Fred Inglis on the way we think now

Thirty years after Clifford Geertz assessed the state of thinking in the academy, the duty of academics to render the unspeakable unspeakable is imperative

March 26, 2015
A man thinking
Source: Kobal/Getty/iStock montage

The Way We Think Now: Toward an Ethnography of Modern Thought” is the title of a paper by Clifford Geertz. It was preceded by an effort in a similar direction called “Blurred Genres: the Refiguration of Social Thought”, in which the great anthropologist, writing in 1980, aimed to sum up the complicated cross-currents of a strong tide of “interdisciplinarity”, which gave new courses at new universities such attractive paciness and skimming confidence in their motion over modern waters. In a dazzling parade of the thinkers of the day, Geertz summoned the harlequin dress of dozens – “ideological arguments cast as historiographical inquiries” (Edward Said), “epistemology constructed as political tract” (Paul Feyerabend) – and, asking “what is Foucault, what Thomas Kuhn?”, concluded that the whole exhilarating dance of the metaphors served the new purpose of abandoning the search for hard facts and looking out instead for interpretative analogies. “All the world’s a stage”; “the game of selfhood”; Geertz’s own “the theatre state”; anthropology’s “symbolic forms”: these foolish and playful things became the toys of social science for a generation.

Geertz then proposed, playfully but seriously, “an ethnography of modern thought”. The way we think now would, he reasoned, be no harder to document than Lévi-Strauss’ “savage thought” (the great work is, after all, called La pensée sauvage). As Geertz breezily goes on to say: “Most effective academic communities are not much larger than most peasant villages and just about as ingrown”; “the interaction, indeed the Durkheimian solidarity, among them would make a Zulu proud”.

Geertz spotted earlier than most of us “the peculiar career pattern which marks the academic disciplines: namely, that one starts at the centre of things and then moves towards the edges”. Put brutally, you do your PhD at the London School of Economics and then get, after 15 applications, an untenured post in Sunderland.

There are, of course, consequences for this in how the academic experiences his or her life cycle: how she nurtures her intellectual ambitions and he his image of himself as philosopher, economist or historian, each of them as they age into fulfilment or misery.

In a third predecessor paper, Geertz pursues a theme central to his discipline, persistently meditated in his work and, no doubt, central also to the labours of everyone in – to go no further for now – the human sciences. This theme is no smaller than the ethics of inquiry, and no one teaching and researching human conduct in books or (as they say) in real life can escape it or render it neutral by a retreat behind the immaterial barriers of “detachment”, “method” or the brandishing of the queasy idea of dispassionate “evidence”.

Thinking is a moral act. Geertz points to “an enormous tension between moral reaction and scientific observation”, to the commonplace factuality of moral necessities involved in every scholarly or, come to that, administrative action. To dismiss this as puritanical is simply to hide one’s body, mind and spirit away out of the danger zone; the monsters of philistinism will eat you up nonetheless.

To ask how “we” think now is to put the first person plural under splintering weight. The force of “we”, as Bernard Williams once remarked, is largely unascribable, and its authority is mostly borrowed by people whose company plenty of the audience would not want to keep. As here, at home, when David Willetts said “unleashing the forces of consumerism is the best single way we’ve got of restoring high academic standards”. His audience at the time was the 2013 Conservative Party conference, but even in the manure-warm, intelligence-rotting rabble of a party conference, Willetts’ pitiful little crowd-rouser must have seemed downright stupid as well as false.

He was, however, doing no more than endorsing the just-as-pitiful nonsense penned by Lord Browne (at Lord Mandelson’s invitation) that consumer choice should dictate the subjects taught and taken at university. The life of the mind as nourished and given breadth and strength by universities’ lived and daily practice is to be decided by 17-year-olds anxiously and self-ignorantly selecting their A-level subjects.

Well, Willetts has gone. He remains, however, a presence in how we think now, penning a sanctimonious missive to Times Higher Education on the pointlessness of Labour’s proposal to cut student fees by a third (“I’m afraid there is no money trick that makes £6K fees a good idea”, Opinion, 18 September 2014) – this from an officer of the party presently so filled with histrionic sanctimony at the wanton nature of national indebtedness.

The trouble is that there are at least two utterly conflicting halves to the way we think now – indeed it sometimes seems quite fatuous to generalise on such a topic. But it surely makes sense to speak affectionately of popular sentiment as cherishing the messy sacredness of domestic life, of the amiability of most street encounters, of the decency and honesty of small-scale dealing in money, exchange, technical advice, of common kindliness towards the poor, the derelict, the elderly, towards children. Then one recalls Neil Kinnock’s great speech just before Mrs Thatcher’s election victory in 1983: “I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.”

I suppose the way we think now if we are academics is directed towards keeping faith with the morally local scale of common decency, while acknowledging, as one must, the steady corruption of public life and the disappearance from the language of our ruling class of any conception of the common good. When the prime minister writes in The Times, as he did at the end of October, of Britain as a “bloated, high-taxing welfare-heavy nation”, he speaks, as the very rich and powerful mostly do, in complete disregard of the obligations of the State towards all its members. When he goes on to talk illiterate nonsense about “every single pound of public money starting out as private earning”, he makes clear not only his own personal obtuseness but also a new kind of prime ministerial irresponsibility towards national and public well-being, and the substitution of party benefit and the retention of power for any larger moral commitment.

These are hardly more than the necessary but burbling reflexes of any honest citizen-academic. They express the slowly dawning consciousness that since the moment in 1979 when Thatcher rode to power with the words of St Francis on her lips (“where there is discord…”etc), the commonly owned property of the nation, the “people’s portion of the island” in James Meek’s affecting words, has become privatised. Millions of council houses have been sold and resold (most recently to American property speculators); by 2014, Meek shows, 73 per cent of the old state industries, transport and public utility systems had joined big slices of the National Health Service and the General Post Office, as well as assorted buildings occupied by schools, in ending up in the hands of socially unanswerable and often foreign bodies; finally, vast areas of university life are dominated by private capital, so much so that registrars cannot explain accurately who owns what on the campus.

What this swift and enormous change means for the way we think, as we tap our books and papers on to the computer, as we turn up to the still pleasurable pressures of a good seminar group, as we tolerate the tedium of old so-and-so at the departmental meeting, is a lesson in spontaneous docility, in sometimes resentful obedience, in dogged acceptance.

Why repeat what we all know and what is the defining form of academic thought? Thought, after all, does not live in a pure void; it is given direction and structure by everyday circumstance, by the latitude of one’s superiors, by one’s age and freedom of expression (much more threatened these days than is recognised), by, nowadays, the hard regulation, the obduracy of the management, the shockingly crude money-criteria that barge their inevitable way into the intellectual space.

I repeat these grimly learned facts because the kind of thought it has been our (yes, “our”: this is the force of “we”) vocation to think and to teach others to think has been stiffened, concreted over and dictated as bullet points by the bawling instruction of drill sergeants designing SATs and performance targets. This deathly process has been built by human hands from top to bottom; by ministers and senior civil servants, endorsed by vice-chancellors, registrars, deans, department heads, descending through the hellish circles of the damned to the deputy dog demanding of one of her senior lecturers hauled in for correction (this is a recent true story), “Why are you sitting like that? You are so hostile.”

In a dishy little example of the kind of thinking enforced by these creatures, Bath Spa University recently distributed to applicants for its teaching certificate a page of advice about how to act when a lecturer was “critical of their teaching practice”: “Describe the strategies you will use to remain professional and keep calm…How will you resolve and reconcile your feelings and emotions after the event?”

Not thought, you see; just a drooling kind of therapy. The poor wretches who had to submit to this humiliation were mere hopefuls on the way to the primary school classroom. But don’t suppose that the intellectual elite fares any better. Take the case of Marina Warner, for a decade professor of mythopoeia at the University of Essex, until she resigned last summer, properly celebrated for many books, especially her history of Mariolatry; chair of the Man Booker Prize committee; fresh from giving seminars at the invitation of All Souls College, quondam headquarters of male Oxonian upper-class arrogance. As she herself wrote last autumn in the London Review of Books (with a follow-up published in the LRB last week), all this looked good; think of the impact! She had reckoned, however, without her vice-chancellor, ex-army Anthony Forster – “too tough for the army. His talents needed a boot camp: a university was just the thing.” Warner was trapped by her own eminence and the sudden drastic shift in university moneymaking. Fame was no longer the spur, students were: lots of them, preferably Chinese or Swiss paying high above the home rate. Students were the new trading commodity. As Forster murmured, in that ineffable English class manner, in public but “to no one in particular”, “these REF stars – they don’t earn their keep”.

Warner’s dean, one of the cold, commanding new helots of the moneymaking university, assigned Warner her “workload allocation”, which the head of department would be “instructed” to enforce, Booker committee and All Souls notwithstanding. Warner quit.

As she left, she observed bleakly that these flint-faced new figures – the vice-chancellors and administrators – do all that is required by our rulers to turn universities into profitable businesses. This, baldly, is what is demanded and the poor bloody scholar as well as the poor bloody infantry provided by the students, all taken, it may be, by surprise but in any case quite unaccustomed to class warfare and no good at concerted action, fall shamblingly into line, “pinned down”, in Marina Warner’s words, “to one-size-fits-all contracts, inflexible timetables, overflowing workloads, overcrowded classes”.

There is no shortage of books describing this insane charge over the cliff edge. Two of the best, Roger Brown and Helen Carasso’s Everything for Sale: the Marketisation of UK Higher Education (2013) and Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (2013), set out the figures, the dangers, the evil done to clear thought and moral judgement. But nobody provides any account of what to do, of how to prevent an ideologically demented and morally unprincipled government and its stooges from turning an internationally celebrated university system into the third-rate business practice now typical of so many failed, privatised British enterprises, three-quarters sold off overseas in any case.

The deontic principles of thought and its moral action that have been so sedated and stupefied by years of mannerly decorum and downright neglect remain nonetheless just what they were when, in a piercing example, old Leavis set out his particular programme on a far darker day than today. Writing in 1943 when a dependable food supply was mostly being dispatched by U-boats to the bottom of the Atlantic, and when a couple of years later the national debt was 250 per cent of GDP, Leavis wrote of the kind of mind “the essential discipline” should produce. It would be one that “knows what precision and specialist knowledge are, is aware of the kinds not in its own possession…and has been trained in a kind of thinking, a scrupulously sensitive yet enterprising use of intelligence…a mind, energetic and resourceful, that will apply itself to the problems of civilisation…it is a training in carrying on and going forward in spite of, and in recognition of, incompletenesses and imperfections…” If one lowers the pitch a bit and moves out of Leavis’ high (and noble) style, this is how any university teacher wants to be able to think, and how he or she hopes that the students will, within and outside their specialisms, strive to think also and to apply themselves, dammit, to “the problems of civilisation”. This should be as true of a degree course nurse over here, of a future GP over there, a solid-state physicist, a historian of architecture, a rational choice economist or a lepidopterist, anywhere.

To think as Leavis commends us, and to make such thinking tell in public debate, would make it impossible for a PR robot-turned-prime minister to mouth flagrant untruths, saying as he did, in reply to a question about cuts from Salman Rushdie: “What we’re doing is making sure that universities will be properly funded. What’s going to happen is the success of universities…once students are paying the bills they will be keener on really good courses, really good lecturers…so universities will have to respond to demand.”

That is one way some people think now. It is a trivial-minded way and downright mendacious. Another way of putting things would be to act upon the conviction that it is the duty of universities to render the unspeakable unspeakable. “Thought is conduct,” Geertz says, “and is to be morally judged as such.” What judgement shall we pass on our thinking in universities today?

Fred Inglis is honorary professor of cultural history at the University of Warwick.

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