What is to be done?

This is a response to Liz Morrish’s article on whether universities “are meaningful to the academics who work within them“. You should read the whole article, but the crux of it is here:

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

This is a quick response, following the engineering practice that good enough today is better than perfect tomorrow.

Firstly, Liz recognizes something that many people in STEM do not, and which needs to be articulated more widely: we have a common cause with our colleagues in the humanities. The standard view of the two cultures is something like the old aristocracy looking down on trade: the humanists, cultured in their multilingual libraries look down on the ill-bred oafs with their greasy hands and their narrowly material worldview; the STEM folk sneer at the effete and unproductive humanists sitting on their soft arses counting adjectives and calling it work.

As is clear from the two paragraphs above, we are now all in this together, openly in Trump’s America, less openly but no less deeply in the UK. All disinterested inquiry is under attack and if any proper values of higher education, or of any decent culture, are to survive, we all need to get over ourselves.

These then are some short thoughts which might be useful, and which should be developed a bit further. I am writing them down quickly so that they can be read and critiqued and bashed into some sort of shape.

  1. All academic disciplines are worth defending as study of the world around us (physical, social, cultural) and worth defending for their own sake: these studies have value in their own right.
  2. STEM and humanities as academic disciplines are much more similar than they are different: they are all educations in a way of looking at reality. Any problem of any interest can be viewed simultaneously from multiple points of view, and will benefit from it. We should all be prepared to walk to the other side of the sculpture and see how someone else sees things.
  3. All academic disciplines (correct me if I’m wrong here) are a training in how to do that discipline, as well as a study of that discipline. This is most obvious in the `vocational' degrees, but is also true of the humanities: we expect of a history graduate that they know something of how to `do’ history. The fact that many history graduates do not become historians no more invalidates that statement than does the number of engineering graduates who work in the City.
  4. One definition of a proper academic discipline is that it is capable of resisting instrumentalization. None of us should be so naive as to think that our discipline is objective' or `pure’: any study can serve the interests of power, whether ideologically (arguments about the history of the First World War, say) or through providing physical instruments of repression (engineering) or the intellectual instruments of repression (racial science, and the uncritical imposition of `Enlightenment values’).

The attack on science in the US at the moment is an open form of what has been happening for many years through the commercial pressures brought to bear on universities, and is most similar to what is being done to the humanities. In the past, a sponsor might demand that work be advanced or buried for commercial reasons, but this would not involve actually faking results. The demand now, in both STEM and humanities, is to lie, actively, or by omission. That is the same attack on both cultures, or on two faces of the same culture of rigour and disinterested inquiry, and your (our) colleagues deserve the same defence whatever department they might be in.


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