Monday, 17 December 2007

The Problem with the Gentlemanly University

Dan (whose relaunched blog, Covered in Bees, is worth checking out) commented on Friday's oversized post with a link to an elegantly barbed piece from the Times Higher. The author is the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, his target the much reviled Research Assessment Exercise to which academic departments in the UK are now subject. Blackburn has an angry kind of fun with the RAE, imagining how it might have processed the greats of philosophy:

In amongst the 4* management-speak encomia for team building and research environments we also find with gratitude that "the sub-panel is aware that research of high quality is very often carried out by individual scholars". Phew! A close call then for Plato, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein and all the rest! They just squeak in, although whether in their own time they would have done so at the 1*, 2*, 3*, or 4* level might puzzle us to say... Like creative art, as often as not great and even good philosophy only slowly creates the sensibilities by which it gets recognized.

The hopeful part of me wonders whether the sheer lunacy of today's managerialism could have the effect of bringing down the whole knowledge factory?

I suggested the other day that earlier models of the university were already fundamentally "business-like" - in that a turn had already taken place away from the ancient assumption that learning requires otium (leisure), towards a model of learning as the "production of knowledge". However, their gentlemanly style of business left many of their inhabitants room to pursue something closer to the style of learning for which I care.

So, what was the problem? Well, my theory (which I'm making up as I go along - bear with me!) is that these institutions also played a critical role in producing the world as we find it - including the ways of thinking which lead to managerialism. (For example, the assumption that reality can be adequately/meaningfully/usefully treated as made up of resources, whose unique and specific qualities are wholly subordinate to their mathematical representation, or exchange value.)

If managerialism is not a barbarian invader, but the absurd heir to centuries of respectable thinking, this has implications for those who would defend learning against it.

The hope I referred to is this: there are many of us who, a generation or two ago, might have holed up comfortably in academia and who are now either sitting inside the university, feeling increasing discomfort - or already outside and improvising space for learning, thinking, reading and writing as best we can. These two groups form a pool in which I think I can make out a potential for new ways of organising learning. These may have some of the qualities I celebrate, without being bound to institutions which are antithetical to those qualities. Significantly, this pool includes people who do not share the kind of critique of the university per se which I have been trying to make.

In support of all this wishful thinking, I offer a passage from the theologian Prof Richard H Roberts which has been rattling around my head for three years now:

Given present conditions, I believe that the future survival of fundamental truth-seeking, the production of knowledge and genuinely 'owned' university teaching, together understood as part and parcel of the total way of life, may well only be assured through cultural migration, and the creation of new, subversive and marginal institutional embodiments.

Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences p.xi

'Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread' and all that... I realise I may be slashing about with a broadsword where what's required is a scalpel. Please, if you know any good surgeons trying to perform such an operation, point me towards them.

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