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Why do academics fiddle as the world burns?

Colin Feltham
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 analysis.

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


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