Academia is dead
Academia as we know it, at least in the humanities, is dead. The traditional model of universities pumping out research in order to establish credibility and students paying top dollar to study under diffident professors has rightfully had its day. The debate isn’t what, it’s why.
Much has been made in the industry press (stop kidding yourself, PhD: it is an industry) about the changing face of higher education. One provocateur even suggested that academia resembles a drug gang. It’s obvious that the staffing model is broken; greed has made the business unstable and unsustainable. But, scratch the surface a little deeper, and it becomes clear that really these are just symptoms of a hidden disease.
Research: academia’s Achilles Heel
Our entire academic model is based on research. Its obsession with pushing the boundaries of human knowledge built success and influence in medieval Europe, before spreading around the world. In the sciences, this is still a strength. But in the humanities this strength has now become our Achilles Heel. Every doctoral thesis is expected to contribute something new. But the fact is that there isn’t anything new to find out.
Scientific research is thriving. Doing new is the sciences’ standard operating system. New research, new ideas, new solutions for humankind. Some of these new solutions can be commercialised, attracting money and interest from people outside the small world of research. It’s exhilarating watching the progress. Turn around to look at the humanities and the picture is excruciating.
There’s nowhere to go, no stone unturned
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the “narcissism of small differences”. This is precisely what arts researchers are doing — an obsession with endless re-packaging and re-interpretations of the same content.
The humanities have forgotten about the world at large and disappeared in a cloud of self-obsessed pretension and irrelevance. There isn’t anything new to find out about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so instead you spew out 100,000 words of guff about post-modernism in Shakespeare or feminism in Shakespeare or gender studies in Shakespeare or homosexual identities in Shakespeare, or — this one’s a personal favourite — “the other”. Social theorists have handed the humanities the petard that they are hoisting themselves with on a daily basis.
Researchers in the arts further bang shut their own coffins with their insistence on writing in a ridiculous meta-language that impresses only other academics. Since many academics are measured by their universities on research output, rather than impact or insight, the name of the game has become publish or die; low-quality tat, even worse written, rinse and repeat.
What’s the solution?
Silicon Valley would have it that technology is the panacea to cure all ills. Academia will suddently emerge into a sunlit upland of online learning, where professors will fill their students’ brains electronically. The reality is less utopian. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) will destroy perhaps even more of academia than academia has itself managed to undermine.
The solution is probably a painful one — painful for the entrenched tenured professors who have forgotten who pays their salaries; and painful for the aspirational PhDs who have shaped their entire self-identity as researchers. The solution is that humanities academics should admit that they are teachers.
Once the strange coupling of research and teaching is broken everything can make sense. No one believes that history teaching is irrelevant; no one suggests that we shouldn’t bother teaching children languages or about literature. Why not the same in higher education? Teaching the humanities has huge benefits for society, and those who have knowledge and are able to pass it on are doing humankind a great social good.