How universities killed the academic

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Is it possible to write a satirical campus novel anymore? Satire requires exaggeration and the pointed introduction of absurdity, but it is hard to see how modern university life could be further embellished in these respects. As usual, there were some classic stories served up this week for civilians to laugh at.

In the Daily Mail we read that policies at Glasgow University and Imperial College London now direct staff and students to avoid the phrase “the most qualified person should get the job” because this counts as a microaggression. Over in the US, yet another professor resplendent in beadwork and buckskin has admitted to falsely claiming possession of Native American ancestry. And an article just out in the Applied Linguistics Review provides a brand new excuse to lazy researchers: the requirement of a literature review in some disciplines imposes “particular configurations of privileged knowledge” amounting to an “enactment of symbolic violence”. Or, at least, that’s what students will be telling linguistics lecturers from now on.

The organisation that first uncovered the story about microaggressions is the Committee for Academic Freedom, newly formed by philosophy lecturer Edward Skidelsky to push back against institutional incursions on free inquiry. During drinks at the committee’s launch, where I was a guest speaker, more astonishing tales were aired. I heard of endocrinologists at one Russell Group institution being forced to disavow binary theories of biological sex; of male trans-identified dance students at a prestigious arts establishment insisting they be allowed to perform lead ballerina roles and be hoisted aloft during lifts; and of a reading list in one department with pronouns added for every cited author, including those of Osama Bin Laden (“He/Him”, in case you’re wondering). As I mingled, I added each new tale to my mental inventory of university batshittery, already creaking at the seams.

But while the general public increasingly gets the joke, and a growing band of disgruntled renegades joins organisations like CAF, it is still true that most employees within relevant institutions remain po-faced and acquiescent in the light of blatantly stupid initiatives by their managers and colleagues. Partly this is because they are frightened to do otherwise, as new research also published this week by CAF suggests. But partly, perhaps, it’s because nearly all of the personality types who might in the past have viciously mocked, scathingly critiqued, or otherwise put up an intellectual fight have been weeded out of the system.

It is not so much that these characters have been removed deliberately; but rather that as they retire, like is not being replaced with like. I now look back with great fondness at the sort of philosophy research seminar I would encounter in St Andrews or Leeds in the mid Nineties, where “home” faculty would make a point of trying to psychologically destroy whichever tremulous visitor from another university had arrived to present their nascent research. Back then, there was a general understanding that it was the role of listeners to identify any weak point in an argument, and then to pounce mercilessly in the hour-long question period with no quarter given. Back-and-forths with the speaker could be grippingly dramatic. Philosophy as I first knew it was full of rude weirdos, heedless of social norms and unable to tell one end of an email inbox from the other, but whose brilliant performances at the lectern or in a discussion period would make up for any lapses in efficiency or personal hygiene.

“Humanities departments house people who call themselves philosophers but who are no such thing”

In academic publishing too, there was scope to be savagely biting. In battles over theories of mind, one might find Colin McGinn feuding bloodily in the reviews section with Ted Honderich: “This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad”, began one notorious review of Honderich’s work by McGinn. Or the late philosopher Jerry Fodor, personifying his main intellectual opponent Paul Churchland as a conservative and strait-laced “Auntie”: “Auntie rather disapproves of what is going on in the Playroom, and you can’t entirely blame her. Ten or fifteen years of philosophical discussion of mental representation has produced a considerable appearance of disorder…She sighs for the days when well-brought-up philosophers of mind kept themselves occupied for hours on end analysing their behavioural dispositions.”

Part of the official reason for the elimination of flamboyant academic styles such as these was that they tended to be off-putting to new entrants to the profession, and in particular to women. Indeed, I’ve written before about the professional feminist activism in the 2010s which resulted in a change of approach within the discipline of philosophy, an influx of guidelines and policies governing “conduct” within professional associations and departments, and a consequent stigmatising of gladiatorial theatrics and abrasive personalities.

But perhaps an even bigger causal factor in the UK was the move towards conceiving of the student as a customer. Among the many unintended effects of this unfortunate reframing was a difference in the kind of candidate who would get appointed into lecturing positions. And the change is significantly responsible for the idiotic atmosphere we now see.

For trailing in the wake of the new breed of customer came the smooth professionals good at customer service — lecturers adept at producing fancy PowerPoints and ticking items off on promotion checklists, but low on intellectual aggression and the will to stand against the mob. Out were the mercurial and antisocial intellectuals of yore, in love with complex ideas for their own sake and gloriously scathing when others trampled all over them. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that a man as ribald and eccentric as the brilliant political philosopher G.A. Cohen would be allowed in these days — someone for whom, according to his best friend and fellow philosopher Gerald Dworkin, “nothing was too inappropriate, private, bizarre, or embarrassing to be suddenly brought into the conversation”; and someone who for a long time due to “technological conservatism” was unable to answer email, so that “all correspondence had to go through his lovely wife, Michelle”.

And yet we need such characters more than ever. Or at least, we need to adopt their magnificently scathing contempt for daft claims, sloppy thinking, and fallacious reasoning. Not all ideas are created equal, and academics must stop acting as if they are: nit-picking endlessly over small intellectual differences but going quiet about the big ones. It is admirable that there are legislators and organisations now talking about the value of academic freedom in the abstract, and attempting to create a space for it. But unless thinkers fill that space with arguments that take deliberate aim at the stupidity of colleagues and managers, it will remain a vacuum.

And philosophy itself has a crucial role to play here. So many humanities departments house people who call themselves philosophers but who are no such thing, according to the traditional understanding of that term. Out of politeness or fear of intellectual confrontation, they have been allowed by actual philosophers to get away with it. The predictable result is thousands upon thousands of former students who sincerely believe that truth is relative, sex is fluid, cis het white men are scum and all the rest of it. We need to wrest the discipline back from these charlatans.

Right-wing podcasters are fond of analysing the free speech crisis in universities as a result of deliberate nefarious activity by Gramsci-inspired cultural Marxists trying to undermine liberal values from the inside. But the truth — at least in the UK — is far more mundane and familiar. It’s cock up rather than conspiracy. Various governmental initiatives over the years have inadvertently played their role in creating our current fearful and obsequious academic culture: most notably the introduction of student fees, but also the Research Excellence Framework and its emphasis on public-friendly “impact”, and the Office for Students’ pressure on vice-chancellors to protect student mental health. Under a weak pretence of provocation, fashionable academics may write op-eds suggesting that the value of academic freedom is overrated and even sinister; but in doing so, they are only pretending to open the door for a horse that has already bolted. And in fact, they are the ones supinely propping up the status quo.

One worry expressed by this lot is that incoming legislation to protect free speech in universities might be used illegitimately to curtail the role of robust criticism and sound academic judgement — because someone might be able to claim, with the help of such legislation, that non-publication of their cranky and conspiratorial views amounts to suppression. Yet the force of this worry rather depends on the notion that things are fine as they are. In fact, journals and university policies are already flooded with cranky and conspiratorial ideas; and it is hard to see how the legislation could make things worse. Academics need to start openly laughing at the idiocy on their own doorstep. If they don’t, there are plenty of enemies of universities who will be happy to do it for them.

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