Today’s intellectuals: too obedient?

Fred Inglis on the obligation of academics to speak truth to power

Source: Getty montage

There is a British crisis of national wealth, a crisis of public ethics and also of identity, of the answers required to the great existential questions: ‘Who am I? How shall I live a decent life? Should I obey my government?’

The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Noam Chomsky’s classic essay, is now approaching its 50th anniversary. His mighty polemic was written as his country, the US, moved deeper and deeper into national and international crisis. The tonnage of high explosive dropped on Vietnam finally exceeded the entire total of Allied bombs dropped on Europe during the Second World War. The American nation’s response to this horrifying display of brute power was a combustible mixture of more-or‑less approving indifference and, especially in the universities, passionate dissent, ardent opposition and, on the part of some thousands of young men awaiting conscription, the criminal, high-minded and public burning of draft cards.

Chomsky was completely on their side. He joined the famous march on the Pentagon in 1967 and – as elderly academics perhaps now recall with a faint reheating of once-radical blood vessels – was arrested and charged with Norman Mailer while demonstrating alongside Robert Lowell, Father Berrigan and Dr Spock. At the same time as this enactment of his public duty, Chomsky, the leading theoretical linguist in the world, was writing an astounding sequence of lengthy essays, each mustering the requisite and copious machinery of bibliographic reference that the most exacting scholar could demand, variously detailing the policies of the official elite in the Pentagon and the White House as they sought, in the happily chosen phrase of the day, “to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age”, a policy more or less fulfilled by Richard Nixon.

In unforgettable prose and with a memorably disdainful manner, Chomsky named countless fellow scholars as time-serving and bien pensant stooges of political power and deathly ideology. He blew apart the vacuous claims to objectivity as the dominant principle of liberal scholarship, and warned the world, with reckless candour, of “the long tradition of naivety and self-righteousness that disfigures our intellectual history”. “The cult of the expert”, he went on, “is both self-serving…and fraudulent”, and in a precept just as necessary and piercing to a minor researcher in healthcare as to Big Dog authors of best-selling modern history, he wrote “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies”.

Chomsky was addressing a national crisis, for sure, one in which the young citizens who were then students could be drafted to fight in a hideous, needless war. He named, in the best tradition of truth-telling scholarship, the public officials pursuing the aggression, all of them men and many of them past and future academics – Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger, Henry Kissinger – for lying, for heedless cruelty, for sheer damnable incompetence. For a present-day British scholar of whatever discipline to go back to these pages – to American Power and the New Mandarins, to At War with Asia, to For Reasons of State – is to be summoned sharply to bear witness to one’s very life principles.

There is presently, for sure, no British national urgency to match the Vietnamese war, which the US fought with such atrocity from the arrival of its first 15,000 “advisers” in 1963 to the moment at which its last-minute helicopters took off from the embassy roof as the North Vietnamese entered Saigon in 1975. There is, however, and quite unmistakably, a British crisis of national wealth that is certain to last as long and to match it for severity and quotidian immediacy, a crisis of public ethics and also of identity, of the answers required to the great existential questions: “Who am I? What is it to be a citizen of this country? How shall I live a decent life? Should I be a patriot? Should I obey my government?”

Stockbroker drinking champagne contrasted with homeless man

These questions, whether attended to or not, press upon every academic scholar and teacher: upon this researcher required to make a grant application for a project that her university insists must be finished within three years and generate (that damned verb) at least five research excellence framework papers; upon this tutor squeezed to allow a pass degree to these dismal, worthy, illiterate overseas students for fear that their home government will send their successors elsewhere if too many fail; upon this candidate for promotion whose latest paper is a detailed and full-scale attack upon the fatuities and mendacity of the parent university’s managerial ineptitude.

These are all actual examples. It would be easiest to illustrate the vile deceptions and idiot ideologising of our masters by looking at the pages of the disgraceful Browne report. But the Browne Review is, amazingly, behind us now and irrevocably part of everyday campus life.

However, there is immediately to hand a blog posted by the senior associate of the solicitors hired by the very well-off University of Warwick as it plans the sacking (“headcount reduction”) of “substantial” numbers of staff from the medical and life sciences schools. The firm in question is called SGH Martineau, and is already briefed to prepare the case against senior member of Warwick staff Thomas Docherty, a prominent critic of higher education policy presently suspended for alleged “insubordination”.

SGH Martineau’s senior staff member, one David Browne, wrote with useful and gratifying indiscretion on his blog (happily titled “Going Further and Higher”) that universities may “encounter high performing employees, who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand. This could be through outspoken opinion or general insubordination. Irrespective of how potentially valuable these employees may be to their institutions, the reality is that, in consistently accepting unacceptable behaviour, institutions may be setting dangerous precedents to other employees that such conduct will be accommodated. From a risk perspective, it is also much harder to justify a dismissal, or other sanction, if similar conduct has gone unpunished before.”

In such language we have the serpent of higher education policy in all its Miltonic repulsiveness: blandly assured, lethally menacing, the ruling class accents and insolent categories deployed with military certainty – “outspoken opinion”, “general insubordination”, “unacceptable behaviour”. A clamour of twittering caused its later modification. Nonetheless, heaven knows what the vice-chancellor at Warwick, co-author of that very sound and relevant book Arts of the Political, is doing with the hire of this firm; he at least has the power to be rid of it at once.

These, however, are the accents and these the all-powerful ways of university policy as it has tended since the egregious Keith Joseph first displayed his ignorance of Keynes back in 1981 (“these are not wealth-creating institutions”) with an overnight cut in university funding of 16 per cent. Lord Browne and the mice on his committee were sailing on a tide long since turned towards the rocks.

Academics at large do not entirely lack courage nor a training in critical opposition. But ours is a docile polity and those same academics prove mostly incapable of concerted self-organisation. Large numbers are only too ready to turn away when faced by the serpent and its dreadful, tedious offspring on the management teams, and bend their heads back to their research, sticking their fingers in their ears when the distant bugles sound the danger signal.

Robert Skidelsky, Edward Skidelsky, Mary O'Hara and David Marquand

Far more important at the present time than giving examples of necessary intellectual tasks is to effect a change of mind, a hardening of ethos

All the same, there have, since the hordes of philistines came crowding through the campus gates, been more than a few gallant souls bugling away, even daring to ride in lonely sallies against their enemy. Books being our trade weapons, there have been, these past five years, good books standing out against the towering waves of ideological brutality. We all admire The Spirit Level for its clear argument that radical inequality damages a whole society including its profits; the Skidelskys, father and son, have told us How Much Is Enough; Mary O’Hara has carefully measured the size of Austerity Bites; David Marquand in a comprehensive curse spoken over Mammon’s Kingdom has added up the whole structure of feeling that teaches consumer excess and a hateful social indifference; Stefan Collini, first into the fray and still unbowed, has counted the cost of our times for the university herself, her custodianship of our pictures of the good society.

Nor have students failed in their duty to be revolting. The high-principled Sussex sit-in and the Manchester student economists who made rowdy objections to the mechanics of a degree course that had nothing to say about the recent unpleasantness – its riot of greed and incompetence – are tokens that conscience has not yet died in the auditorium.

The responsibility of the intellectuals, however, is hardly being met. Social docility, strong convictions of one’s personal impotence, infinite procrastination, plus, one surmises, the regular protestation that people must be able to get on with their proper job – their research and teaching – these excuses and tendencies prevent our noticing that the end of the world is nigh.

So it is likely that the noble and long-standing idea of the university as the redoubt of original and perhaps uncomfortable thought and as the guardian of a nation’s best notions of itself will dissolve and dislimn into a dozen or so busy little enterprises that are narrowly obedient to governmental shopkeepers. Then the slow cataclysm of an elderly and failing economy together with the irresistible destruction of our habitat as nature exacts revenge upon feckless human waste will reduce the citadel of reason to ruins.

Staring-eyed dissidents – Slavoj Žižek here, Ken Loach over there – have been announcing the end of the world for some time, but academic life does not conduce to a sense of urgency. Yet the duty to do serious work is commonly acknowledged in the senior common room. Such work surely should include, for the scientists, say, a careful chronicling of the innumerable signs of global spoliation and their consequences; for the medical doctors, stringent checks on the expiry of pharmacological controls; for the economists, the imagining of a more stable, equal and less corruptible system of capital allocation; for departments of literature and philosophy, the contrivance of a less individualist narrative of emancipation with which to interpret and direct human action.

Queue of university graduates with puppet heads photos pasted over faces

These visionary gestures have quite small and local application. (They connote, after all, exactly the content of the present Scottish argument.) For we have a national government of quite striking incompetence as well as shameless class partiality. The politics department would be doing its proper business of protecting reason and defending the common good if it used an Economic and Social Research Council grant to tell the tale of the just-cancelled sale of £12 billion worth of student loans that the Office for Budget Irresponsibility had already, with undergraduate eagerness, credited to the chancellor’s account.

But far more important at the present time than giving examples of necessary intellectual tasks is to effect a change of mind, a hardening of ethos. This is the most difficult thing: it is to reshape our commonality, to restore our collaborative nature and reject the fatuous insistence that universities should compete in all their business, as though our common pursuit of those much diminished treasures – truth, goodness, beauty – were not the noblest vocation a man or woman could follow. It would then be the statutorily limited task of the management, from a position of strict subordination, to ensure the flourishing of these common ideals.

My opponents will doubtless reach for the dismissive “rant” to typify this sort of vehement expostulation. Ranting, however, is not without its historical honour and accuracy. In 1647, the leading ranter, Laurence Clarkson, asked of his congregation, “Who are the oppressors, but the nobility and gentry?…your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity…have you not chosen oppressors to redeem you from oppression?”

A couple of years later and just down the road in Cobham, Surrey, the Diggers started digging up common land to rescue themselves from impending famine. Gerrard Winstanley told his comrades: “this is the bondage the poor complain of: that they are kept poor by their brethren in a land where there is so much plenty for everyone.”

The collective labours of the university could do worse than begin work with Chomsky in Boston and beside Winstanley on St George’s Hill.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Featured Jobs

Academic Partnership Manager LONDON SOUTH BANK UNIVERSITY

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

Universities to scale back liberal arts and social science courses

  • David Humphries illustration (24 September 2015)

A Russell Group tagline rap is further proof that we need to reform the academy’s approach, argues Philip Moriarty

  • World University Rankings

US continues to lose its grip as institutions in Europe up their game

  • World University Rankings 2015-2016 methodology

Change for the better: fuelled by more comprehensive data, the 2015-2016 rankings probe deeper than ever

Inspired by previous movement in 1960s, PhD students say that ‘science is not neutral’ and urge scientists to confront their assumptions