Academia During the Dark Ages

The term Dark Ages is associated with a period of time in medieval Europe sandwiched roughly between the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Renaissance, and in which allegedly ideas and growth were stultified by fear and superstition, and religious dogma. I am reliably informed that those  early  historians who invented the term (Petrarch) overstated their case and exaggerated this narrative for effect and that in fact lots of good things happened in e.g. 9th century England, but of all of that I am not personally in a position to judge. And in any case it is not the topic of the present blog post.  Rather, I use the term Dark Ages to refer to the period that we currently find ourselves in—the 21st century, but more properly starting from the period roughly at the end of the 1990s—  with respect to the realm of Academia.  In fact, the term Dark Ages is actually a gesture towards positivity,  because it implies that it will followed by a period of enlightenment. I certainly hope that is the case, but if so, it does not seem to me that it is imminent.  It is also not lost on me that the phrase Dark Ages conjures up impressions that are rather different  (plague/pandemic notwithstanding) from the shiny, clean, big data, money driven, professionalized academic spaces that our universities are curating.   But bear with me. It’s a metaphor.

The impetus to put some thoughts down on paper came after I received a bulk email from my head of department asking for volunteers from the faculty to join working groups that would collaborate on writing up the first draft of our university’s long term strategy under its new leadership team that had just taken over. I must confess I was curious about the leadership direction my university was going to go in under the new vice chancellor. I felt that under the previous leadership team, our university had moved in all kinds of bad directions ideologically: seeking to run the university more like a business,  taking more and more decisions in a top-down fashion in a more opaque and less accountable way, blindly implementing reports and checks and increased paperwork to measure and assess every quantifiable aspect of success and failure. Maybe the new team would take a fresh approach! So I glanced at the strategy plan that was going to be fleshed out into this important document.

Brave New World?

From the government we inherit a remit to deliver on education and lifelong learning, research, public dissemination, relevance to society and work life, innovation and creation of value. My university in particular promises to pair this with an emphasis on the North and the Arctic (obviously), has a commitment to open access science (you can’t hate it), and promises to use its multiplicity and heterogeneity of campuses, people and skills as an engine for problem solving and creating innovative solutions to the needs of society now and in the future (blah blah blah).    If you trawl around the internet for university strategy documents you will find every university using the very same buzz words, so its hard to figure out what it all means in practical terms, especially the last one. It is also hard to actively disagree with the positive statements in such strategy documents— they all sound like such good things, don’t they? 

In interrogating myself about why I felt underwhelmed and discontented with the outline I read, I decided to force myself to articulate what I thought should be the central remit of a university, and what I thought was missing.  Everyone is emphasizing  relevance, innovation, vision, and  how grounded their university is in their own community’s particular needs and sources of expertise.  It seems to be the zeitgeist. Maybe that is just the sign of  good ideas taking off.  And the language is so vigorous, forward thinking and optimistically engaged (albeit on the vague side).  Maybe I am just being churlish to be picking holes in the vision (`Churlish’ is just one of the kinder words that could be applied to me these days. I embrace it.).  But as I continued to think about it, I came up with at least two major areas where I believe universities have a solemn duty to contribute, but which have completely disappeared from public discourse.

The bottom line is that Universities are being conceived of  on the education side as engines for creating workforces, and on the research side as crucibles for technological innovation. The University is seen as the tool of Capital, and it is funded to the extent that it fuels Growth, and precisely the workforce that the holders of Capital need.   Those making the strategy decisions at the top will tell you that of course this is what the students want too, they want  jobs. Sure. That seems to be the bare minimum though. There are other things that the university in a mature democracy should be doing beyond that bare minimum. But these things have disappeared from strategy documents, or even the strategic thinking of educators and they are actively being eroded because of it.   I give them an airing here.

Education: Critical Thinking and the Challenge of True Democracy

This is clearly relevant for society these days! Just not for getting you a job.

I think democracy is hard and it’s fragile. But it’s the only system worth having and democracies need to work actively to maintain its health. Democracy and voting rely on a nation’s communities having access to education and information, and a sense of responsibility about what is at stake. In most university programmes before the Dark Ages, any degree that was taught by good lecturers provided transferrable skills of critical thinking and assessment of argumentation, and knowledge of how to go about reliably finding out whether something is true.  In the modern age, we have our own special problems concerning how information is disseminated and checked, and in the rise of propaganda and the difficulty of escaping bubbles. Our universities need to take the lead on giving people the skills to be able to navigate the increasingly tricky situation of finding reliable information sources, and also in recognizing bias, learning how to overcome emotion or prejudice in assessing arguments, etc. Our universities also need to take the lead in actively supporting the humanities (by which I mean not just not taking money away but actually channeling money into it). Because every young person needs to understand the cultural and historical context of the world they will be living (and voting!) in, and they need to be exposed to other minds and voices through fiction, which develops empathy and helps transcend tribalism.   (At MIT, where I did my undergraduate education, we had a humanities requirement. Everyone had to take a couple of humanities courses, of their choice, regardless of whether they were majoring in Engineering, or Math or Chemistry or whatever. I think this should be built in to all university degrees).

I am not so naïve to think I will ever convince a country or a university to make this their major remit. But I sure would like to see it as a bullet point in a strategy document.

Education (Lifelong): Tools  for Understanding,  Personal Development and Satisfaction

If you get down to first principles, growth and the economy are not really the things we need as a society. We want everyone to have the necessities of life and to have the opportunities to live full, happy and fulfilled lives. The modern world is  one where we humans have an increasing proportion of time that we can devote to leisure, because hard time consuming physical labour has been taken over by machines and tedious labour by computers.

How do we make ourselves happy?  

Education gives people tools and resources to keep learning, and understanding their world.  This leads to happiness.  Curiosity-based learning, acquisition of new skills,  leads to the appreciation of complex and satisfying forms of leisure and helps us be less bored and passive in our consumption of entertainment.  

Education is not job training. Education is something that human minds thrive on and we do it not to promote growth or technological advance, but just because human minds love to be so engaged.

I would love to rethink the remit of modern universities based around feeding curiosity and developing young people’s skills and resources with the goal of helping them find the thing that they are good at. I am guessing that then, whatever they end up specializing in, they will find a niche in society where they can do a job that contributes to the society’s goals and that makes them happy.   

Research: Curiosity Based Research

When it comes to research, the primary emphasis should be on curiosity driven research. And there should be no competition for grants and funding.

Right now, senior academics as well as early career researchers are forced into an endless cycle of applying for grants and producing publication points. The grants nowadays are skewed towards societal `relevance´ and impact, regardless of whether this fits in with the researcher´s own set of scientific questions. At first, a decade or so ago,  we just added an Impact paragraph to our applications, but now, increasingly, the whole research agenda must be re-thought and new strands of inquiry invented just to get on the grant bandwagon. Primary basic research is not really respected unless it brings in big grant money, and big grant money increasingly depends on subjective decisions of relevance and coolness. The standards of grant applications get higher and higher. Most of these grants are worthy and interesting, and if history of science tells us anything, it is generally impossible to predict what new thoughts or ideas are going to lead to big advances in some body of knowledge. In the mean time, the lottery for what gets funded is driven by forces that are random at best and skewed in an overly superficial direction at worst. And most importantly, researchers´ time is eaten up in this fruitless and soul destroying activity.

I read somewhere that if you take all the money that is spent in organizing the application system, the reviewing system and the administration and reporting of grants across the academic world, you could just give EVERYONE a research grant and resources to pursue a question and save big bucks.

Well, I guess that´s not going to happen. But the system is rotten and we all know it.  It is built on competition and insecurity. Young and early career researchers are experiencing financial insecurity, stress and burnout from increasingly unrealistic expectations,  with very little in terms of intellectual reward.

Climate Change and Man’s Relationship to the Planet

Given the scientific consensus on this, I am sort of surprised that a University like the one I am in,  that wants to be a leader on the North and the Arctic,  does not explicitly come out and say that it wants to lead on helping to reverse the damage we have done to the planet and mitigate the effects of the ongoing climate crisis, especially as some of the clear first signs of polar melt etc. are Arctic issues. Maybe this will come in the details of the strategy document that I am not going to sign up to help write.  But I am not holding my breath. It would probably be considered too political to state such a remit. Although the scientists do seem to agree that these are basic facts, not opinions.  I suspect that the present emphasis on local rootedness is directly connected to universities´ non engagement with issues of a global, universal nature. The world has become increasingly globalized. As long as universities shy away from the big hard questions and see their remit as providing growth, jobs and research grant money to their own local patch, they will not be the engine for critical pushback and change that we so desperately need.

But Some Things Have Got Better, Right?

Since the nineties, some things have improved in certain parts of the world. Rights for LGBT+ trans folks have improved, and diversity in the higher echelons of power in terms of representation of women, people of colour, etc. has improved somewhat (I feel personally that the status of women in academia has stagnated somewhat since the nineties and has lagged behind other kinds of progress).   Access to higher education has improved in many parts of the world.  In many arenas, new, fresh and progressive voices are being heard for the first time above the drone of the wisdom of the perennially entitled.  This is as it should be. As society changes and the people who were not privileged from birth come to have access to education, so will there be changed discourse and re-evaluations and upheaval.  This is also what universities are for. But  I fear that these forces are being managed and de-toothed as we speak. And even access to privilege through education is being clawed back on two fronts— both by turning universities into job making factories, and also by containing and demoralizing its employees who strive to teach and think while getting grants, being relevant,  and preventing their academic areas from getting the axe (is my course popular enough? Does this degree add value in terms of increasing the projected salary of those who take it?). 

The `Dark Ages´ in my long saga refers to our modern era with its commodification of intellectual capital and the Control of Academe by those who currently control the economy.

This piece will no doubt read to most of you who make it this far, as  quixotic, irresponsibly naïve and deeply impractical. But I would remind you that as a GEN X-er (who are they, again?), I actually do remember a time when these things were explicitly talked about in educational circles. So these ideas had not yet vanished from the discourse when I was an undergraduate. And they are not inherently impractical either.  I have watched the narrative shift, continuously and inexorably (just as the political narrative has shifted), to the extent that we have all been made to swallow as a basic premise the idea that anything other than the worklife relevance zeitgeist is untenable (just like the false belief that anything other than the free market and global capital is an untenable system— the two narratives are btw not unrelated).   

Petrarch talked about the Dark Ages primarily in relation to the light that had come before in the form of classical antiquity, not in relationship to the Enlightenment to come. I don’t know if there is any backlash on the horizon that could lead us out of  the stranglehold that this package of ideas has on the world at the moment.  I do not know what it would take to turn this particular boat around. I fear that things will have to get a lot lot worse before they will be allowed to get better.  But I am in the market for ideas!

One thought on “Academia During the Dark Ages

  1. Hi, Gillian. Thank you for writing that. I think the term “Dark Ages” describes the last couple of decades in academia really well (though I wonder if it goes further back than that). I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I really sttrugle with it. The academia that you describe just suks all the joy out of teaching and thinking! What can we do about this? Let’s see:

    1. We can give up. We have limited energy sources and beautiful lives to live. Fuck academia!
    2. We can continue living in the system but keeping our minds out of it–I think that’s what I have been trying to do for a long time, but the cost is high, the joy low, and at some point something will give, I fear. Back to point 1?
    3. We can try to change something within reach. For example, I think most university chancellors and other Important People* still pay lip service to the idea that universities should have something to do in the making of responsible, thinking citizens (my university even has this as a “graduate attribute”). We can try to be in those committees and attend those meetings (if we can manage to do even that–a big ask). We can say that the university is failing to educate people to be good citizens (there’s plenty of evidence around us for that!), and that to change that we must do some of the things that you say–invest in the humanities (but, please, not on postmodernism), promote a liberal arts education, change requirements so that everyone has to take Philosophty 101 and other important 101s…etc. So we try to push back using goals that they themselves say they have, hoping they can’t just say no.
    4. We can try to become Important People (deans, etc.) and try to effect bigger change from there. But I fear that’s not an option for a lot of people (me included), and we can’t just rely on one or two of us to do this. The costs are even higher, and I imagine the joys must be significantly lower, at least for someone like me.
    5. An academic I respect once said to me: “We need a few key deaths”. I’ll just leave that there.


    *Curt, if you’re reading this, please know that you are the only university boss that I think has genuinely good intentions and ideas


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