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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

It depends how narrowly you want to define the criticism. I was initially shocked by your short list but thankfully you concluded with a few names. Can I add some more.

David Thompson regularly dissects post modernism. Nick Cohen discusses the decline of acedemia in What's Left. The Durham in Wonderland blog focuses on the failings on one particular institution. Protein Wisdom ventures into this area. David Horowitz and Roger Kimball are well known. Stephen Hicks perhaps less so.

I take your general point that these are not young people but that does not lead me to believe that newer "old critics" will not emerge from the youths of today. After 1960, the post modern idea swept the culture. In its wake it brought identity politics, multiculturalism and political correctness. It's apparent that these ideas are failing to improve society in the way they initially promised. In fact far worse problems have been created in their wake. This is obvious to even the most dim academic, but the way out is not.

I think the first step is not to demand too much but rather to chip away at relativism. Thus, the work of Keith Windshuttle is far more effective than general attacks on post modernism. If mainstream academic standards, as they are, are brought into disrepute by dilligent research then we can expect to see a resergence of extra university academia.

Part of the problem, as you say, is that people do not expect acedemics to exist outside universities. We need to remind people that it does. That if a mere patent clerk comes up with some bizarre theory, his work status doesn't automatically mean he isn't the most brilliant mind of his generation.

PS: Xmas Holidays starting in November!!! Now that does bring the academy into disrepute:-)

Fabian Tassano said...

Some points about your list of critics.

1) D-in-W, PW, SH, DH and RK are US-based, and KW is Antipodean - I was referring principally to the UK.

2) Criticisms of postmodernism are fine but, as I suggested here, there's a risk that picking on easy scapegoats avoids the bigger issue. Ridiculing pomo is a popular sport these days, and has become a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Even Richard Dawkins is at it.

3) What's Left wasn't out when I wrote the book, and I wasn't aware that Cohen went in for lamenting the decline of academia before my book came out. (Incidentally, I see that Harpers managed to misspell the book's subtitle as "How the Left Lost It's Way" - sad.)

4) I'm sceptical of the idea that we can have another 'revolution' like we did in the 60s/70s, this time in the other direction. Contrary to the mythology espoused by the tenured radicals, there wasn't a hegemony actively suppressing dissent in the way there is now.

5) "It's apparent that these ideas are failing to improve society" - who cares? Do you seriously think that academia will spontaneously reform itself because it perceives this shortcoming?

6) "I think the first step is not to demand too much but rather to chip away at relativism. ... If mainstream academic standards are brought into disrepute by diligent research then we can expect to see a resurgence of extra-university academia."

I think your optimism is no more justified than it would be about any other monopoly. Try substituting some words and see how it sounds: "If government ideology is brought into disrepute by diligent pro-liberty blogging, then we can expect to see a resurgence of alternative political models." Well it has, and we haven't. How is there to be a resurgence of extra-university academia - who is going to fund this? In my experience, the belief that there's no need for any research to happen outside academia has gained ground and continues to do so. Wealthy entrepreneurs used to think it was appropriate to fund independent research; now they do not.

Anonymous said...

As a recent graduate of so-called higher education, I was curious about whether you think that the content element of higher education is affected by the adoption of learning outcomes in academic curricula?

My only reason for asking this question is that these so-called academic milestones seem to provide a basis for university marking criteria, but my own experience of attemptng to meet such outcomes is that the whole experience of higher learning lost the enjoyment that I expected to gain from a university education.

I found myself jumping through hoops to meet criteria, rather than trying to support interesting ideas that I had with relevant academic sources, reducing the experience of academic writing to a very boring one.

In hindsight, I feel that rather than being taught how to think, I was being taught what to think in order to pass modules. Thankfully, I am free of this experience now, but something that I thought would be enjoyable, proved otherwise.

Given your view of how this pseudo/egalitarian process works to somehow lower expectations, it leaves me wondering to what degree I have been shortchanged by those who really have a responsibility to help me think outside the box, and just how many people who claim to have degree level education are actually at that level in the truest sense of the world.

It seems easy for a dumb person to meet criteria, but difficult for a smart person because a smart person thinks more deeply, but wordcount is subtly manipulated so that there always appears to be just enough wordspace to cover the essential requirements. In this way, no truly outstanding thinking can creep in, and if academics themselves (as has been noted) have taken the line of least resistance by finding a nice comfortable niche to research something narrow and insignificant, it seems to follow logically that some person with a deep and profound mind, capable of synthesising issues across a range of subject areas, may be penalised because their so-called assessor knows too little about those areas of thinking outside their own narrow realm.