Why do academics fiddle as the world burns?

August 31, 2007

We have lost sight of our ultimate responsibility - to speak out on social and moral issues, laments Colin Feltham

As academics we could and should do much more to provide expertise and moral leadership in a troubled world. We possess and embody an enormous resource in our knowledge creation, accurate and impartial scholarship and critical thinking. This has been belittled in recent years, thus reinforcing a tendency to abdicate our ultimate responsibility. We find ourselves constantly complaining about yet more bureaucracy, unfair pay and the dumbing down of university education. Instead, we should be articulating our views and demonstrating our commitment to social and environmental analysis.

This summer's floods illustrate the point. They revealed a lack of adequate planning and understanding of local geography, flood defences and climate change. They also showed an absence of co-ordinated response. Academics have an obvious part to play in tackling such problems, above and beyond the efforts of the relevant professionals on the ground. One of the main things we do, and do very well, is to specialise and to keep our specialisms up to date and accurate. As well as training the professionals we must continue to research, critique and advance our fields. Sometimes doing this alongside meeting the demands of our students and institutions is stressful and demoralising. We may tire and not want to add to our burdens.

Many academics have either given up their original vocation or buried themselves in institutional politics, subject niceties and quality-control battles. We slavishly take on the latest governmental or institutional directives, such as non-specific upskilling for employability. Some do this happily in order to conceal their poverty of alternative thinking, while others do it heavy-heartedly with a false consciousness.

We are culpable in the current scenario in the following ways. A majority of us may be weakly left wing and politically correct but largely inactive in real political terms. The anarchist John Zerzan accuses academics of detachment and cowardice, merely standing on the sidelines making clever but impotent critical observations about society. Investigative journalists and novelists are more likely to pursue hot social issues than academics. The Government is our paymaster and it wants productivity, bums on seats, targets, pseudo-quality, student satisfaction and so on. Deep in mortgages, our own children loan-laden at universities, we can only obey.

This leads to the matter of the "academic personality". As the psychologist Daniel Nettle argued in The Times Higher a few weeks ago, academics are naturally ruminative, obsessed with detail in a manner that makes us good at some aspects of our work but unconstructively neurotic in others. Obviously, we are much better bureaucrats than revolutionaries. Our concern with accuracy and detail often overshadows common sense and urgency. Heads down, we knock off another journal submission on some micro-detail of our subject area, perhaps earning ourselves research assessment exercise points, while the world burns (or floods). We think we are genuinely concerned about our planet's fate but actually, almost imperceptibly, concern with our own economic survival and academic preoccupations and reputation has taken us over. The scientist James Lovelock has expressed a hatred for academics for our failure to engage in urgent environmental matters.

And this leads to the tribalism factor. We are specialists. We operate within disciplines and within teams. We may espouse the value of interdisciplinary work - much needed around global warming, resource shortages, international terrorism and religious conflict, for example - but we do very little of it. Perhaps a tradition of male single-mindedness in career furrows underpins our subject-specific focus and our unwillingness to communicate and reform ourselves interdisciplinarily.

Another factor in our malaise is our uncertain status as intellectuals. Many of us have tacitly turned our backs on any such aspirations or are suspicious of the elitism it may seem to imply. The sociologist Frank Furedi and others have lamented the shortage of British intellectuals, but I have seen no convincing development of this debate. We do have some outstanding subject specialists and celebrity academics but very few wide-spectrum and inspirational intellectuals. Psychologists happily prostitute themselves to comment on Big Brother , but few if any are willing to pronounce passionately on key social and political matters.

We seem to have, in our corner of late capitalism, a barely opposed management-style Government with little vision, a Christian Church with diminished authority and generally a flattened moral and intellectual landscape. Our job descriptions as academics do not require us to be more socio-politically engaged than other citizens. We do not have the French tradition of thinking philosophically and being politically passionate. We are simply part of a sleepwalking global commitment to continuing economic growth punctured by unfortunate events. Even our awareness of global warming is of a rather limp, unconvinced kind. Instead, we will no doubt continue to lament our low pay, rising student numbers and educational policy absurdities ad nauseam .

Colin Feltham is professor of critical counselling studies at Sheffield Hallam University and the author of What's Wrong With Us? The Anthropathology Thesis , published by Wiley, £65.

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