Wednesday 18 September 2013

Truth and Power

Napoleon would probably not have cared that Beethoven scrubbed his name from the dedication of the Eroica Symphony on hearing that the 'great leader' had crowned himself 'emporer'. But it was nevertheless important that Beethoven did this. It was an expression of outrage, and a realisation of the abuse of power in the face of truth. Beethoven might have hoped that Napoleon represented a better way forward, a herald of truth. The self-aggrandizing gesture confirmed perhaps what Beethoven had always suspected: nothing, and nobody, is that good.

I've been thinking about this in reflecting about Universities. They are fundamentally about the search for truth:  if their ambitions were less lofty, they wouldn't have risen to the extraordinarily stratospheric status that they now have. Yet power lurks in the University as in any human institution. The history of universities, of academic careers, and of new discoveries from Galileo to Lovelock has been a story of how power relates to truth.

It is inevitable that the status afforded to professors in universities will attract the wrong kind of people: people whose ambition is to acquire status, rather than seek truth. There have always been professors like this: plenty of charlatans with more charisma than talent. There have also been great professors whose powerful status has had a corrupting influence: Heidegger and Hegel were both rather unpleasant ambitious creatures of the institution.

But now we are in a marketised education system, we can expect to see something else. This is when raw power, without any kind of attitude towards the search for truth, covets the trappings of the "priesthood" of academics for personal aggrandizement, and to increase their own power. With an increasingly "professionalised" elite of highly paid academic managers ('elite' and 'professional' simply refers to their power, not ability), the door to academic status is wide open. Who can possibly stand in their way? All the professors whose acknowledgement is a necessary condition for such an academic promotion are dependent upon the powerful for their jobs! They acquiesce, choosing to ignore what they know to be the fundamental incompatibility between power and truth.

Where are we then? Perhaps it's no different... the powerful are still powerful. Perhaps more so. But the Professoriat is humiliated in the face of power, reduced to a group of people too frightened to lose their jobs to stand up and say why the powerful should not be admitted to their ranks; too intimidated to express what they really think about the stench around them. Most damning, they are too frightened to defend the fundamental distinction between the nature of truth (for which, one hopes, they stand) and power. They trudge from their meeting with the words "This will be great for the University!" ringing in their ears.

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