The new neoliberal witch prickers and Academics Anonymous

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In February 2015, the characteristically intemperate David Cameron said that the Conservatives are waging an all-out war on mediocrity” in schools. In higher education, there is a drive to quantify the humanities and make them achievement-oriented instead of collaborative and intellectual.

This is a government that has already proposed a retrogressive, enforced segregation of pupils based on ability, setting inclusion policy back at least 30 years. This is also an attack on the very principle of inclusion. Conservative policies have always tended to establish and perpetuate social hierarchies, ranking and outgrouping. 

Neoliberalism has turned our society into one that seems to value only reductionist, deterministic, technocratic and instrumental modes of thought and methods that simply entail quantification and reduction of the diversity of human experiences. The humanities, social sciences and arts have been politically sidelined. Funding is being cut in universities. 

This jeopardises public awareness, stifles debate about issues of social justice and other important sociocultural concerns in education. It devalues subjective experiences, meaning, insight, understanding, interpretation, intention and a wide range of other qualities that make up what it is to be human. It’s a profoundly dehumanising economic framework.

In May, the government’s Higher Education White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, set out a rigidly economistic perspective, stating that “progress is found via choice and competition”, indicating the political aim to complete the process of neoliberalising our universities.

Will Davies describes the awful jargon in the document as “empty sloganeering” and “euphemisms for destruction” in his excellent article for The Sociological Review, in July. He also quotes Andrew McGettigan, who says: 

“This is a document that bristles with resentment towards the established university sector. One wants to ask: why do you hate universities so much? What exactly is the problem? It is sad to imagine the task faced by its anonymous Whitehall authors, almost certainly university-educated, perhaps in their late 20s or 30s with memories of university life still relatively clear.

Perhaps they chose a civil service career over more lucrative alternatives because they’d long been interested in politics or were attracted to the quirks and traditions of public office. The authors of this document would know that what they’ve written is bullshit.”

There’s more than a whiff of technocratic idealism peppered throughout the paper, with phrases like: “perfectly calibrated ‘satisfaction’ and fees, where every ‘incentive’ is ‘aligned’.”

As Stefan Collini has observed:

“It is the application of this [neoliberal market] model to universities that produces the curious spectacle of a right-wing government championing students. Traditionally, of course, students have been understood by such governments, at least from the 1960s onwards, as part of the problem. They “sponged off” society when they weren’t “disrupting” it.

But now, students have come to be regarded as a disruptive force in a different sense, the shock-troops of market forces, storming those bastions of pre-commercial values, the universities. If students will set aside vague, old-fashioned notions of getting an education, and focus instead on finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest-paying job, then the government wants them to know that it will go to bat for them.”

You can see clearly that the government regards universities as some sort of neoliberal sorting mechanism. It’s all part of the regressive positivist service: relentless measurement, rating and monitoring.

As Davies points out, “teaching” has been reduced: it’s just one more euphemism, like “provider” or “stakeholder.” He’s right. “Knowledge” is reduced to the status of commodity. Intelligence becomes private equity. Students are reduced to consumers. They are buying a neoliberal outcome: a possibility of more a comfortable place in a social Darwinist food chain. Pedagogy has been replaced by econometrics. In the government white paper, the word “competition” makes 47 appearances, “critical thinking” just the  one (and only as a “soft skill attractive to employers.”) It seems the humanities, arts and social sciences are missing in action.

The White Paper outlines that “we need to confront the possibility of some institutions choosing (or needing) to exit the market. This is a crucial part of a healthy, competitive and well-functioning market.” Every institution will need “a student protection plan in place to prepare for the event of closure. In other words, it’s a Conservative neoliberal utopia of “creative destruction” through competition, nudging the exit of the “underperforming.” In other words, the Conservatives are telling us here that some universities will have to go. 

Anti-intellectualism

Michael Gove’s assertion that “people in this country have had enough of experts” indicates a virulent authoritarian strain of anti-intellectualism, marking the triumph of the irrational over the rational, prejudice over theoretical framework and hypothesis, and techniques of persuasion over empirical evidence. It’s prevalent in political discourse. Reactionary anti-expert sentiments arise most often whenever political dogma is exposed and challenged by experts and research evidence. What we are left with is the tyranny of ideology and the political anecdote. In this context the only objective truths that matters are the (almost supernatural) “market forces,” power and money. 

It’s crucial that there is an organised challenge to the corporate managerialists who have seized universities and subverted their purpose, transforming them into homogenous, subdued, and above all, controversy-free, managed enclosures.

Intellectuals should play a role in informing opinion and shaping debate, but those who have the most to contribute, especially to political debates and to shaping policy, come from those departments that are now on the danger list in many universities. This is partly because they don’t bring in huge amounts of money in research grants.

The government prefers a technocratic approach to public policy, founded on a pseudo-intellectualism that is concerned only with the escalating illogic of neoliberalism and narrow, dehumanising economic outcomes. Social psychology and public policy are replaced with private, cost-effective, experience-shrinking nudge, the diversity of the social sciences and any democratic dialogue with the public are increasingly submerged because of a prejudice for Conservative neo-positivism in social research and a narrow instrumentalist approach to economic outcomes, for example. These simply serve to fuel the circulatory, self-confirming neoliberal idiom of belief from within.

“Fascism combats […] not intelligence, but intellectualism  which is  a sickness of the intellect […] not a consequence of its abuse, because the intellect cannot be used too much. It derives from the false belief that one can segregate oneself from life.” – Giovanni Gentile, addressing a Congress of Fascist Culture, Bologna, 30 March 1925

Authoritarians (including fascists) often use anti-intellectual propaganda and public sentiment to oppress political dissent. It’s used to maintain political stability and a rigid social order. During the 1970s in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, people were killed simply for being academics or even for merely wearing glasses (as it suggested literacy) in the Killing Fields.

In the Spanish Civil War and the following dictatorship, General Francisco Franco’s civilian repression, the White Terror campaign, killed an estimated 200,000 civilians, heavily targeting writers, artists, teachers and professors. In Brazil, the liberational and radical educator, Paulo Freire, was first imprisoned, then exiled for “being ignorant”,  he was an “international subversive” and a “traitor to Christ and the people of Brazil” according to the organisers of the coup d’ Etat.

O
n 16 November, 1989, the Jesuit rector of the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and shot point-blank in his garden by an elite military squad. Five other Jesuit priests and educators, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were ordered to lie face down on the lawn and were brutally executed.

The Rev. Ignacio Martín-Baró was a liberational social psychologist whose research focused on the psychic conditions of living in a context of structural violence. The Rev. Segundo Montes taught anthropology with a view to the effects of social stratification and the displaced victims of the civil war. The Rev. Amando López Quintana was the chairman of the philosophy department but worked weekends as a parish priest and championed a mass-literacy campaign, like Paulo Freire. This is because literacy was a prerequisite for voting. These were rare heroes, champions of liberation, equality and social justice, who died because their beliefs and practices challenged the established order and power structure.

Those who value education really should read Freire’s Pedagogy Of The Oppressed.

Here in the UK, we are witnessing a different, much less directly brutal kind of political silencing. It’s more of a psychic war. There is a diminishment of critical thought and counter-narrative, involving the undermining of intellectual standards within learning and public discourse which tends to trivialise meaningful information, culture and academic standards. Such a “dumbing down” disguises the intellectual complexity of issues, controversies, perspectives in a debate and arguments presented, reducing controversy to oversimplistic soundbites, at the expense of factual accuracy, meaningful depth and rationality.

It’s difficult to see how the government can make any claim to “extending choices” for students in such a repressive and ever-shrinking context.

There is diminishing political support for the arts, cultural studies, literature, social sciences, politics, philosophy and history in a neoliberal context. Yet many of these subjects incubate fertile and radical critique and conceptually frame crucial public debates. Radical voices are being silenced, alternative narratives are being erased, intellectuals are being ostracised. In a functioning democracy, scrutiny, critique and debate regarding the state is essential. Without these, we become at best a managed democracy; its mechanisms and processes a mere facade.

Being Conservative with the truth

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'”.  Issac Asimov 

 Anti-intellectualism has always performed a strategic Conservative ideological function – which is to shield the status quo from systematic criticism. 

Edmund Burke, the philosophical founder of modern Conservatism, favoured an anti-intellectualism which succeeded as a strategy of deterrence against radicalism; it became  the basis of a hegemonic strategy for the British elite establishment to strengthen and maintain their position. It’s been on the Conservative ideological cheat sheet ever since.

Burke’s ideology of anti-theory and “common sense” has been enormously successful. It’s become somewhat ingrained in our national character, yet his plea and his deep suspicion of theory and the abstract was nothing more than part of his philosophical defence of the ruling order. If anything, the last five years ought to have taught those of us with a commitment to progressive politics that we should steer well clear of sloganised rhetoric and the discourse of “common sense,” with its empty but glittering generalities. 

Of course Burke was a leading skeptic with respect to democracy. Although he admitted that theoretically, in “some cases” it might be desirable, he insisted a democratic government in Britain in his day would not only be inept, but also (strangely) oppressive. He opposed democracy for a couple of basic reasons. Firstly, he believed that government required a degree of intelligence, skill and knowledge of the sort that occurred rarely among the public. So, he was certainly an elitist on more than one level.

Secondly, he thought that if they had the vote, common people had “dangerous and angry passions” that could be aroused easily by demagoguery; he feared that the authoritarian impulses that could be harnessed by these passions would undermine the cherished traditions of Conservatism and established religion, leading to revolution and confiscation of property. Historically, the Conservatives have managed to make political dissent seem alien to the national psyche. The steep power and privilege structure in the UK is almost invisible to us, and difficult to question, precisely because it has become so normalised. Similarly, more recently, neoliberalism has become a doxa; it’s presented as a fait accompli – as common sense; the only possible way of political, social and economic organisation.

Justine Greening meet Paulo Friere. You know you really should.

Freire recognised that emphasis on individual characteristics are a result of social relations, and to view such individualistically de-emphasises the role of social structure and is responsible for the incorrect attribution of sociopolitical problems to the individual. Liberation education and psychology address this by re-orienting the focus from an individualistic to a social one. Using this framework, the behaviour of oppressed people is conceptualised not through intra-psychic processes, but as a result of an alienating environment.

Freire advocated authentic dialogue-based learning, where the role of the student shifts from object to active, critical subject. Freire heavily endorsed students’ ability to think critically about their education situation, this way of thinking allows them to recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they are embedded.

Realising one’s consciousness is the first step of praxis, which is defined as the power and know-how to take action against oppression, whilst stressing the importance of liberating education. Praxis involves engaging in a cycle of theory, application, evaluation, reflection, and then referring back to theory. Social transformation is possible through praxis at the collective level.

The key concept of liberation education and psychology is concientización: critical consciousness – a recognition of the intrinsic connectedness of the person’s experience and the sociopolitical structure. Freire believed education to be a political act that could not be divorced from pedagogy. Freire defined this as a main tenet of his critical “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Teachers and students must become aware of the politics that surround education. The way students are taught and what they are taught serves a political agenda. Teachers themselves have political notions that they bring into the classroom.

Freire attacked what he called the “banking” concept of education, in which the student was viewed as a passive participant – empty accounts to be “filled” by the teacher. He notes that “it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” 

In 1999, PAULO, a National Training Organisation named in honour of Freire, was established in the United Kingdom. This agency was approved by the New Labour Government to represent some 300,000 community-based education practitioners working across the UK (myself included). It was a platform also, perhaps surprisingly, for Blair’s re-democratising democracy programme, based on a dialogic democracy, and a recognition of the centrality of life politics.

PAULO was given formal responsibility for setting the occupational training standards for people working in this field, and was based on a revolutionary anarchist/Marxist model of critical education. Even outside of that political context, Freire’s collective works, and especially Pedagogy of the Oppressedhas huge value and merit as a direction for an approach to teaching which is based on self awareness, community awareness, political awareness, responsibility, critical thinking, creativity, dialogue and social solidarity, and not on manipulation and oppression.

The Tories, however, are unrelentingly authoritarian, and this is reflected in their notions of “education”, which are: “Raising standards (through “setting” and taking those segregated off record: the “disappeared”)… and restoring discipline – so our children can compete with the world’s best and enjoy a better future.”

So nothing at all there about developing human potential, personal development, social development or even building the fundamental capacity for critical thinking.

A person who has not had opportunities to think critically about social and political reality, but simply accepts it is thereby participating in the world in a way that has been organised and designed for him/her by others.

If being human means exercising choice and freedom, then such uncritical, passive acceptance means being less than human.

But Tories prefer us that way. They don’t like to extend equal opportunities.

Meet the new professional witch prickers

The following letter was originally published in the Guardian on 8 August, 2014. It describes the high and dry wind that blew in metricised competition, a mythology of pure instrumentalism, to be administered by a billowing, neologistic managerial bureaucracy

Dear leaders,

I address you as “leaders” because, for some reason (perhaps manager comes too close to rhyming with janitor for your liking), you’ve increasingly taken to styling yourselves in this way. How grand. How imposing. How spurious.

Leaders are followed. The capacity and willingness to drive people along with the use of the pitchfork of threatened redundancy or the flaming torch of disciplinary action does not make a leader and the mere fact that you so brazenly call yourselves leaders is evidence of the malaise that prompts me to write.

For the record, if you’re not Alexander, Napoleon, Monty or the modern equivalent you’re not really a leader. Be neither managers nor leaders. Be provosts, masters, principals, vice-chancellors, rectors, deans, registrars, bursars. How quaint. How medieval. How refreshing.

Some problems

I know you think I ought to feel insignificant, as a mere teaching and research drone. My saying any of this is, of course, in forlorn hope. You listen to us all, and ignore us all: very egalitarian; very democratic.

Dictators (elected or not) always ignore everyone who’s not a member of the ruling clique. You’re not collegial just because you go around addressing people as colleagues all the time. Actually, there’s an inverse relationship. The more you say it, the more you show that you don’t really believe it. You simply want secure fiefdoms for the members of your cliques at the expense of making others into vassals with even fewer rights than hitherto.

Everything is directed towards that end. You break your own rules and make it up as you go along to suit yourselves. There is no genuine collegiality, no trust, no sense of equality in a republic of ideas.

So, whether you’re elected leaders (as in older universities such as mine) or appointed, your currency is the same: ill-conceived change to entrench the interests of your cliques and for the sake of being seen to do something. It’s a simple truth, but lost on people who “lead”, that all progress requires change but not all change constitutes progress. There is such a thing as change for the worse and that’s what you’re presiding over. Take three examples:

  • Instead of standing up for the idea of the university against the league tablers you prefer riding the tail of that tiger – taking the credit when an institution’s on the up and making sure we catch the blame when it’s falling.
  • Seemingly, there’s never enough money… except when there’s more for new administrative staff: courtiers for the ruling clique.
  • And, of course, there’s money to pay for rebranding. (But don’t you realise that the only thing any branding consultant ever sells is him- or herself? They persuade the shallow-minded to think in their terms and sell the idea that they can unerringly influence others as well.)

Some solutions

1) Defend what we do against governments and other external interests with vigour and courage.

2) Don’t change for the sake of being seen to do something and don’t confuse change with progress.

3) Accept that the university is a community made up of all those who serve it, not your plaything; nobody can be sacrificed in your name.

4) Stay involved, but don’t interfere. (Although there’s more science in scientology than management science.)

5) Trust academics to do good work. (Almost all of them do.)

6) Favour principles, not rules, but follow the rules you have and stop letting power win over truth and reason.

7) Remember that culture trumps system.

8) Stop thinking and speaking in the terms given by the deadly triumvirate: pseudo-intellectuals, neo-liberals and technofuturists.

9) Never again use the word strategy: with whom are you at war?

10) Stop calling people colleagues until you’ve learned to mean it.

Yours,

Homo Academicus

PS. I’m sorry if I’ve written this in something too much like English for your liking, not enough “going forwards”, “high level vision statements” and so forth, but I still use words to reveal, not to obscure.

PPS. Are you remotely troubled that so many academics are resorting to anonymous writing/blogging to say these things?

Ren? Magritte, Golconde, 1953, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009  øðä îàâøéè, âåì÷åðã, 1953, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009

Golconda – René Magritte

This anonymous academic is a professor in the arts and has taught in universities and colleges in Scotland, England and Ireland.

If you’d like to contribute an anonymous piece about the trials and tribulations of university life, contact claire.shaw@theguardian.com.

 —

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9 thoughts on “The new neoliberal witch prickers and Academics Anonymous

  1. Hiya!!!!!

    Don’t it bode well for the future………one has to be educated by the educated in order to receive an education and call oneself educated (or due(ly) elevated by education to be educated in the first place……..Wha? Am I not educated to understand that I am not educated to understand that I am not educated by education in order not to receive an education and not be educated……….Humphhhhhhhh?

    On 21 August 2016 at 20:04, Politics and Insights wrote:

    > Kitty S Jones posted: ” In February 2015, the characteristically > intemperate David Cameron said that the Conservatives are “waging an > all-out war on mediocrity” in schools. In higher education, there is a > drive to quantify the humanities and make them achievement-oriented ins” >

    Like

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