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The Fight For Academic Hearts and Minds (warning: rant)

Today seems to be a day for synchronicity around the subject of abject failure in academia.  This observation came from two extensive blog posts, one by Max Forte at Open Anthropology and one by Sam Liles at the Selil blog.  Both of these posts deal with complementary, and somewhat related, failures in the current world of academia: Max's post, Beyond Molehills, the High Ground: Dershowitz, Finkelstein, Plagiarism, and Academic Freedom, centres on the concept of academic freedom of discourse, while Sam's, University systems at a crossroads: Furloughs and funding of futures and fantasies, looks at the organizational causes in the material support for academic discourse.

Reading both of these posts back to back gives one a somewhat disheartening view of the modern academy as an organization that values status more than questioning, and business "logic" (which is an oxymoron when applied to universities) to scholarship.  I believe that both Max and Sam are talking about different parts of a system that has lost its goal - the Quest for Truth with the emphasis on Quest - and substituted a bland consumerism both physically and intellectually. This same disturbing trend towards intellectual consumerism, and its managerial organizational corollary, is apparent in the UK and China, as well.

There is an excellent post by David Colquhoun, one of the signatories of a recent letter calling for a "revolt" against the bureaucratic mismanagement of science, entitled How to get good science: again.  One comment he made in that post is especially poignant:

It is all part of a much more general move to trust nobody to do a job properly, and, worse, to then construct a hierarchy of regulators that consists largely of people who have themselves failed at the job they are supposed to be regulating. They then lay down the law about how to do the job to those who have succeeded.

I suppose that it is too much to ask that these bureaucrats study Byzantine history, although the same mindset they exemplify has made the Byzantine Empire what it is today - extinct.

The consumerization of the academy is also having another effect: the growing disenchantment of scholars with the academy.  As Colquhoun noted slightly earlier in his post

Certainly there can be no more inappropriate time than this to be urging universities to act more like businesses. The sight of a bunch of very highly paid bankers who proved incapable of distinguishing good investments from worthless ones is pitiful. That was their job and they failed to do it on a grand scale, The fact that the bastions of conservatism, who have spent most of their lives telling us how wicked it is to bail out failing businesses are now taking many thousands of pounds from me, inspires feelings that are perhaps better left unwritten.

This is all part of what Colquhoun refers to as the Age of Endarkenment; a somewhat cynical, albeit distrurbingly accurate, take on current trends. 

What could happen if scholars abandon the academy?  The modern academy started in the ancient world with a variety of "academies", but the first "degree granting institution" appears to have been the University of Al-Karaouine in Morroco founded in 859 ce.  In Europe, the first universities started as private enterprises controlled by their teachers and students (see here).  Universities, as with most orfganizations, changed significantly during the Industrial Revolution and, especially, in the 19th century, giving rise to today's managerial university.

But the Industrial Age is over and dead, although we still have many of its remnants plaguing us today.  The Information Age has its own organizational logic, a logic based on reciprocity based systems rather than on the redistributive systems of the late Industrial Age.  The disparity in these logics is apparent in many sectors and, also, in many of our current conflicts which pit redistributive organizations against reciprocity based ones.  Such a conflict of logics has many profound implications, including implications about the nature of sovereignty, "property", "authority", etc. (one early take on this conflict is in a short story by H. Beam Piper called The Mercenaries).

The idea of an Information Age academy appears, however, to be anathema to many of the bureaucrats who infest the formal academic world. This is not surprising since an Information Age academy would be as far beyond their control as it is beyond their comprehension. The critical indicator of this is the concept of Return on Investment or ROI. IFF an IT strategy increases control then it will be supported, often to ridiculous lengths and extreme costs. However, if an IT strategy decreases control, it will receive little or no support. Consider, by way of example, how much universities will pay for centralized learning support systems such as WebCT when open source alternatives such as moodle are available, or the truly amazing costs and non-usability of many student records systems.

So, what would an Information Age academy built by and for scholars look like?  If you are reading this post, then you already have one example - the CTlab - but there are many others such as Wikipedia, the Small Wars Council, etc.  Max Forte has also, IMO, correctly identified blogging as an alternative to traditional academic venues for exchanging ideas and engaging in scholarly debates.  All of these models deal both with "basic research" as well as immediate areas of concern (aka "applied research"), and all enable learning even if "teaching" is not overtly part of them.

I will finish this post with a question: What sort of academic/scholarly landscape will we see emerging over the next couple of decades?

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