Why do academics fiddle as the world burns?
The Times Higher Education Supplement, 31 August 2007
As academics we could and should do much more to provide expertise and
moral leadership in a troubled world. Let’s remember the enormous
resource that we have, that we embody, in our knowledge creation, accurate
and impartial scholarship and critical thinking. Much of this has been
belittled or at best paid lip service to in recent years, thus reinforcing
a tendency to abdicate our ultimate responsibility. We find ourselves
constantly complaining about yet more bureaucracy, unfair pay and the
dumbing down of university education instead of proactively articulating
our actual views and demonstrating our commitment to social and environmental
The floods in Britain this summer revealed a lack of adequate planning
and understanding about local geography, flood defences and the part played
by climate change. They also showed dramatically the lack of co-ordinated
response. Academics have an obvious part to play in such scenarios, above
and beyond that played by relevant professionals on the ground. One of
the main things we do, and do very well, is to specialise and to keep
our specialisms up to date and accurate. As well as training the professionals,
we must continue to research, critique and advance our fields. Sometimes
doing this alongside the demands of our students and institutions is stressful
and demoralising; we may tire and not want to add to our burdens. But
I’m afraid many academics have either given up their original vocation
or buried themselves in institutional politics, subject niceties and quality
control battles. Many of us slavishly take on the latest governmental
or institutional directives such as non-specific upskilling for employability.
I suspect some do this happily, in order to conceal their poverty of alternative
thinking, while others do it heavy-heartedly with a false consciousness.
We are culpable in the current scenario, I think, in the following ways.
A majority of us may be weakly left-wing and politically correct but largely
inactive in real political terms. The anarchist John Zerzan accuses academics
of detachment and cowardice, merely standing on the sidelines making clever
but impotent critical observations about society. Investigative journalists
and novelists are more likely to raise hot social issues and refuse to
let them go than are academics. The government is our paymaster and it
wants productivity, bums on seats, targets, pseudo-quality, student satisfaction,
etc. Deep in mortgages, our own children loan-laden at universities, we
can only obey.
This leads to the topic of the ‘academic personality’. Daniel
Nettle (THES, 10 August 2007) argues that academics are naturally ruminative,
obsessed with detail in a manner that makes them good at some aspects
of their work but unconstructively neurotic in others. Obviously we are
much better bureaucrats than revolutionaries. Our concern with accuracy
and detail often overshadows commonsense and urgency. Heads down, we knock
off another journal submission on some micro-detail of our subject area,
perhaps earning ourselves RAE points, while the world burns (or floods).
We think we are genuinely concerned about our planet’s fate but
actually, almost imperceptibly, concern with our own economic survival
and academic preoccupations and reputation has taken us over. The scientist
James Lovelock has expressed a hatred for academics for their failure
to engage in urgent environmental matters.
And this leads to the tribalism factor. We are specialists. We operate
within disciplines and within teams. We may espouse the value of interdisciplinary
work – much needed around global warming, resource shortages, international
terrorism and religious conflict, for example – but we do very little
of it. Perhaps a tradition of male single-mindedness in career furrows
underpins our subject-specific focus and our unwillingness to communicate
and reform ourselves interdisciplinarily.
Another factor in our malaise is our uncertain status as intellectuals.
Many of us have tacitly turned our backs on any such aspirations or are
suspicious of the elitism this may seem to imply. Frank Furedi and others
have lamented the shortage of British intellectuals but I have seen no
convincing development of this debate. We do have some outstanding subject
specialists and celebrity academics but very few wide-spectrum and inspirational
intellectuals. Psychologists happily prostitute themselves to make appearances
commenting on Big Brother, but few if any are willing to pronounce passionately
on key social and political matters.
We seem to have, in our corner of late capitalism, a barely opposed management-style
government with little vision, a Christian Church with little moral authority
and generally a flattened moral and intellectual landscape. Our job descriptions
as academics do not require us to be more socio-politically engaged than
other citizens. We do not have the French tradition of thinking philosophically
and being politically passionate. We are simply part of a sleepwalking
global commitment to continuing economic growth punctured by unfortunate
events. Even our awareness of global warming is of a rather limp, unconvinced
kind overall. We will no doubt continue to lament our low pay, rising
student numbers and educational policy absurdities ad nauseam.
Colin Feltham is Professor of Critical Counselling Studies, Sheffield
Hallam University, and the author of What’s Wrong With Us? The
Anthropathology Thesis (Wiley, 2007).
last updated 19 September, 2007