Wednesday 3 October 2012

The academy in an era of crisis and intellectual uncertainty

Reflections on the state of academia in advance of a Battle of Ideas Satellite event in Athens on Friday 5 October 2012

We live in times when the academy and education in general seem to be high on the agenda of governments and of cultural elites in the Western world. And yet, there seems to be a great ambiguity in answering a very simple question: what is the academy good for today? Various answers would treat academy in a quite instrumental way, as a path to a promising career, as means to provide social mobility to the lower social strata, as a source of boosting the economy and even as an identity forming procedure (hence the emphasis placed on the ‘student experience’ by UK academic institutions). What is lost in all the above is the original purpose of the academy: the pursuit of knowledge and truth, the questioning of certainties and thus the expansion of a society’s horizons.

This predicament of the academy, and its alienation from its primary noble mission, has its roots in the political, ideological and economic condition of our times: the shift in capitalism’s paradigm and its recent serious crisis, the influence of a set of ideas that has become known as postmodernism, and also the marketisation of education, leading to a managerial ethos alien to the academy’s quest for truth and excellence. Needless to say, all three factors are interconnected.

The opening of higher education to the masses took place in the Western world in the aftermath of the Second World War. A new massive middle class was rising to cover needs in the technical and bureaucratic domain, as well as to provide social services that were now available to almost everyone. This was one the one side the result of the privileged position that the working class, due to its strength, would find itself against capital at that time and also a characteristic of the state operating as a ‘collective capitalist’ and training the working force. On a more ideological level, the idea of rising up the social ladder through education was an important lure for the lower classes, which considered education as the means towards a promotion to the upper classes. Education had thus an instrumental role to play, although at that time this appeared to be in the best practical interests of the majority.

Procedures taking place in the last three decades have slowly changed the aforementioned pattern. On the one hand, as a general trend in capitalism, the demand for labour is diminishing. On the other hand, an economic stagnation strikes heavily on the working and middle classes, whereas the state is less and less willing to support these classes. The ‘surplus working population’ (obviously in a social and not a Malthusian way) that Marx had described is now not only including unskilled workers, but also highly skilled labour and would-be members of the middle class, who in the times of crisis are absorbed in precarious forms of employment. This surplus labour power is useless to capital, not only as producers, but not even as consumers, as profit is more and more disconnected from the circulation of products in the ‘real’ market.

Obviously, young people want to avoid such a bleak future. Thus, education is suddenly becoming more and more a luxury and in uncertain times, an investment that is very carefully and wisely made by the individual, on a risk-based approach and with emphasis on promises for a future pay back, in a precarious and demanding job market. This means the university is almost uniquely dealing with skills learning and training, which compromises the character and the ethos of academia. Sections of the academy such as philosophy, arts and politics, which in the past have significantly contributed in the widening of humanity’s horizons, are either surviving as an instrument for social policy, or are facing a total decay and even extinction. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is obviously totally lost somewhere in between these trends.

But the idea of the academy as a place for the pursuit of truth is also eroded by the intellectual atmosphere that seems to be prevailing in recent decades. Trends such as post-structuralism, cultural theory, identity politics and so on promote an understanding of the world (or of multiple worlds) where there is no such thing as universal truth. A diversity of ‘knowledges’, particularism and subjectivism question key notions of the Enlightenment such as reason, science and universal truths and, thus, undermine the figure of the intellectual and of the academic. If there is no such thing as Truth, why bother discovering it in the first place? Of course the thing about truth is that if you’re certain you’ve found it, you probably haven’t… but this doesn’t mean that pursuing truth, while perhaps tentative and temporal, is not a worthwhile goal and the prerequisite for intellectual progress and humanity’s great leaps forward.

The third and most widely discussed factor leading to an undermining of the idea of the academy is the marketisation of education. This procedure has been critiqued, especially by the Left, on various grounds. Here I will focus on how it undermines the academy as an institution servicing knowledge. If university is nowadays a business, the teacher is automatically transformed to a service provider and the student is a customer (and in cases such as in the UK, a customer that pays a lot). There is a phrase in Greece, saying that ‘the customer is always right’. This has profound implications in the academic procedure, undermining the role of the teacher in an era where scepticism towards adult authority is already creating uncertainties on the ontology of the pedagogic system. Education is a procedure which is often demanding, tiring and dull. However, in order to avoid a harsh evaluation by an unsatisfied customer, the teacher might prefer to compromise academic standards in order to make his ‘product’ more appealing.

As the sociologist Frank Furedi has developed in his work, the provision of the ‘commodity’ that education is becoming is based on a pre-arranged agreement, a quid pro quo procedure where each side gives and takes in a very narrowly confined space. This means that the questioning of the uncertainties and the promotion of ideas that might be heretical and outside a suffocating atmosphere of political correctness which prevails modern managerial world, becomes difficult, if not impossible. Education becomes a ‘procedure driven’ experience, where how someone learns becomes more important than what he actually learns.  Thus, we see that a huge amount of money, time and energy is spend by the university for an army of experts, ‘learning enhancers’, human resources officers and student union lobbyists who have nothing to do with anything regarding the pursuit of knowledge.

It is easy to understand that in a time of a global financial crisis, the zeitgeist is quite hostile to the idea of an academy servicing knowledge and the pursuit of truth. However, knowledge and truth are closely linked to the capacity of human beings to bring change and write history. And at the moment we need these things more than ever. 

Nikos Sotirakopoulos is a PhD candidate and an assistant lecture in Environmental Sociology in University of Kent, Canterbury. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas Satellite event What’s the academy worth today? in Athens on Friday 5 October, as well as in the Battle of Ideas weekend in London on 20-21 October in sessions on A European Spring? and Occupy: Illusory Radicalism?.

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