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.