27 Mar 2013

Gove's Hostility to Academia

This is an edited version of a comment I made on an opinion piece in the Independent. Monday 25 March 2013. (Seems like the original comment has been removed anyway). Luke Brunning asks, a little naively I think:
How can we have an Education Secretary so hostile to those who work in higher education?
My question is, given the last forty years, how could we not?

It seems like Gove is channelling generalised hostility to academia - as witnessed in some of the depressingly hostile comments on Brunning's piece. To some extent this is a problem of how social sciences are presented to the public. And thus the fault of the social sciences themselves. Academics have lost crucial battles for the attention and admiration of the public. There has been much complacency. Ironic given that the study of the social sciences is 'the public' and they if anyone ought to have understood how to communicate with them. But, no, they allowed others to frame the discussion and to dominate it.

It's not only social sciences that are facing this hostility but arts, literature, history, and everything outside business studies and applied technology. It is hostility towards any threat to the business interests that currently (indirectly) run the world.

In short, NeoLiberals have been framing the debate. Back in 1971, Lewis Powell, in his infamous memo, identified the social sciences and 'liberal' (i.e. socially liberal and politically left-wing) academics as a particular threat to US business interests. Anyone that made people think about their relegation to being a mere consumer of the shit that business pumps out was a threat. Campuses have been aggressively targeted by NeoLiberals - funding for NeoLiberal programs and chairs, but also this cultivation of an hostility towards the threat subjects. The pursuit of profit is at the heart of the NeoLiberal agenda. A lot of quisling academics have gone along with this take over by philistines and done well out of it. Economists being at the forefront of this collaboration.

What Gove is doing to education and what the government are doing to welfare and health, they are doing in fulfilment of a prophecy. The prophet of the NeoLiberals was Lewis Powell and his catechism, the Memo, outlined the NeoLiberal response to the rise of socially liberal values in the USA and elsewhere. Part evangelical tract, part declaration of war, part social engineering blueprint, the Lewis Powell Memo encapsulates NeoLiberal values and urges conservative business people in America to rise up against the threats to their hard won hegemony over the world. But the action spreads out into conservative politics and other social institutions. A decade after the Memo Evangelical Christians were mobilised to support this agenda since it overlapped with theirs. Fundamentalist Christian morality was seen as far more consistent with business values that liberal Christianity or humanism. They have also received help from those militant atheists who attack the very idea of universal values and cultivate a kind of relativism and nihilism amongst the people. The result is a triumph of the values of business - consume, consume, consume.

At present NeoLiberals appear to be winning the battle for hearts and minds. You know they are far ahead when the British Labour party adopts NeoLiberal economic approaches! A few of the comments on Independent article show just how far they have framed the debate and cultivated hostility towards thoughtful subjects.

It is not more than a century since Britain prided itself on the quality of it's philosophers and historians. Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Wittgenstein and Popper (if we can claim them), Bertrand-Russell - were world class thinkers and writers who helped to shape the modern world. Admittedly analytical philosophy did a great deal of damage to that reputation, but we still have some fine intellectuals. However the balance has shifted towards science intellectuals. This is, partly at least, because scientists have staged a very successful campaign to capture the imagination of the public. Through figures such as Prof's Brian Cox, Jim Al Khalili and Alice Roberts science is presented as a fascinating and exciting glimpses into the world. But they do so in ways that do not threaten the hegemony of business interests. They do not question the role of the consumer, or the hegemony of the producer. We might question abstract ideas such as our place in the universe, but there is no questioning of our place in the social order. Economics could not stand the kind of treatment that Jim Al Khalili gave to electricity or chemistry because it is based on an almost religious ideology rather than the empirical method. Such a think show would never make it to air.

So now we hate intellectuals who force us to look at questions about our lives that are intensely uncomfortable. The hegemony don't want us to think about philosophical issues like social and economic inequality. They don't want us to think about the implications of banks operating at pre-crisis profit levels in a lengthy depression. They don't want us to question the ethics of CEO salaries rising exponentially in times of economic hardship when average real wages are falling. They don't want us to think about how this all looks in light of the history of our nation. So we get dramatisations of Dickens, but no history lessons. And Gove will see to it that all subjects which might awaken our critical faculties are dumbed down, and learnt in a fashion that steers away from asking questions.

Now certainly we can point the finger at changes wrought by the aggressive take over by business. But as I said earlier, the academics themselves were well placed to understand the public and communicate the value of their own subjects. But they don't seem to have managed very well. If we had only had a more active interest in the propositions put forward by the NeoLiberal vandals in the 1970s we might have had a different present.

We will look back on this period in much the same way that Germans look back on the 1930s and we will wonder how we could have let this happen. How we could have let our values be degraded. How did our selfishness allow us to let terrible things happen to others in our communities. We will wonder what we thought we would get from endless consumption. We will wonder why the resistance to NeoLiberalism was so ineffective. We will wonder how our heritage was sold off to the highest bidder. Did we learn nothing at all from history or literature? Did we learn nothing from studying psychology or societies that NeoLiberals could just walk all over us? Apparently we did not.

Academia complains, and with some justification, about the degrading of our great universities from places of learning to places of profit seeking. But where were academia when the seeds of this revolution were being sown in the 1970s? Now it's too late, the change is a fait accompli. A new Dark Age is upon us. Gove is an angel of the NeoLiberal desire for profit above all other values. We knew all along what this path would lead to. We English ought to have no delusions about the perils of power because Shakespeare spelled it all out for us 400 year ago. 150 years ago Charles Dickens described a world were middle-classes were content to get on while the poor were exploited. But he also described a world which had abolished slavery and was about in build public libraries. As well.

Best of luck to those people who think a world run by NeoLiberals will be kind to them. Consume, consume, consume.

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Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.