Silence is surrender

February 1, 2002

If academics do not speak out for truth, they fail themselves and their jobs, argues Bob Brecher

The past 20 years have seen a drastic depoliticisation of all aspects of British life, a phenomenon at once the result and cause of triumphalist neo-liberalism and its postmodern avatars, whether in the academy, the shopping centre or Whitehall.

It is in this context that the government's much-trumpeted and rightly derided "ethical" foreign policy culminates in Tony Blair's acting the cheerleader for George W. Bush in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and doubtless wherever else the self-styled keepers of civilised, humane and democratic values next choose to export them.

It is also why, in the aftermath of September 11, the rallying cry of the anti-war movement - "Not in our name" - is so important: it is a political, not just a moral, protest. The protest is against the so-called war on terrorism and against the anti-democratic character of its non-declaration.

Everyone bears a responsibility for what is done in our name. Academics, though, have also a professional responsibility to speak out. We work in universities, institutions whose historic raison d'être is to foster critical intelligence. Transmitting this cultural tradition has to involve encouraging, developing and even demanding its questioning. And, the postmoderns notwithstanding, we have to be concerned with truth and with the differences between putative truths, mistakes and propaganda. If "anything goes", then the academy might as well go too, and we with it - not least because, as Norman Geras, professor of government at Manchester University, has said: "If there is no truth, there is no injustice."

The pernicious transformation of education into a consumer commodity and of schools and universities into secular temples of commercial values - modularisation and the mechanical assessment it demands - is no accident. That transformation - instigated by a Tory Party fearful of "the great unwashed" and furthered beyond its wildest dreams by the neo-liberal determination of new Labour fundamentalists to produce a docile workforce and not an increasingly critical electorate - has been quite deliberate.

For all the elitist shortcomings of this disappearing liberal vision, its idea of a university poses a real threat to the dominance of the command state that a "free" market economy requires. That threat needs urgently to be renewed. We must recover an ambition to teach people to think, to question, to be a nuisance. Rejecting the inanities of our Institute for Learning and Teaching instructors, we must start at long last to defend what is best in the liberal tradition. Against the very English elitism that is its Achilles' heel, however - and against our misplaced defence of it, which has shamefully allowed principled opposition to the new philistinism to be undermined, ceding that space almost entirely to the libertarian right - we must insist on fostering the critical intelligence of everyone who comes to university. For without questioning, critique and error, there is no university. We become bogus. Nor is that all. A commitment to questioning, and thus to truth - however partial, provisional and circumscribed - is a practical, and not just a theoretical, commitment. Why should we be taken seriously by our students, or by anyone, if we do not practise what we teach?

These are not just pragmatic points. The purpose of pursuing truth is to get things done, and done properly. Universities should constitute a space to pursue ideas, debates and uncertainties, as well as knowledge, discoveries and invention. They must also serve as a vehicle for their wider dissemination. Let there be no misunderstanding. Of course, public intellectuals cannot be the authority on all things social, political or moral: but they can, and should, be an authority.

If as academics, we have nothing to say to the world, we remain at best a service industry, at once necessary and despised. At worst, we become resentful trainers whose job it is to produce the living dead on whose back Mr Blair and his like hope to continue reassuring themselves that "the future belongs to me". Speaking out - against the lies, injustices and hypocrisies of UK foreign policy - is a condition of self-respect.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at the University of Brighton and a contributor to the "Thinking and Doing" conference on responses to September 11 at the Southampton Institute on Saturday.


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