Wednesday 3 September 2014

Marina Warner and the New Lindisfarne moment: What price Scholarship?

Marina Warner's excellent piece in the London Review of Books about her quitting Essex University (see in the wake of managerial pathology, educational functionalism and mindless philistinism is a warning to all of us about the desperate state of higher education today. To put it briefly, what we have seen within the space of about 5 years is a technocratic coup in universities whereby non-scholar managers have equipped themselves with tools (the REF, workload allocation, impact analysis) whereby they believe they make defensible judgements about scholarship. In fact their decision-making is seldom in the interests of any scholar, and Warner is a shining example of the fact that nobody is safe. Universities as homes of scholarship and research are under serious threat. Many universities are now homes of managers sucking the life out of culture like shady art-dealers and auction racketeers, doing deals on middle eastern beaches, basking in the reflected glory of the human struggle for truth, exploiting the priestly trappings of social status, whilst reducing the whole thing to the ting of the cash register as they reward themselves like bandits, and mesmerised students drop handsome donations (which they haven't earned yet) into the collection plate on the pretext that it might grant them happiness and security.

The tick of the deathwatch beetle which Warner describes as the warning signs (closing the history of art department; putting the Latin American collection up for sale; Derek Walcott’s visiting post not being renewed, at the express insistence of the vice-chancellor) will resonate with everybody in higher education. The ticking she talks about is not the threatened "end of the institution" as managers love to frighten their staff with (education is, after all, the new religion - and proving itself remarkably successful as such). The ticking is for the end of culture and scholarship. The examples from my own less lofty institution are rather more ridiculous than at Essex - but it's the same thing - only the ticking is probably louder! The really loud ticking is in the flow of money into bank accounts every month. What becomes of truth and the civilisation it underpins? The Times Higher last week contained an interesting article on the obligation of academics to speak truth to power (see  In my institution and many others, this has resulted in the usual response of despotic regimes: 'disappearances' of staff who are muzzled by 'compromise agreements'. Thankfully, Warner doesn't appear to have signed one!

What must scholars do? The Lindisfarne moment is a name given to moments of exodus when the scholars have to find a hiding place away from the invading barbarians so as to preserve knowledge. In fact, Lindisfarne, which had become a haven for Irish monasticism, itself was sacked by the Vikings in 875: the 'moment' could equally be called the 'Chester-le-street' moment after the place of refuge that was then sought (although that's not quite as romantic!). If things continue as they are, some kind of exodus might be the only option. On the internet? Whilst I don't want to believe it, I'm afraid that's the root of the trouble in the first place... Maybe there's another technological solution away from the prying greedy eyes of corporations. Scholars may become poor once again (but we became too rich in our acquiescence with the managerial elites - personally, I blame the Americans!) The pursuit of truth and the custodianship of knowledge are really what's it's about. Without the scholars, managers - who too are custodians, not the 'owners' they pretend to be - are rather overpaid.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lindisfarne was first sacked in 796, causing the refugee scholar Alcuin to compose a long Latin poem. Maybe it takes the best part of a century to react against enemy takeover.

Sadly those of us made redundant do not have the funds to get on to the Higher website, if you can reveal what Inglis and Warner have said we would be grateful.

Keep fighting, and name names Queen Mary University and the University of Northumbria spring to mind.