22 November 2007

Surviving in a mediocracy: final thoughts

In earlier instalments of this article, I argued that much of contemporary academia is characterised by vacuous technicality and/or ideological bias, with the result that genuine progress is being blocked in favour of recycling the prevailing dominant paradigms.

Why does any of this matter? For two reasons. First, a society which stifles intellectual innovation is not a healthy society. Second, certain types of people — e.g. intellectuals not in tune with the dominant ideology — find it impossible to exist in such a society. They will either depart for a country which is less stifling, such as the US, or they will live lives of misery and deprivation. (Here are the real victims of ‘social exclusion’.) Or, as in my case, they’re forced to try to make significant amounts of money by investment, in the hope of one day being able to fund an institutional environment.

Some of my fellow academics say, “why whinge about it, just suck it up. Be grateful you can get paid to have an intellectual career at all”. They themselves do 'suck it up', and enter into the spirit of New Academe, helping to perpetuate a system that is basically rotten. It is not that I haven't tried. For a while I laboured hard to produce the kind of technical economics which is now de rigueur. But although I learnt well enough how to use the system of arcane jargon and techniques, it was never quite correct enough in the required way. I couldn’t quite disabuse myself of the desire to say something interesting or meaningful. “Don’t try to be original,” I was advised. “Crank the handle, copy someone else’s work, but with a slight variation.” “Technique it up” was another frequent suggestion. I.e. wrap up what you are saying in jargon and presentational gimmicks. Ultimately, my desire to be clear and consequential proved to be too much of a handicap: I realised I was never going to be permitted to be anything more than a C-list academic, and left Oxford. (A severe disappointment, given my supervisor at Cambridge had once described me as one of the people most suited to research he had ever encountered.)

Of course, even in the most repressively dogmatic system there will be the odd lucky exception who somehow slips through the net. So we get the occasional academic prepared to question the orthodoxy of their own subject. Usually they do this fairly late in life, after first having made careers out of supporting the orthodoxy. Recently, for example, we had a couple of senior academics criticising the economics of happiness (some months after I had first done so).

Sometimes I wonder whether these 'rebels' are promoted in order to undermine the claim that there is anything wrong with academia. "See, it's perfectly possible to be a maverick and still have a respectable Professorship." Apart from the fact that criticism by such individuals is generally on the dilute side, the ability to point to a handful of 'dissident' insiders doesn't really bear on the issue of whether it's possible in general to make a career in academia if you are sceptical of the orthodoxy to begin with. Especially if you do not have a taste for recycling what you realise is vacuous, for the sake of climbing the professional ladder — with the possible compensation of making a secondary career from criticising what you previously endorsed, thirty years down the line.

* * * * *

Massification of degrees is said to be inevitable because everyone now aspires to higher education. Fine, but instead of letting the market provide this extension to the old model, it’s taken to mean turning the university system into an arm of the welfare state, rather like the NHS. I.e. run by the state, with everyone having equal entitlement to a low grade product, and subsidy based on poverty rather than ability. With the concept of academic selection increasingly regarded as unacceptable, and selection in any case becoming impossible as exams are engineered to achieve egalitarian outcomes, it is not surprising that the idea of university entrance by lottery is becoming a plausible option.

I have never seen a meaningful case made for a majority needing to go to college; this is now simply assumed in the most handwaving way (no substantive argument required) by both Left and Right. The hidden assumption that ability is not inherited is used to discriminate against people from social groups considered to be over-represented. The fact that little of benefit is acquired by most undergraduates is concealed by ensuring that everyone receives a qualification at the end of the process.

The net result is that academics are being forced to become badly paid handmaidens to a system which will be primarily about promoting equality and inclusion, like state school teachers already are. They are now also required to comply with increasing levels of state bureaucracy, and are monitored and assessed by government auditors — not that this is any more conducive to quality than its counterpart in the NHS.

The modern academic is expected to narrow his or her focus to a tiny detailed area. Specialisation is usually said to be an inevitable feature of modern research, but it’s partly a consequence of massification, and the implicit assumption that the whole academic enterprise should operate as a kind of a hive mind with every cog playing its small part. Democratisation demands that everyone get 'training' and have a go, and egalitarianism stipulates that no one is better than anyone else. This creates a system in which everyone is expected to find a tiny insignificant niche in which to make themselves comfortable. The level of support is cut, while the number of 'researchers' is increased.

Few people with influence appear to have much incentive to speak out about this. There are too many vested interests involved. And being honest for its own sake has become unfashionable. A small minority of journalists manage to make careers out of criticising the prevailing cultural ideology, but are apparently unwilling to do the slightest thing to help exiled academics like me or my colleagues at Oxford Forum, e.g. by mentioning dissident publications in their newspaper columns. Though being quite happy, in some cases, to make use of the ideas in their own writings.

It has of course become distinctly unfashionable to criticise contemporary culture. It’s been done, the story goes, now get over it. (Though the criticism we’ve had has been principally about the dumbing down, rather than about the vacuous technicality.)

It doesn’t help that there’s an awful lot of 'academic' activity out there these days. There are, for example, said to be ten thousand academic philosophers in the US. This creates the misleading impression that, whatever requires support at the moment, it is not intellectuals.

* * * * *

Some think the web will break the stranglehold of the cultural establishment. Systems like Wikipedia, run largely by intelligent amateurs, can offer alternative viewpoints, and even criticise some of the more obvious prejudices of the establishment. (I believe Wikipedia’s success derives partly from the fact that much of the cultural establishment no longer generates material that is usable or useful.) The long tail effect may also help to preserve unfashionable products already in existence whose influence would otherwise be lost.

But technology by itself can only go so far: it can preserve but it cannot create. Significant cultural innovation requires some individuals to be free from the usual pressure of earning a living, and that still depends (as it has always done) on private capital — for which few on the Left or Right have anything good to say these days. There’s a tendency to confuse (a) the capacity of the web to criticise nonsense with (b) the 'wisdom of crowds', and to assume that it’s sheer numbers which make the web valuable. Look for example at the comments section of online Guardian articles (much heat, little light) and you’ll realise the folly of this.

Some people (including some outside the academic establishment) try to be professional intellectuals on the web, e.g. by having blogs with an academic flavour. I haven’t bothered myself, because I know the best payoff I could hope for would be a part-time career on the fringes of journalism. Any blogger expecting that society will recognise and reward their intellectual activity on its own merits will certainly be disappointed. The modern world does not work like that.

When my colleague Celia Green tried years ago to demonstrate her aptitude for research by pioneering several topics of research in psychology via her own research organisation, all that happened was that people already in the academic system used her ideas as the basis for their careers. And that was before the obsession with certification and institutionalisation had become as pervasive as it is now.