The ‘academics are irrelevant, please justify yourselves and stop using fancy words/why are you hiding in your plush ivory towers’ articles are rainy day/slow news week fodder, right up there with ‘what women want’ and ‘how feminism is killing relationships/men/women/the world’. Perhaps this is more obvious here in Australia, where, as I have previously mentioned, it’s a national sport to make fun of us silly folk who do research. It’s really, really easy to go on the attack about this profession and make many generalisations without really understanding how the profession works in modern societies (as opposed to how it used to work, or works on a mythological level that never really existed).
There are so many things to unpack about the perceptions and realities of the current state of universities. Just like, for example, there are countless economic and social concerns to unpack when it comes to addressing the real-life problems faced by members of the much talked about ‘Gen Y’. But like Gen Y articles, many public discussions about universities and higher education simply start off and end at the point of saying: why are you all so useless (without much to back-up the general claim of ‘uselessness’)?
It would be nice to see ongoing, deeper discussions in major news publications about how economic realities have shaped the structure of universities, rather than drawing on some tenuous stereotypes that are no longer relevant in the modern world*; how public engagement is itself a form of privilege that requires media connections that most people, including academics, simply do not have; how it’s not just up to the willingness of academics to engage on public platforms but also the willingness of editors to publish them (this is not a one-sided game).
And continuing, it would be nice to see journalists doing their homework when they write these articles and realise that there are actually plenty of academics who do engage on a regular basis in public debate; it would be nice if there was a basic acknowledgement of the fact that scholars also live in the ‘real world’ just like everyone else, most of whom aren’t living on comfortable salaries, or permanent contracts, many of whom, like my friends, have to supplement academic work with other external work. I’ve said this all before. It would be nice if I could say it again without feeling defensive. But I do, and there is no avoiding that.
I do find it curious though the level to which this particular profession is required to be justified to the public. There are other industries and professions that draw far larger funds and subsidies than the comparatively meagre amounts given to higher education from the public purse, which apparently don’t require the same level of justification or media attention. And so I have to wonder at the selective outrage sometimes.
But justification is an issue here. We live in a world that requires justification of ‘usefulness’ for everything and this justification must be quick and easy. Scholarly work and research that takes years to undertake and the result of which you cannot predict probably strikes fear in the hearts of those who value ‘productivity’ above all else. The advancement of knowledge requires risk and a belief in something more than productivity. Human knowledge doesn’t have easy rules and answers. If we are going to judge, rate and justify professions based on a productivity model alone, what a boring, unimaginative and frightening world that would be. What stagnant one too.
However, let me end by saying that if you honestly think academics don’t engage with ‘the public’ on a regular basis, what do you think teaching is? This is also some of what we do.
Another final note: I’ve encountered many people whose jobs I don’t understand and in my more judgemental moments, whose jobs I thought were useless. However, even in my peak judgemental mode, it did not occur to me to make them justify their profession and livelihood to me, because:
1) Who the hell am I to ask this of someone?
2) I don’t understand their job and hence cannot evaluate its function in society.
3) People are allowed to do ‘useless’ jobs in order to pay the rent, raise their families, survive, prosper, have a good life, or simply, do what they love and are good at.
So if you corner me at a party and ask me to justify my job to you, be prepared to do the same with your own. If you’d rather not, let’s just have a glass of wine and talk about my cat – his existence is easily justifiable.
This post was prompted by this rather silly article. I have linked more thoughtful and intelligent responses to said silly article in this post. If you prefer a parody that is a work of beauty, read on.
*A striking exception to this is the Guardian’s Higher Education blog.