's Marxist sympathies), interesting and potentially useful. That's not really what I meant by 'ideology' though ...


Surreptitious Evil said...

Mrs S-E, on occassions, has been known to decry the feminist claptrap the Sociology Dept at her uni insisted she spout in order to get the marks (mid 1980s). So she ran off and took refuge in the dismal science.

There seems to be a massive amount of "group-think" in many common rooms, as well as a strange need to protect the hallowed halls of academia from anything approaching a new idea.


Fabian Tassano said...

Lest I come off sounding too heroic, I should add: I didn't exactly organise demonstrations. When I was doing postgrad economics, I kind of knuckled under the prevailing mathsy gobbledygook. I did, however, regularly carp about what I perceived to be unnecessary, pointless and often vacuous theory - to supervisors, fellow students and anyone else who was prepared to listen. I also tended to ask awkward questions in lectures, which was usually not appreciated. And when I wrote my DPhil thesis, which was fairly theoretical, I tried to make the maths in it relatively meaningful. But (though I got the doctorate) I think this desire to be meaningful and jargon-free didn't help at all for purposes of getting parts of the thesis published as papers.

Anonymous said...

Does it annoy you that the Fabian Society has the same name as you? I became perplexed when Havelock Ellis was a founding member..

Also, did you refuse to show my second response to the freewill issue concerning Schopenhauer?

Fabian Tassano said...

"Havelock Ellis was a founding member."

Well, those were the days of (foolish) idealism. All sorts of admirable people thought of themselves as socialist, e.g. H G Wells.

"Did you refuse to show my second response to the freewill issue?"

What second response? Didn't get it. And I don't use spam filters. Please send again.

If you're a repeat commenter, could you adopt a screen name e.g. "Dr No"? Otherwise it gets confusing. Ta.

Parham said...

HG Wells was a technocrat by the way. What was the foolish idealism that they were trying to pursue?

Fabian Tassano said...

"Anonymous" = "parham"?

The foolish idealism was an uncynical belief in the ability of the whole human race to form some kind of brotherhood of rationality.

What do you mean by "technocrat"?

The Prince of Truth said...

Yes Anonymous in this post is Parham, which is me with my new blogger display name.

By technocrat I mean "a government or organizational system where decision makers are usually highly skilled in fields of management or any other field. A technocratic government therefore is a government by experts."

Perhaps Wells was also too idealistic about "experts"

Fabian Tassano said...

Re "technocracy", I think one has to make a distinction between:

(a) the belief in the desirability of having things decided by reference to people who are scientifically trained (a bit uncynical about the value of "training", but perhaps harmless per se);

(b) the belief that experts (e.g. doctors) should have the power to determine what happens to an individual regardless of whether he/she has agreed to this.

Yes, Wells was probably too idealistic about "experts", and also too uncynical about the possibility that belief (a) would be used to legitimise (b).