April 15, 2011

Freedom to Think in England

Being in England, and being in England amongst English academics, one cannot escape thinking about thinking, even though there is no time here to think about anything. What’s happening here in the academic arena will do truly appalling damage to the intellectual life of the country in both the short and long terms, and with consequences that threaten to go far beyond academic life.

Of course, one man’s appalling damage is another man’s political expediency, and one might argue about policy until cows are extinct. But, and here is the rub, one might only engage in this endless argument – and argument is in itself worthwhile – if one has the space, time, money and freedom to stage it. Argument comes, or should come at any rate, after thought. Critical debate is contingent upon critical thinking. Leaping takes place after looking, etc. What seems to be happening to scholarly life here is the rapid removal of all the prior conditions. Work is demanded without the necessary time to think about what work ought to be done. The solution to that problem is the provision of all the thought in pre-packaged governmental notions of what constitutes importance in the realm of ideas, projects and outcomes. Party policy is supplanting liberal thinking; rhetorical big ideas are being deployed to prevent the emergence of real ideas; research agendas are being set a priori, instead of being formed through research itself. And just in case anybody has other ideas about how to proceed, the money required to fund research is now being directed at only those scholars who are prepared to toe the line. Want funding? Do what the government wants (or think how the government wants you to think).

Tell any American professor in the humanities that you’re an English academic and they will roll their eyes, sucking air sharply over their teeth as if they were builders and you’d just asked them for a quote. This is not to say that American academia is by any means a perfect model, but England is the laughing stock of the academic world because its academics are increasingly becoming powerless in determining how they work and what they think about. They are increasingly subject to government – and hence party – policy to such a degree that even beginning to think without first attaining government approval (in the form of funding) is unlikely. They are forced to publish at a rate non-conducive to the production of high-quality research, and they are compelled to teach more and more students of ever-decreasing intellectual capabilities. Each time I return to England the situation is worse, and the forecast is for yet worse to come. And protest as loudly as the lowly scholars do, not a shred of difference is made.

The universities ought to be the cornerstones of civilised life. They ought to be our guarantors of freedom, for within their walls the vigilance required to maintain freedom is fed by intellectual inquiry. The ivory tower’s doors open onto society in such a way as to make sure that society knows when it is being held-back, its freedoms curtailed, its opportunities limited. Freedom itself depends upon the freedom to think about what it means to be free. If you limit that thought space by demanding that thought go only in this direction or that, then the risks to us all are nightmarish to consider. 


  1. Doctor, I believe you must look again at what policy means: it cannot really be debated. It must be enacted. Politics works under urgency; and there never can be enough time to think everything through. It cannot be done on a schedule, however much we try. It never has been, at least. Except in speeches, maybe...

    But the deeper problem is that if academia wants money, it has to earn it. And earn it from those giving it: the politicians and the people. This is not easy, is it? I have rarely ever found an academic aware of the serious problem here. But clever or conniving administrators, some ruthless, others shameful, abound.

    Is the academia that promotes political correctness and race-gender-class studies everywhere really worth the money and effort? They might be in love with themselves; nobody else seems to be. You can talk about defending freedom - you might even be right about the point - certainly, it seems noble and you are a fine speaker: but how many colleges have you seen where the young were taught to love their country and further its cause - or at least were not taught to hate their country and wish for its downfall?

  2. Exceptions at both extremes aside, students are taught to question. The answers they discover or choose to pursue are up to them. What the good doctor laments, as I read it, is that academics are now explicitly being told (by funding priorities that limit other dialogue) just which answers to present to students. Questioning and thinking are dismissed in favour of a range of answers already limited by the capacity (read: funding and state support) of academia to pursue anything else.

  3. Kravien - what the young must be taught, above all, is to think; they will then be able to reach their own conclusions.

    This is and always has been, above all, what a good education in the humanities can do. A society which fails to treasure and support this is, in the long term, ensuring its own cultural and moral decrepitude

    This article describes a lot of the issues well.

  4. Kravien - Academia gets its money from the government, but until now it has been up to academics how to spend it.

    I do not see an academia that teaches political correctness, and 'race-gender-class' studies over the last thirty years has been anything but monolithic in its concerns and politics. Has it been useful? Absolutely. To claim otherwise is either nonsense or willful ignorance.

    Academia that I know does not teach people to hate their countries, but nor would I support one that taught people to love their countries. Academia can teach people to know the whys and wherefores of patriotism, and to know when they are being led down the garden path.

    Anonymous and Francis - I'm with you.

  5. Doctor, when you say 'they whys and wherefores of patriotism' after you deny that academia should teach patriotism, or love of country, do you realize what you are implying? -- But leave it at that, if you will. -- The bottom line you do not seem to accept is that if you want the democracy's money, you had better convince the democrats to give it to you. -- You might have to pretend you are not asking for money, you might have to claim you deserve it, you may feel you need to make a case about bad things that would happen to people who disagree with you, and maybe they should know what is good for them before they mess with you - but you probably will still be forced to argue on democratic grounds. So far, I have seen nothing to satisfy anyone but perhaps other academics, which makes me laugh heartily.

  6. That a pot of money is handed over is not at issue. The pot is the same size now as before, and its status is secure. The issue centres upon who is qualified to decide how that money is distributed, and the extent to which party policy plays a part in decisions about funding awards. For 90 years there has been a well-founded principle of academic freedom, in which the independent control by scholars of government money allocated to scholarship has been considered sacrosanct. This has now gone away. If anybody needs to do the justifying here, it is the politicians, not the academics. Why should free thinking in a democracy be subject to political dogma? Politicians are playing at dangerous double dealing, on the one hand ushering the university sector towards a private system where it is responsible for its own funds, and on the other hand holding the purse strings of funding that keep academics dependent on the state.


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