Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Summer is a time when academics tend to disappear. But in many universities currently undergoing drastic reorganisation disappearances have been a bit more permanent. It's not just the endless offers of voluntary severance (which always attract the wrong people!). Occasionally, things happen very suddenly and somewhat brutally:
"Have you seen so-and-so recently?"
"er.. no.. funny you should mention it..."
"I texted them yesterday - no response - pretty unusual"
"yes, I agree. I wonder what's happened?"
"God, I hope they haven't upset anyone powerful..."
"hmmm. Easy to do at the moment..."
"Upsetting someone powerful" is always a hazard in any employment. But there are times when it becomes quite easy to upset powerful people because they are simply "easily upset". Usually this is because they themselves feeling threatened or out-of-control. That feeds the dictatorial measures which in turn leads to people "falling out" - and then disappearing.

The social dynamics of institutions are complex, and the fallings-out at a high level have repercussions  throughout the enterprise. Just as with economic systems, whilst the powerful believe they can control the system by sheer will and force, they are quickly reminded that underlying it all are more fundamental human concerns of trust and confidence. Managerial fear might cause a rash reflex action that slays a close colleague, but that's really only a sign of the trouble to come. Everyone else asks:
"Blimey -  how could they do that? That guy worked his butt off!"
"You can't trust anything they do now"
"Better get those job applications going then!"
"I haven't been sleeping that well recently.. something's wrong"
"it's like that nursery rhythm..."
"what, 10 green bottles?"
"yeah, that's the one.."
"we're down to about 5 now I reckon.."
That these kind of situations can arise in Universities is deeply unfortunate. Intellectual life, like all facets of healthy social ecologies, depends on trust and confidence. Fearful thinkers think fearful thoughts. Fearful teachers teach badly, on the whole.

Intellectual life is not a solitary occupation. It depends on communities - teachers and students - being able to sit down with each other, to share their thoughts, to feed back to one another - in confidence and trust. Someone wisely pointed out the other day that the etymology of the word "assessment" is "assidere" - to sit beside: conviviality, not individuality, is at its heart. The industrial model of education has presented the image of the academic as functionary: the individual producer of papers, the deliverer of 'education', the seeker of funding, and the driver of innovation. But the belief is groundless: deep down, it rests on indefensible metaphysical assertions about human nature which have got confused with the (equally fallacious) metaphor of industrial production. Education ministers have become adept at dressing up metaphysical assertions as science - with horrible consequences. Where's the science?

The situation is comparable to the abstractions of human creative endeavour that I encountered as I tried to learn to be a composer as an undergraduate. The clever analysts abstracted what they believed to be the essence of the creative craft of a Bach or Beethoven. They created schemas which they then asserted "must have been in the mind" of the artist. It's taken me a long time to realise that this was nonsense. But we have done something very similar to education. It is this fallacious thinking which has produced the managerial fetish and the individualised model of the functional academic that we now have.

We must be careful to think how on earth we managed to get here. Our challenge is to rediscover the nature of healthy social ecology within our institutions.

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