The professionalisation of academia: is it bad, all things considered?

Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, has written an important post criticising two things: the view that intellectuals must be academics, and the damage that the professionalisation of academia thus does to intellectual life.

I’ll sidestep Back’s focus on intellectuals outside of academia, but I do want to dissent somewhat on three of his points about the professionalisation of academia.thinker

(1) He rightly bemoans the tendency to equate ‘being an intellectual’ with ‘having an academic job’ – in Edward Said’s words, ‘something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five’. Following Said, Back also rightly criticises (2) over-specialisation, and (3) excessive risk-aversion.

I sympathise with each point. But it’s important to see the other side too.

(1) Before the RAE/REF really kicked in, there was relatively poor accountability and meritocracy as regards UK academics: many were in effect paid by taxpayers to not do much research and, in some cases, to not do much teaching either. Things are hardly perfect now, of course, but we shouldn’t think that there was a golden age of intellectualism where UK universities were filled with academics thinking super thoughts and doing brilliant teaching.

(2) We do need specialists. Indeed, we need a good balance of specialists and generalists. Generalists often draw on specialist research, and specialist criticisms of generalist work often help to advance the debate. Like Back, I’d prefer to see more generalist work, but I suspect there’s more inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary thinking than there used to be.

(3) We do need some risk-aversion. Indeed, we need a good balance of risk-avoiders and risk-takers. Risk-takers often build on careful, ‘normal science’ research done by risk-avoiders. Like Back, I’d prefer to see more risk-taking research, and there’s a danger that the PhD and the early years of an academic job inculcate too much risk-aversion. But we shouldn’t pretend that everything is now ‘normal science’.

I’m not pretending that things are perfect now – far from it. Much of my own work, indeed, involves risk-taking efforts to challenge excessive specialisation. But I think that there are lots of people like me now, and lots more high-quality specialist and risk-averse research than there used to be – and in my view, a far lower proportion of people paid by taxpayers not to think or teach.

Sorry, that’s not a very nice thing to say. Sorry too that my empirical comments above are unsubstantiated, and that I’m imprecise about what a ‘good balance’ means. For now, I just want to make sure that the debate is well-rounded.