Academics Believing in Their Subject Area

I have recently been a PhD student at University of Exeter. In some of corridors in Baring Court (the education area), there were student posters that represented PhD projects, MA projects, BAs etc. I read some of the theology ones, thinking that they might critique religion in an interesting way. But I was disappointed to realise that all of the students were proponents of the particular religion that they were dealing with. The posters, as far as I can remember, set out such things as missionary expeditions, much like the posters and presentations you find in churches. The religion itself wasn’t under question. It was more a matter of the religion being promoted, or of its proselytizing techniques being under review. A corollary of this was that many of the science tutors at Exeter seemed equally zealous when supporting science. One of the science tutors, for example, told us (as MSC Education Research students) that science was the field to be in, because science research gets funding. She was basically saying – ‘you should be in our gang – we will sort things out for you! – we will look after you’.  Much like the theology posters, she wasn’t questioning her paradigm, as it were. She was simply starting out from somewhere already a long way along a particular road. Another area that strikes me as being particularly self-absorbed, or locked-in, is economics. Economists seem to always be talking about how each country needs to increase its GDP, produce more goods, export more, or how companies need to increase their profits, expand, gain competitive advantage etc etc. This when air pollution is already bad, when global warming is advancing apace, when world population is massively out of hand.

Having been a Literature student, studying things as varied as fiction, drama, film, poetry, journalism, TV, photography, philosophy, history, etc etc, I suppose I might call myself an ‘arts’ or ‘humanities’ person, for want of a better word or phrase. And I suppose I don’t feel like I’ve got much to defend. I don’t really feel as though I have a subject or a philosophy to defend, perhaps because my remit is so broad. But when I meet religious people, or scientists, it often becomes obvious to me that in their eyes I represent something Other. The science tutor in Exeter, for example, referred to research that wasn’t scientific as ‘wooly’ and ‘wishy-washy’. In her eyes, the term science had an unambiguously positive value, because science, in her eyes, is good! When scientists want to undermine a piece of research, for example, they can simply say that it is unscientific, which is to say that it is ‘bad’. I imagine that the theology students start out from similar assumptions. The term Christian, for example, carries a positive value for Christians. To be unchristian, is bad, much as the other big religions have negative terms that define people who are not them (Gentile, Goy, Kuffar, unbeliever, unclean). Philosophers have termed the association of good and bad to key words as boo-hurrah theory. And unlike myself, perhaps, scientists and theologians have basic principles and rules which are somehow sacrosanct – scientific method, ecumenical authority, the book, the clan, The Word.

I happen to think that it is a good thing to NOT believe in ‘your’ own subject area, and to not promote or be heavily loyal to ‘your’ subject area, as much as this is possible. Because if you support a particular group, or promote a particular field – as academics often do, to promote their work, to secure funding etc – you very easily become locked into a particular value system. You are therefore not a free thinker in any meaningful sense. You are not a philosopher or a theorist or an academic. You are more likely an advocate, a devotee, a rhetorician, a keeper of the faith, a salesman, a technician. I suppose that a big factor here is also the extent to which people are committed to, or embedded within, a way of thinking. Politicians and priests are perhaps the most extreme examples of people whose voices are most heavily circumscribed by the group that they belong to, or serve. Politicians are whipped into line, priests take orders from an ecumenical council. The principle is much the same. Strength through unity. A form of value consensus. Pay is an important aspect. People who are paid, perhaps inevitably end up belonging to a particular system, end up as proponents of that system. A teacher, for example, becomes obliged to promote a sense that thinking or learning can be assessed – that people can be assessed. The higher up the pay chain people get, the more embedded within a system they become. A CEO, a headmaster, a president, the Pope. They are so often a head-salesman. 99% of the time they follow a script. They serve a way of thinking almost completely. They represent a larger body. They are figureheads.

I suppose that the most extreme opposite to a figurehead is someone who is free to be diverse and pluralistic in their thinking – someone who is not beholden to anyone or anything. In literature, the ‘fool’ or the picaresque traveller are perhaps the strongest examples of this particular free spiritedness. There is Huckleberry Finn, who is free to say what he likes. He is not beholden to the values of the community in which he lives, because he is a hobo, the son of an alcoholic. He is a bit like the working classes in Orwell’s 1984, who can speak freely – are not subject to thought control – precisely because they are an underclass; their thoughts do not count in some way, so there is little point in monitoring their thoughts. A lack of authority or influence, stories tell us, brings with it a peculiar kind of intellectual freedom. But unlike the company man (e.g. the priest, or the academic who advocates for a particular school of thought), the free thinker is somehow also cursed by their alienation from power and authority. In Oedipus Rex, for example, Tiresias is aware that knowledge is so often a curse, because those in authority are so often blessed by their ignorance (Oedipus), or resent others communicating their secrets (the Gods). The knowledge of the Greeks gods, for example, was jealously guarded. For Tiresias to be telling the secrets of the gods, then, was a form of deceit. The knowledgeable figure, the ‘wise’ man, then, was somewhat liminal – having access to the world of the gods, yet not being fully beholden to the gods. Tiresius, in this way, could dip in and out of the worlds of the gods and the humans, telling the secrets of the Gods to the humans. His burden was to communicate between realms. Knowledge was either unwanted (by Oedipus) or its communication was a betrayal (Tiresias told the secrets of the gods).

I’m not entirely sure where my grudge is here. Part of my annoyance with things in general right now is that lots of the bad stuff going on, like air pollution and climate change, is actually quite easily avoidable, and yet it’s very rare to hear it discussed in a sensible or holistic way. When scientists discuss air pollution, for example, you can bet that they are well paid, or middle-class, and thus own cars, large houses, fly to international conferences, etc etc. The same goes for politicians, or any of the other people who comment on such matters. These are very likely people who can afford to not live on the side of a main road (where air pollution is worse), or can otherwise avoid some of the worst experiences of the modern industrial world. These are people who are very often beholden to a particular line of argument or thought, so do not feel free to speak freely or to bite the hand that feeds them. So these are people who are in some ways unlikely to think or speak critically about what is happening in the world. They are more likely to be conservative in their thinking, because to speak out is to risk their neck in some way.

P.S. I wrote this post a couple of years ago but then held off from posting it up. At the time of writing I had been arguing with teachers on The Guardian website who were each defending and promoting their subject area – areas such as maths, science, history etc. It seemed obvious to me that it was mostly the science tutors who were promoting their subject area. And it struck me, having myself been a Literature student and having dabbled in philosophy and history, that these ‘humanities’ and ‘arts’ (Literature, philosophy, history etc) areas tend not to defend or promote themselves. Perhaps self-promotion goes against their way of thinking in some important way. My sense is that as soon as you start to promote something, this is the point where you stop thinking openly. Maybe it’s that simple.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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