Intellectual surrender

September 4, 2014

Re Fred Inglis’ feature “Trained obedience” (28 August), on the docility of intellectuals in the UK academy today.

It has been said that once you give up your “no”, it is hard, if not impossible, to get it back. Academics have given up control over admissions and other administrative functions in universities in exchange for “academic freedom”. They then gave up “academic freedom” when they defaulted to the use of scholarly journals and third-party evaluations via “publish or perish” models as the de facto vehicle for promotion and tenure.

Although the “work” is “white collar”, one wonders whether there is a difference between academics and slaves picking cotton or cutting sugar cane. One is reminded of the mice in the laboratory, where one says to the other: “We have those folks in the white coats trained: we just jump on this wheel and they feed us.”

Tom Abeles


I read Fred Inglis’ article on the supine posture of academics with interest; in my three-decade career, I have noted frequently the tendency of colleagues to beg for more when kicked and to vote, turkey-like, in favour of Christmas.

One thing he does not mention is the manner in which institutional docility is built into the US higher education system. Untenured staff are condemned to a nasty, brutish (and, in some cases, short) existence in which they have little choice but to do as they are told, to teach what they are bidden and to vote for whatever madcap scheme their superiors dictate. They must smile regardless of the treadmill on which they are shackled, until such time as they are confirmed in post. By the time that happens, they are so used to suppressing all capacity for independent thought that they are all but incapable of recognising a just cause, let alone fighting for one.

I should add that my American colleagues would regard any criticism of the tenure system as incomprehensible, although very few of those I have quizzed on the subject are capable of justifying it in any other than the most rudimentary terms.

I do not say that the British system is better; I merely say that I have observed, in some cases, that the tenure system can be used as a device for turning the independent free-thinker into a creature of the institution. And that, after all, is the point: universities are no longer the bastions of free thought they once were.

Name and address withheld

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