Academy strikes back: the fight for 'useless' knowledge starts here

Scholars have too long acquiesced to policy agendas. They must reassert the value of scholarship for its own sake, argues Claire Fox

October 1, 2009

When I spoke recently on a panel organised for the new group of American Fulbright Scholars, I warned them not to mention their official title in public. In the UK, being a scholar is considered "a bit dodgy"; expect to be derided as outmoded, aloof, irrelevant. Politicians belittle bumbling boffins and self-indulgent bluestockings ensconced in libraries, surrounded by dusty books on the Ming dynasty or trilobites: what a waste of public money. Forget being a "curiosity-driven" scholar; become a thoroughly modern "impact" researcher, contributing to the economic and social wellbeing of the nation.

Was I caricaturing British academic life? As if on cue, the next day the Higher Education Funding Council for England issued a 56-page document announcing that academics wishing to secure the biggest grants will need to prove the "relevance" of their research to the real world and evaluate its impact on the economy, public policy or society. Watch as medieval historians try desperately to show how their research can solve the financial crisis. What's the point of thousands of years of philosophy if it contributes nothing to the economy?

This has led to an outcry. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, declared: "Academic research should never be at the behest of market forces." Many academics are already aggrieved about government pressure to focus on research with demonstrable economic benefits. They don't like Lord Mandelson's superministry treating them as instruments of business.

But it's easy to turn on philistine politicians. Have academics really been fighting for disinterested research? They may object when told that their research should service UK plc, but they have been far more compliant when politicians have talked up worthy-sounding social policy outcomes. Too frequently, academics have fallen over themselves to prove their worth as social includers and community coherers, or to sell academic study as good for students' self-esteem and employability.

Why was there not a backlash against projects such as Beacons for Public Engagement? It is a bit rich to whinge about academic freedom being compromised by knowledge transfer to the corporate world while heeding the call to focus on "reaching out", "listening to" and "learning from" local people, and forming partnerships with organisations ranging from "local sports clubs and cultural venues" to "community groups and media organisations". If a multinational company dictated the issues scholars should focus on, there would be outrage. But when told by the research councils or Hefce that the key public engagement research themes are energy, the environment, climate change, social inclusion, social justice, ageing, healthy living and obesity, many academics acquiesce. These topics may be right-on, but is it right to tie academic inquiry to a government agenda?

Many dons appear to have been wooed by the fashion for "evidence-based" government, thinking this means their research is taken seriously. Unfortunately, it can mean academia prostituting its independence to deliver "advocacy research" endorsing policies. When ideas-lite politicians insist that their policies are "evidence-based", they hide behind scholarship to avoid political arguments. Everything from assaults on civil liberties to illiberal behaviour-change programmes are justified by (selectively) citing peer-reviewed journals. Why do scholars allow complex research to become soundbites?

Academics have been too easily flattered by new Labour's "knowledge society" rhetoric, which has tended to stress the need for ever-changing new skills and trendy courses rather than deep scholarship or subject specialism. That's why it's particularly galling that Hefce's proposals have been presented in the media as a counter to dumbing down. We are told that "Mickey Mouse" degrees will be culled. In truth, these courses exist only because of academia's collusion in making studies "relevant" for ever-expanding numbers of students and to fit the "knowledge society" model, regardless of intellectual merit.

So what is to be done? Dare I suggest an intellectual fight for speculative research, experimentation, serendipitous discovery and "useless" knowledge. This is not a call to arms for fuddy-duddies or a literal defence of dusty books. Scholars should get excited by the British Library's vision of looking "beyond the physical space and into the changing high-tech research environment ... to access information in more interactive and seamless ways", to quote its head of higher education, Joanna Newman. But however we access knowledge, that knowledge is what matters. It's time to mount a battle of ideas - in academia and in the public sphere - to defend scholarship per se, and turn it into a beacon of human achievement and aspiration - freed from its subordination to pragmatic, immediate objectives. Let battle commence.

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