Collegial ties still bind all scholars

August 5, 2005

Reflection on where our loyalties as modern academics lie brings Bob Brecher to a medieval answer

The middle of summer seems a good time to sit back and indulge in a bit of reflection about ourselves, even if it adds nothing to the research assessment exercise. In particular, it might be worth thinking about where our responsibilities as academics lie - if anywhere. Forty years ago, the question would have seemed pretty eccentric, with the honest answer probably "to myself". The model then was still that of the gentleman of leisure, even the gentleman of independent means.

Those days are gone. And rightly so; the world does not owe us a living. That old self-indulgence is central to the story of why it was so easy for Margaret Thatcher to start the process of de-professionalisation that today's Blairite neoliberals are relentlessly pushing through. Certainly it stopped our profession seeing what was coming, complacent as we were. But that was then. What about now? To whom are we responsible? Well, here are some suggestions in no particular order of importance: our individual institutions; our students-cum-customers; students' parents; our disciplines; academe itself; the state; society at large. Is it one, some, all or none of these? The answer is far from clear - especially for those of us on temporary or fractional contracts.

It gets even murkier if we ask to whom we ought to be responsible. Then the temptation has to be to get real: "Who am I responsible to? To myself; I've got a living to make." That that is exactly where we started is not just an irony: the neoliberal revolution in universities was in many ways no more than a matter of making us come clean about the reality of our "academic values". After all, neoliberalism did not spring fully formed from nowhere. The welfarism it so easily displaced had extremely shallow roots, which were anyway little different from liberal individualism itself. But the details of just how the 1960s prepared the way for what was to come is another story.

What matters now is the present. And when young colleagues accuse us oldies of forever whingeing, they make an important point. Nostalgia is useless. In fact, it is worse than useless. It is a shelter from the world we are in; it just gets us off the hook of doing anything about it.

That said, the question of responsibility - of loyalty, even - remains on the table. Where should our loyalties lie, if not just to ourselves as actors in some Hobbesian horror show of unfettered egoism, nakedly self-centred ambition and ruthlessly self-interested competition? Is that why we entered the academy, choosing it in preference to other work just because we could not hack the heat of busier kitchens? That is what a lot of people outside universities think; and no doubt some inside them, too. The trouble is, they will continue to think so until we show them otherwise. And it is not hard to see their point.

So here is one suggestion. If it sounds old-fashioned - even positively medieval - then that is because it is. Still, it would be an effective antidote to both crusty nostalgia and to the dispensations of today's new realism. Perhaps our first responsibility is collegial, a responsibility to each other. After all, academic work is inevitably in the deepest sense co-operative; and everyone working and studying in the university is interdependent. Of course, that is not enough. But it would be a start. Isn't it worth thinking about what it might imply for what we do, for how we do it and for how others see us?

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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