When utopia beckons: profile of Dylan Evans

April 21, 2006

Those academics who spent at least part of the Easter break fantasising about escaping the burdens of university life should take heart from Dylan Evans, a Bath University lecturer.

Dr Evans, a senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems at Bath, is leaving academe to set up a learning community - based loosely on Plato's Academy - in the Scottish Highlands.

From March 2007, he will invite volunteers to join his experimental utopia, where they will live, work and learn from one another for up to three months.

Visitors will not necessarily be academics. Dr Evans wants the community to be as diverse as possible, with each member contributing a unique skill or area of knowledge, from farming to painting. He hopes that volunteers will build their own accommodation and create a real community.

"Academia comes from Plato's Academy. People say his vision is hopelessly idealistic, but why?" he asks. "A lot of the details and structure (for the utopia) come directly from thinking about problems in academia at the moment. Everybody will have something to teach, and it will be non-hierarchical."

Dr Evans is brimming with energy. His optimism for the project is infectious. And while he expected to be vilified for his decision, the reaction he gets from most people is envy.

"I thought people would think I would be absolutely crazy to consider leaving, but even the most senior and conservative people - and those academics who don't speak out - are pleased for me."

Dr Evans's plan grew from his despondency with the increasing bureaucratisation of academic life. "I wasn't happy with academia but felt there was no where else to go. So I went back to classic sources for inspiration," he says.

"I had been interested in the concept of utopia for a while and was going to write about it."

He mulled over the ideas of Thomas More and Plato among others and came up with his own utopian ideal during a backpacking trip in Mexico two and a half years ago.

"I thought, why not set up a community along the lines of Thomas More's Utopia ?"

Dr Evans later discovered that a similar community had been set up in Mexico 15 years after More's work was published in 1516. And he feels such a community still has something to offer today. Society in general and academics in particular feel powerless to change anything, Dr Evans says.

"There's so little political imagination around at the moment. Both (major) political parties are arguing about 2 per cent on income tax here and there.

"People say 'this is bad, we should make education aspire to higher things than this' but they tend to say 'in the real world it's unchangeable'.

There's something to that, but it doesn't mean I have to be part of that system.

"People have said that the system needs people like me to question things but, I'm sorry, I'm not into masochism," he jokes.

Dr Evans is no stranger to change. He studied Spanish and linguistics at Southampton University and became interested in Lacanian psychoanalysis during a year in Argentina. There are more analysts per capita in Buenos Aires than in New York.

After graduation, he trained as a Lacanian analyst but became disillusioned with this brand of psychoanalysis.

He changed direction and did a PhD in the philosophy of psychology because it offered him the chance to "step back and ask the deeper questions" he was interested in.

"I got really interested in artificial intelligence and started looking into the philosophy of AI and ended up doing a postdoc in robotics at Bath University because I wanted to get my hands dirty."

Finding inspiration seems as vital to Dr Evans as oxygen. He says that there is still major scope for innovation in teaching.

"I really admire students. These kids could be the force for change because they don't really see themselves as fitting in with the way things are."

But he no longer finds academia in the broader sense inspiring. He thought academe would give him the freedom to be creative but has found that the opposite is true.

"University should be really exciting and brimming full of ideas and creativity," he says. "But there is a ridiculous amount of bureaucracy and frustration. People don't have excited looks on their faces anymore.

"All of the interesting, creative people who really inspired me were all getting old and there didn't seem to be younger people in academia who inspired me.

"As you look further down the age spectrum, you get less and less evidence of thinking outside the box and being zany.

"It's not because they are any less intelligent, it's just that it's all dictated from above. There's no real time for academics to do the creative brooding."

This mismatch between what individuals want and the way people work, their aspirations and what society offers generates unhappiness, Dr Evans says.

"There's a real mood of pessimism and you see this in academia as well, with the lack of autonomy and everything pinned on learning outcomes. I don't know why academics feel the need to ape this audit culture that has come into universities from the business world."

Rather, Dr Evans aspires to the youthful sparkle of intellectuals twice his age, such as James Lovelock, the Gaia theorist, or those outside of academia, such as Steve Grand, the computer scientist.

"They are on the margins of academia but doing amazing things. It's not such a new phenomena. Take (philosopher) George Santayana. His creativity went up dramatically when he left academia. I would love to be like that,"

he says. "You become institutionalised and it becomes harder and harder to imagine life outside this institutional framework but I need that challenge to put me on the edge and not have all that institutional hand-holding."

Will he ever return to academic life? "I have no idea," he says. "I can't think that far ahead. If I were to go back I would have to be convinced it was sufficiently different to the kind of thing I'm in now. I have freedom now and that's so important to me, and exciting."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

 

I GRADUATED FROM
Southampton University (BA), Kent University (MA) and the London School of Economics (PhD)

MY FIRST JOB WAS
teaching English as a foreign language in Buenos Aires

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS
to prepare for the collapse of global civilisation that will be triggered by global warming

WHAT I HATE MOST
are institutionalised forms of authority

IN TEN YEARS
I have no idea whatsoever what I'll be doing, except that it will probably be something very different from what I'm doing now

MY FAVOURITE JOKE
You know when you close your eyes and really wish hard for something? Well, God's the guy who ignores you.

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