tower

I don’t really know so much about the way universities operate. However, having until relatively recently spent my days in the ‘real world’, I retain an outsider’s perspective on what I do observe. From this perspective, it strikes me repeatedly that society as a whole seems quite unaware of what goes on within their walls. I think this is problematic, both for universities and for society generally.

I was interested to hear one remark recently made by Liza Griffin (University College London), who was outlining various theoretical criticisms of the notion of ‘good governance’. At one point she suggested that policy-makers or the general public might dismiss such arguments as being those of “tub-thumping academics”. This imagined dismissal, it seems to me, is based on two assumptions, only one of which I accept: that academics are often seen by wider society as somehow unqualified to comment on ‘real world’ social phenomena. I’ve heard this point of view expressed before, along the following lines: “it’s easy enough for them to sit around theorising about things, but what do they know of what it’s really like to work on the ground? What use is all this in practice?”  But the second assumption, that academics might be perceived as pugnacious opponents of the accepted order, seems to me to miss the mark. Rather, I would suggest that academics are generally understood to spend their time deliberately disengaged from the wider world, doing little more than playing intellectual games for each other’s pleasure.  The big point for me, then, is that their voices are not even heard at all.

But why should their voices be heard?  And what should they be saying?  Well, beyond the valuable services that universities provide in terms of preparing people for the world of work, and perhaps simply in terms of allowing many of us to ‘enjoy’ learning, academia also has a rather more consciously subversive purpose. Especially, I think, in the social sciences, academics set out to critique everyday practice and the structural status quo. But the case that criticism might help us act more constructively, individually and collectively is far from self-evident, and rarely made in public.

In fact, I see the expectation that academic work should directly prescribe action, or even provide clear answers to problems, as fundamentally misguided. Equally, however, I don’t see the theoretical work of the university as being an end in itself. Rather, I would like to think that theory, to quote Stuart Hall, should always be “a detour to something more interesting” (1997:42). Theoretical critique provided by academics is valuable to society when it allows actors in the real world to make more reflective personal decisions about how to behave as citizens, workers and consumers.  The point was recently well made on the Design Culture Lab’s blog:

“Critique shouldn’t stop us from acting or tell us how to act. Critical awareness should help us situate ourselves, make active decisions to do some things and not others, and accept the consequences of these actions for ourselves and others”.

So far, I’m not saying anything new. All I want to do here is register my own newcomer’s impression that academia fails to communicate its valuable critical insights effectively with the outside world.

Whose fault is this?  The lack of public engagement with the concerns of academia no doubt partly reflects the technical language in which much academic publishing is couched. Meanwhile, hundreds of talks and seminars, where all manner of unruly topics are intensely debated, take place every week in London alone – but the general public is not invited. But this shouldn’t be a problem in itself. It seems fair that complex and challenging ideas might need to be incubated and tested in ‘safe’ environments before they are ready for public scrutiny. The problem is that so little seems to result from this incubation – except possibly via long-term processes of diffusion, which seem to occur organically rather than as a result of active promotion.

We seem used to the idea that, beyond a few celebrity faces, academics only rarely appear on the television.  And how many newspaper editors would routinely turn to academics to write on a given topic? Of course, a wealth of well-rehearsed (media studies-related) arguments explain why this might be the case. But then, surely, there is a correspondingly large onus on universities to do more to open their own doors to the public. Instead, universities almost seem to want to present themselves as fortified citadels (and are increasingly securitised as physical spaces). Even when public lectures do take place, almost nobody knows that these are happening.  The use of social media, meanwhile, is patchy, or non-existent.

Or is it just that there is very little public appetite for academic input into the questions of the day? That’s probably true. And yet I still suspect that demand outstrips supply. Or, at least, that there is a latent demand out there, which should be more actively encouraged by those on the inside. This is a topic I feel strongly about, and to which I hope to return in future.

References

Hall, S. (1997). Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities. In: King, A ed. Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 41–68.

1 April 2013, London