coromandal


The eccentric, brilliant, and impractical
January 21, 2019, 4:51 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Don’t Blink, Lisa Rinzler

The best four years of my middle aged life were spent reading English Literature as an undergraduate. I went on and did a professional degree, which in my mind wasn’t education at all and should be immediately removed from the university and put in a trade school where it belongs. I developed a lifelong love of the humanities from the short introduction I had to it, and know I owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who taught me for their role in introducing us to the histories, stories and ideas that make the foundation of our shared institutions, that nurture our collective imagination, and cement truth and beauty at the center of society and life.

I was aware at the time – the late eighties – of some of the cultural shifts that would a few short decades later completely alter the mission of the humanities. Third Way for instance was a term I learned during my undergrad as a bold bipartisan market based way forward. Exciting! However, no one could have known then the precision and speed with which neo liberal third way would hollow out the liberal arts education starving the core concepts of learning for it’s own sake, for the sake of shared humanism, to allow the imagination to flourish. This movement instrumentalized, quantified and monetized the universities, and the sacred heart of their mission was smothered. Deans, who used to protect the mandate of the colleges, now came in to raise money and, well, the body rotted from the head on down.

In the Baffler book No Future For You is a chapter on the liberalizing of the universities by David Graeber. He describes the result: administrative work has replaced study, research and teaching; administrators outnumber professors; corporate management techniques have led to competition instead of collegiality; study and teaching has been replaced by selling: books, grant applications, faculty, and the university itself; true creative work has been replaced by a sort of stenography. There are no new works of social theory and the eccentric and brilliant are denied tenure and languish in obscurity.

It’s time to declare: we want our universities back.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber, No Future For You, The Baffler



tyranny of managerialism and the privatization of results

Image result for for profit universities contemporary photography

You will: write proposals, be judged, anticipate and deflect criticism.

You will not: do research, follow your curiosity, solve problems.

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.

Jonathan Katz, astrophysicist

The privatization of research results:

You will: jealously guard – as you would personal property – your findings, make findings difficult to access.

You will not: share in convivial competition.

Industrial Revolution British economics was distributed between high finance and local crackpot inventors and researchers, and was highly successful. After 1945, the US and Germany fought over who would replace Britain as world power, and starting with the atom bomb in the 1950s, built our current, stagnant, technological, government funded economy.

In the natural sciences, to the tyranny of managerialism we can add the privatization of research results. As the British economist David Harvie has reminded us, “open source” research is not new. Scholarly research has always been open source, in the sense that scholars share materials and results. There is competition, certainly, but it is “convivial.” This is no longer true of scientists working in the corporate sector, where findings are jealously guarded, but the spread of the corporate ethos within the academy and research institutes themselves has caused even publicly funded scholars to treat their findings as personal property. Academic publishers ensure that findings that are published are increasingly difficult to access, further enclosing the intellectual commons. As a result, convivial, open-source competition turns into something much more like classic market competition.

[…]

Giovanni Arrighi has noted that after the South Sea Bubble, British capitalism largely abandoned the corporate form. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had instead come to rely on a combination of high finance and small family firms—a pattern that held throughout the next century, the period of maximum scientific and technological innovation. (Britain at that time was also notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.)

Contemporary, bureaucratic corporate capitalism was a creation not of Britain, but of the United States and Germany, the two rival powers that spent the first half of the twentieth century fighting two bloody wars over who would replace Britain as a dominant world power—wars that culminated, appropriately enough, in government-sponsored scientific programs to see who would be the first to discover the atom bomb. It is significant, then, that our current technological stagnation seems to have begun after 1945, when the United States replaced Britain as organizer of the world economy.

Of Flying Machines and the Declining Rate of Profit, David Graeber, The Baffler



the life of the mind is good for all of us
November 4, 2013, 5:18 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

J. M. Coetzee’s remarks on the decimation of the idea of the University over the past 40 or so years. He says we must resist the idea that the humanities are good for improving the population’s skills and argues that they are essential for their own sake, for their ability to make a rich and just and social life. The article is linked below.

At the beginning of his letter, he agrees that there must be academic autonomy, but then asks a deeper question: without the humanities is it still really a university?:

Thank you for letting me see your essays on academic freedom in South Africa. The general question you address – “Is a university still a university when it loses its academic autonomy?” – seems to me of the utmost importance to the future of higher education in South Africa.

Hardly less important is the junior cousin of that question, namely: “Is a university without a proper faculty of humanities (or faculty of humanities and social sciences) still a university?”

Governments, once guardians of the common good and benefactors of a literate citizenry, have morphed into mere skills training schools made to meet the needs of the economy:

But South African universities are by no means in a unique position. All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.

You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short­sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves, you argue, we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis. And only the neglected humanities can provide a training in such critical literacy. Continue reading



the university of Erasmus, Newton and Darwin
January 19, 2011, 1:05 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Influence peddling at a University contradicts the essential mandate of a good institution, according to this letter.  A masters student at the University of Cambridge posted a thesis that criticized a local credit card company’s product, which tried to have it censured.  The head of the university’s Security Engineering department had this to say in response.

I’m afraid the centuring business woman wasn’t wrong  about the gap between a normal University’s mandate and actual operations:  our universities are crawling with conflicts of interest between parties with fundamentally different missions.  The power of the department head’s letter is the take no prisoners restatement of what it means for an important institution to remain high minded and relatively pure.  That way, scholars and faculty can say challenging and new things without fear of reprisal.

From the head’s letter:

Second, you seem to think that we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work. Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton,and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values. Thus even though the decision to put the thesis online was Omar’s, we have no choice but to back him. That would hold even if we did not agree with the material! Accordingly I have authorised the thesis to be issued asa Computer Laboratory Technical Report. This will make it easier for people to find and to cite, and will ensure that its presence on our web site is permanent.

–from a letter to Melanie Johnson UK Cards Association by Ross Anderson FRS FREng Professor of Security Engineering, University of Cambridge