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Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Corruption of the Academy

Clearly, given this is my first blog since June, I'm not a particularly good blogger! Perhaps its the kids (two), or that I have a very busy real (i.e. non-on-line) life with lots of wonderful 'real-world' interactions with 'real' people, or that my various commitments and job occupies my waking hours more than they ought to, but whatever it is it is. My most recent entry.

It was occasioned by telephone conversation with my good friend John McCormick, an organic farmer, which while it started about something else ended with me going off on a bit of a rant or eloquent stream of consciousness - delete according to your preferences when you've read what's below. The rant was basically me expressing my deep and continual frustration with the conservatism and lack of pluralism and real creativity and exchange of ideas within the academy (supposedly the place where the 'unthinkable' can be thunk etc.). While the vast majority of academics are thoroughly decent people (of course we have the egoists and sociopaths - mostly confined thankfully to econometrics, or postmodernism - only kidding!) there is something deeply, deeply disturbing to witness (and be a part of) a system of knowledege production and associated work practices which in the main promote and sustain the unsustainable, the unjust. the undemocratic i.e. namely the 'status quo'. Often it seems to me that what universities and places of higher education do is to prepare and create a future for people which is exactly like the present only with ...better teeth, more vitamins, bigger TVs, faster downloads, more stuff..bascially what we have at the minute just with 'better', 'more', 'faster', 'bigger'. And...what a dismal, unimaginative and unsustainable imaginary and objective this is. 'Making the world a better place', 'improving the collective lot of humanity', 'leaving the world in a better state than we found it', such objectives and motivations for knowledge are, in the modern 'hard ball' world of the academy, quaint, useless, 'not with the programme', and therefore actively rejected and ridiculed as having anything more than an (almost obligitory) rhetorical (and therefore completely cynical) role as window dressing when compared with the 'real deal', the 'real issue' and the 'only' or at least most valued/prized/incentivised (call it what you will....I call it corruption and bullshit, but then that's me, a great believer that 'exaggeration is when the truth loses its temper') form of knowledge production.

Us 'knowledge workers' (as I tend to think of myself, though this is a term that most of my academic colleagues would reject...'What? you mean to say we're 'workers'?! Preposterious! We're academics. We're scholars. We're...intellectuals. But workers?! Give me a break!'), paid for our core funding by tax-payers money (remember that people, YOU pay our wages, ask what we've done for you lately with your money by the way next time you meet us), are not encouraged to think of what we do or ought to do in terms of 'making the world a better place', but rather in terms of get the research funding secured, create a new degree to attract non-EU students (preferably from China since this is the last remaining great solvent, sovereign power remaining on the planet). No, our job is to maintain the status quo, deliver subject/disciplinary specific modules which all will ensure the smooth acquisition of 'transferable employability skills' to produce, in the words of former Vice Chancellor of Queens, George Bain (now of course an engaged and enraged citizen in the Lough Neagh vacinity since Rose Energy decided to built a chicken-shit incinerator near his house), our job is to produce 'oven ready graduates'. That is, half-baked (like a lot of things the academy prodcues these days), graduates who can slot easily and effortlessly into middle management of business/the state/civil society(of course this last one is NOT what the university aims to do, but for sake of completeness and mirroring the completely rhetorical/cynical stance of universities I will include it). To conclude, the role of universities today is to complement, enhance and above all comply and support the existing social and cultural order, its role is not to create critical citizens or spaces in which people can imagine alternative futures....which is why sadly, most of the interesting, life-affirming, progressive knowledge-based work I do is done in spite of, rather than because of the academy, whom I regard more and more as the 'boss', 'the man' against whom I have to work around, under and behind, while also making sure I deliver on my official contract. On this last point I have for many years lived by the following dictum, and I've found it useful and helpful in coping with (if not of course solving the tensions I have on a daily basis between what my values and heart tell me to do, and what I actually do): "The wise peasant bows down low and farts silently as the great lord passes by". Never, ever confuse outward signs of deference for inner compliance!

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