Critical mass effects

December 8, 2011

In their different ways, Malcolm Gillies ("Thou shalt not sit on fences", 1 December) and John Mair ("Breaking the news mould", 1 December) help us to think beyond the academy's conventional "regime of 'truth'" regarding ethical commitment and the policy effects of academic activity.

Gillies is surely right that both vice-chancellors and the professoriate are at best only "patchily engaged" in the ethics of the academy/real-world interface - in part a throwback, perhaps, to the philosophically incoherent "values-free" positivism that used to dominate the academic life, and in part a fear-driven preference to avoid upsetting anyone, least of all anyone with any influence or power. Yet the price that the academy pays for such pusillanimity is enormous.

Terry Eagleton and Matthew Beaumont's book The Task of the Critic (reviewed in THE, 25 March 2010) offers us a compelling alternative vision. The critic does not play it safe, does not only say what others want to hear and does not allow "spin" to take precedence over ethical authenticity. Rather, the critic embraces "fearless speech", speaks truth to power and dares to take committed positions in the media on issues that matter.

On these criteria, open letters to the press organised by campaigning academics, for example, surely have a considerably higher "impact factor" in the policy arena than any number of peer-reviewed papers promulgating "status-quo research" that might score highly in the research excellence framework, but are routinely read by barely a handful of armchair academics.

Dare we hope that the REF 2014 might find a way to assess something more impactful than "weighty tomes from those in ivory towers", as Mair puts it? Alas, the critic-activists among us aren't holding our breath.

Richard House, University of Roehampton

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