Freedom fighters 'when it suits'

Scholars switch between protesting against and hiding behind the system, writes Rebecca Attwood

May 28, 2009

Academics are guilty of collective hypocrisy because they "bleat" about the erosion of academic freedom while devising new "instruments of intellectual tyranny", a seminar has heard.

Roy Harris, emeritus professor of general linguistics at the University of Oxford, said that although individual academics wanted freedom of inquiry, the profession as a whole was structured in a way that prevented it.

Speaking at a seminar marking International Academic Freedom Day, Professor Harris argued that the current challenges to academic freedom were threats in which the academic community was complicit. Academics protect their work from external criticism, he said, and specialisation is used as a barrier behind which academics and their colleagues can hide.

"Specialisation precludes academic criticism because no one on the other side of the barrier has the jargon in which to formulate criticism that might be relevant," he said. Meanwhile, peer review was a "back-scratching" system under which "judge and jury are all on the same side".

"You don't criticise your peers for fear that they might criticise you," he said, adding that academics behaved in this way in order to win funding.

"It is not only that some research projects require an investment that individual institutions cannot afford. It is also that the academic institution has been re-educated into thinking like a business corporation and individual academic careers are built on notching up an impressive number of large government grants, regardless of the intellectual quality of the research involved."

The dangers of making academic inquiry dependent on the support of the state and big business had been pointed out before, Professor Harris noted. He cited Robert Laughlin's book, The Crime of Reason, which documented the rate at which areas of research were becoming illegal due to patents taken out by corporations and restrictions imposed by governments.

"What Laughlin did not point out was the extent to which these restrictions have come into being with the active or tacit support of the academics involved in those fields," he said. "The fact is that Homo academicus is an unattractive species whose main goal in life is not advancing freedom of inquiry but the myopic pursuit of self-advancement.

"I say nothing of the academics who openly sell out to Mammon and hire their knowledge to the highest commercial bidder.

"Most of the current evils of the world, from the arms trade to the systematic destruction of natural resources, rely on technologies that would not exist but for the active collaboration of people with the highest academic qualifications."

Professor Harris, who was speaking at an event organised by the group Academics for Academic Freedom, chaired by Times Higher Education editor Ann Mroz, argued that there was "an inherent contradiction" between the goal of academic freedom "and the professional interests of the supposed freedom-seekers".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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