Grey philistines taking over our universities


RENEWING THE REPUBLIC:The anti-intellectuals running Irish universities claim, falsely, to be businessmen running enterprises

IN INDEPENDENT Ireland, in times of tranquillity, intellectuals were commonly dispensed with. The views of economists, novelists, playwrights, sociologists, historians, and independent writers were ignored. Calamity had people fleeing to the arms of Mother Church rather than seeking the advice of lay intellectuals.

It was not until the 1950s that political crisis actually got acceptance for the advice of established intellectuals. This was, of course, the group around the economist and public servant TK Whitaker and industry and commerce minister, and later taoiseach, Seán Lemass. Years of reliance on oracular knowledge from bishops and ideologues were suddenly replaced by Mother Erin asking a fortune teller in Dublin Opinionof September 1957: “Get to work! They’re saying I have no future!”

Tuairim, a youth movement of intellectuals, flourished in the late 1950s and 60s, to considerable impact, but faded with the coming of television. Intellectuals of the liberal variety are only valued in this country when things have become unstuck.

We can see the same thing happening today, provoked again by economic crisis, driven by an appalling mixture of greed, imprudence and disregard for ordinary social intelligence. Over the past few years, we have seen an increasingly desperate political leadership break away from the usual pattern of appointing people to key posts in connection with economic policy.

Patrick Honohan, a distinguished economist, now suddenly heads up the Central Bank. Again, Colm McCarthy, unusual among Irish economists in being something of an insider in government, has become the moving force behind “An Bord Snip Nua”, while John FitzGerald of the Economic and Social Research Institute is listened to respectfully when he comments on the irresponsibility of Irish government, particularly the vote-hunting programme of decentralisation of civil servants, which has served to mainly wreck the social services.

Nothing new under the sun; the fate of the Irish intellectual and, in particular, the creative writer after independence was pretty horrendous. As Frank O’Connor put it eloquently in 1962, the Irish book censorship system managed to produce a situation by which a generation of young people had no knowledge of the literature of their own country. Education in independent Ireland was strangled by vested interests, and by 1955 scientific education in Ireland lagged far behind such education in 1910.

Things improved considerably in the 1960s, with the coming of mass education with an emphasis on vocational education. However, this shift was accomplished at the expense of the humanist curriculum, which the better clerical-run high schools had supplied. Levels of literacy in the English language suffered; grammar and spelling teaching were abolished as being anti-creative. This anti-intellectual nonsense resulted in the sometimes illiterate student scripts that passed across my desk for years at University College Dublin. The value of education, as distinct from practical training, has never been really grasped in independent Ireland.

Rhetoric, creative writing, foreign languages and history are commonly, if covertly, regarded as unnecessary or pretentious. A grey philistinism has established itself in our universities, under leaders who imagine that books are obsolete, and presumably possess none themselves.

Debating societies are going into eclipse, partly because of a lack of official sympathy for them; in UCD all public listings of auditors of student societies are now six or seven years out of date, having stopped in the early 2000s.

In five years’ time a whole free-thinking student tradition will have been lost, much as medieval studies and classical studies have been smothered. Furthermore, no one will be aware of what has been lost.

A central problem in modern universities, certainly in much of the English-speaking world, is a recent commerce-driven loss of respect for what is termed “blue-sky research” or, more cheekily, idle curiosity.

One of the human race’s greatest inventions is the university. It has at its core the free exercise of trained curiosity by independent-minded and well-educated people.

Since the recent takeover of many universities by State authorities and commercially minded presidents with narrow intellectual outlooks, the pressure to engage in applied, intellectually derivative but profitable research at the expense of blue-sky inquiry has intensified. Intellectual derivativeness is a symptom of provincialism.

Ireland has this problem in an intense form. Researchers are being required by bureaucrats to specify what they are going to discover before the money to do the research is made available. Picasso’s comment is appropriate: “If I knew what I was going to do, what would be the point of doing it?”

The idea that knowledge is an end in itself has become alien. There are powerful people who dislike free research and see it as pointless. The real cost of this has been immense, because the result is a loss of wisdom and imagination. Naturally, some people never possessed it, but the idea that the appetite for knowledge is a good in itself has always existed in Ireland. It is, however, under attack.

We are treated to the spectacle of veterans in modern languages, medieval studies, economic history, engineering, economics, Celtic studies, geography or political science being told how to do their teaching, research and publication by means which are wildly inappropriate to the nature of their subjects. These undereducated people bossing many of the best brains in the country also despise undergraduate teaching.

Interestingly, the best undergraduates spotted this immediately. Many of the administrators dislike academics because they have the horrible habit of answering back intelligently. UCD has abolished the teaching of foreign languages by language laboratory. It costs too much, and the money is better diverted to bioscience and the salaries of vice-presidents. During the current economic downturn, the first move toward economy was a freeze on the purchase of books for the library, the heart of any good university.

On October 16th, 2009, in the middle of the fiscal crisis, a glossy magazine extolling UCD’s glories was given out with The Irish Times. It was modelled on Hello!magazine. It cost enough to keep 10 graduate students for a year. Hello! epitomises accurately the mentality of those in power in Irish universities. UCD’s vice-president for research has declared in my hearing and that of colleagues that books are obsolete, and that in future historical research will be carried out by teams, just like the study of the basking shark. This is a stupid view of the nature of the humanities and the social sciences, but it is one which is being enforced as policy in some Irish universities.

Imposing a research model derived from the physical sciences stultifies academic research in languages, history, literary criticism, political science, sociology and the policy sciences. This includes economics, the subject which our Government pathetically hopes will get us out of the trouble which anti-intellectualism got us into.

A sum of €10 million has been spent on plans for a mad “Gateway” project at Belfield, involving a hotel, a multiple-storey car park, a string of lakes and God knows what other non-academic irrelevancies; it is of course, a very, very expensive fantasy.

The ideal put forward by these new barbarians is the Chinese university system, a system created by one of the most hideous regimes running a major country. Chinese universities are best-known for plagiarism and hatred of free speech. In UCD there is a thing called the Confucius Institute, which is an agency of the Chinese tyranny. The Irish taxpayer should know that he’ll pick up the tab for this dissemination of post-communist rubbish.

UCD, an historically respected Irish university, increasingly resembles an English provincial college, run on authoritarian top-down lines, profligate financially, and anti-intellectual. What is referred to with surrealist humour as “intellectual leadership” in UCD is in the hands of medics masquerading as businessmen (they’re nearly all men; welcome to 1961) and practitioners of non-subjects such as “management” and “teaching and learning”.

It should be dawning on us that one of the nation’s most valuable assets, third-level education, has been taken over by non-academic forces by means of a gigantic and very expensive hoax. The universities are our collective brains, and hatred of them is silly and unpatriotic.

The people who are “running” Irish universities claim, falsely, to be businessmen running enterprises which will bring greater economic growth. These people are truant academics, running universities while having no idea what universities are for. Anti-intellectualism automatically leads to the glorification of ignorance, and this country is well on the way from the former to the latter.

It’s going to cost us.

Tom Garvin is professor emeritus of politics, University College Dublin. A version of this essay was delivered at a conference on “Public Intellectuals in Times of Crisis: What Do They Have to Offer?” Royal Irish Academy, November 28th, 2009

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