Source: Miles Cole
We operate in a kind of reputational economy, in which merely doing a good job is not enough. We must (appear to) transform base metal into gold
“There is only one argument for doing something,” wrote Francis Cornford in his 1908 satire of academic politics, the Microcosmographia Academica: that it is the right thing to do. “The rest are arguments for doing nothing.”
Cornford then goes on to review all the seasoned arguments that the academic politician might deploy to block a proposed change: the “rules of inaction”, as he terms them.
The Principle of the Wedge cautions that “you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future – expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy”. The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent advises that “you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case”. The Fair Trial Argument is paraphrased as: “I don’t intend to alter my lectures if I can help it; and if you pass this proposal, you will have to alter yours.” And the Principle of Unripe Time states that “people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived”.
Many aspects of Cornford’s satire remain fresh today. Many of his terms and phrases have indeed become commonplace. But in one central regard the culture he lampoons has been turned on its head.
The world of the Microcosmographia is one in which almost everyone agrees that change is to be resisted at all costs. As Cornford writes of the Dangerous Precedent: “Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.” Today, by contrast, change is held as sacred.
All of our programmes undergo perpetual “enhancement” – and yet the horizon of perfection remains tantalisingly beyond reach. Our research excellence framework narratives present our departments as restlessly improving on every front. Verbs or phrases suggesting continuity, such as “maintain”, are purged – replaced by the language of growth, development or transformation – to give the subliminal effect of an inevitable surge of research power. Where, for Cornford, to resist a proposal “it will often be sufficient to argue that a change is a change”, resistance now (as I was once coached, as a novice head of department, by a savvy planning officer) needs to be packaged in terms that suggest steadfast commitment to the overall programme of change. It feels at times as if we are trapped in a train running out of control.
Except that, as individuals, we all realise that this idealisation of change is baloney: a myth which we know to be a myth and yet to which we all nonetheless subscribe. My cynical planning officer certainly knew this. “It is important”, he said, “that your department be progressive and managed”, but “it is much more important that it should sound progressive and managed”. We operate in a kind of reputational economy, in which merely doing a good job is not enough, whether for the departmental head or for the lecturer seeking promotion; we must (appear to) transform base metal into gold.
“If we want things to stay as they are,” in the famous phrase of Tancredi, the young man in a hurry in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “everything needs to change”. The greater the noise of change, ironically, the easier it becomes for the rest of us to screen it out, and to focus, as we imagine, on the real business: of reading and writing, of teaching and research. Outwardly, we mouth the rhetoric; inwardly, we hunker down – and perhaps come closer to the “other world” that Cornford ultimately recommends when, as an academic politician, you have completed your “excursion in the world of unreason”: the “world within the microcosm, the silent, reasonable world, where the only action is thought, and thought is free from fear.”
The pity in this is that, contrary to the assertion of one 19th-century rabbi, not “everything that is new is bad”. Most of us will recognise, with an inward groan, Cornford’s picture of the colleague determined to deliver the same lectures till their dying day. But we also know that effecting the “transformational change” that universities seek (improving research performance, say) is a task that is impossible to achieve through any central fiat – and, conversely, that many of the most profound changes are unintended consequences.
As one academic year ends and another begins – and we all grow older and more jaded – it is perhaps time to call for a change. The really revolutionary university leader will be the one who champions consolidation, making do and mending where possible; the one who disavows massive overhaul for its own sake, or who calls for real change: the incremental rather than alchemical sort, which requires patient grind, genuine engagement and common purpose.