Unhappily ever after

Nick Petford tells a festive tale of the ivory-tower dwellers convinced that the sky is falling in on their world

Source: Daniel Mitchell

Once upon a time in the country of Academia lots of very clever people lived in a beautiful castle made of ivory and wrote books about all manner of worldly and important things. It was a cosy place to be, and everyone was happy. “We are so lucky to live in such a rarefied atmosphere and do our clever things,” they said to each other as they critiqued their manuscripts and hid from ungrateful students.

One day some nasty people came along and said horrid things like: “Why not listen to what the students say about you? Why not work more closely with the people who live outside the castle and let them come in and see what goes on?”

They also said that the clever people should be accountable for some of the things they do, not least because the people outside the castle paid for them through their taxes. The nasty men even started checking up from time to time to see if the clever ones were actually doing what they said they would do.

The clever people of the castle protested, saying they couldn’t possibly be expected to work under such awful conditions, and complained that their servants, who helped make things run smoothly, were dreary and smelled of dead wood. The clever castle-dwellers became very sad at all these new things happening and a bold few spoke to their friends who, long ago, had been clever folk at the castle but had moved on to an even nicer old castle in East Minster, where people could sleep lots and eat cheaply.

Everyone agreed how bad things had become and decided, after much thought, that the problem was that tomorrow was different from yesterday. This made them very cross and so they formed a new club called the Council for No Tomorrow. Their idea was to turn back the clock and exile the dreary servants and their highly paid keepers, the duplicitous Chancellors of Vice, a vulgarian tribe of invertebrates. They also wanted to convert into wine cellars the objectionable glut of “new” castles, whose ivory was not shiny like the old ones and which let in poor people. As it was close to Christmas and stocks were running low, this idea was especially well received.

Some also wrote to Santa with a list of wishes such as: “Can I please have a deep moat outside my castle with fearsome creatures from antiquity to scare off hoi polloi, or a designer dungeon to imprison the spineless vulgarians peddling utilitarian oxymorons such as ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘performance management’?”. But mostly they wished for impact to be removed from the research excellence framework.

While some of what the old, clever ones said about how the castle used to be was true, their problem was that tomorrow really is different from yesterday, for all sorts of good and bad reasons. So it really was time to change the castle, whether they liked it or not.

Still, the council and its friends dug their heels in. Some used their magic powers of persuasion to bore people to death. Others tried to drape their invisibility cloaks over clocks and calendars. But it was to no avail. Eventually, they ran out of sherry and fell asleep dreaming of Christmas Past. The End.

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