“One of the many paradoxes of higher education is that while it is dedicated to the production of new, often ground-breaking ideas, its institutions perpetuate obsolete practices from previous centuries….
Think of a typical journal paper in the humanities or social sciences. Most of its content is part of some ongoing intradisciplinary dialogue, responding to and building on others’ work…
But the way writers engage with each other is deeply odd….Instead, academics write as though they were still living in the 17th or 18th century Respublica literaria, the Republic of Letters, in which hand-written correspondence was the only way to exchange ideas.”
…“But if something really is puzzling in the work of a colleague, why not just ask them about it first?…”
“The cynic might conclude that this is the very point: academic work is measured both by quality and volume. But given that most academics despise the publish or be damned culture, this is all the more reason to reform the system.”
This is the argument of Julian Baggini in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 17 February 2021. Baggini has been an independent scholar who has helped many (millions?) globally to understand philosophy in his introductory textbooks and pop non-fiction. Baggini also has an institutional position; he is academic director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.
Baggini proceeds in his article with a description of how the historical Republic of Letters worked, and what is important to notice is that the exchange of ideas, the academic dialogue, involved both those with academic status and those who lost favour with the institutions; socially, politically, and, significantly, cognitively isolated. Perhaps, historical scholars, like Nietzsche, had to take such a prophetic tone by necessity. It speaks to the unintelligible rage we hear against higher education institutions on social media. The public, again, is isolated from the instituted system of higher education.
We have an economic and social arrangement today where, out of necessity, most expert researchers in the humanities and social sciences are outside the colleges and universities – they are those who have more time and quality effort to research because they are not employed by the institutions.
On one hand, the institutional privatisation and the labour casualisation has worked in favour of the independent scholar. She is employed more often for her research passion. On the other hand, the same process has damaged scholarly engagement for both the researcher and the institution. The marketplace has created several isolating effects for public education. Despite most expert researchers lacking institutional reputation – often with limited and very distant contracts with the institutions – the public still looks to institutional status. An old critique is that institutions act like machines. Once an individual part is no longer needed, it is deposed of. The criticism is so old that it has become a cynic’s response. The foolishness is not to see the damage that the machine-like process is bringing to the product. It is not hard to see. The best educationalists have been describing, for decades, the loss of educational standards and better methods. I do not have to go to the details. It is well-known. But if it is required that evidence be presented and a detailed argument to be put together, then the institutions need to be serious about re-connecting with those who have been squeezed out of institutional purview.
Many independent scholars relate to the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s ‘Keep Talking’ (Source: LyricFind):
I feel like I’m drowning
(You never talk to me) you know I can’t breathe now
(What are you thinking?) We’re going nowhere
(What are you feeling?) We’re going nowhere
(Why won’t you talk to me?)
(You never talk to me)
(What are you thinking?)
(Where do we go from here?)
One does not have to agree with Richard Rorty’s key points in post-analytic philosophy, to support his valuing of intelligent conversation.
There is commonality here among all scholars, particularly in the current Covid-19 environment. Postgraduate training is designed to produced independent scholars, who are generally in an isolating situation. However, the institution was originally designed for collegial behaviour.
What must change for Baggini’s call to reform the system is that the colleges and universities have to take independent scholars back into ‘the college’. This does not necessarily mean more formal, paid, contracts. It means being more inclusive towards colleagues on the outside practically – engage their work, allow them presence on-campus and in academic online discussion, build collegial community with those outside institutional status. None of these practical solutions need lead to the lowering of academic standards.
Michael J. Sandel (2020) has articulated the argument to show that the reforms I have suggested is very possible. There is common good which we should be looking to be upholding against the failed model of meritocracy.
Image Source: Photo 47350705 © Rawpixelimages | Dreamstime.com
(where inferences in the argument have been informed by reading)
Guess, Raymond (2017). Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno, Harvard University Press.
Mandler, Peter (2020). The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War, Oxford University Press.
Rorty, Richard (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press.
Sandel, Michael (2020). The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Random House.
Williams, Bernard (2002). Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, Princeton University Press.
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