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
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

 

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

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations

Michael Parkin illustration (9 March 2017)

Cramming study into the shortest possible time will impoverish the student experience and drive an even greater wedge between research-enabled permanent staff and the growing underclass of flexible teaching staff, says Tom Cutterham