Professionals and Amateurs
Attended an event today on the future of the British university. In many respects the prospect of the academy looks gloomy - cuts in public spending leading to educational cuts, limiting university places, increase of student tuition fees, more auditing of research 'excellence' and the fear that all this will lead to redundancies. Beyond these symptoms our consciences are held hostage to the idea that being an intellectual is reduced to having an academic job. So much so that for young PhD students 'research training' comes to dominate how they encounter the craft of scholarship. Max Weber's suggestion that "science is a vocation" - a disposition and a way of holding to the world - is translated into the language of 'professional development' and the acquisition of a career. As Edward Said commented in his 1993 Reith Lectures: "The particular threat to the intellectual today, whether in the West or in the non-Western world, is not the academy, nor the suburbs, nor the appalling commercialism of journalism and publishing houses, but rather an attitude that I will call professionalism."
The world of ideas is reduced to an academic game to be played with stealth. The life of the mind becomes fixated with fostering one's career: jobs, promotions, measuring up to performance indicators, publishing in the most prestigious places, aspiring to a 'world class' profile. For Said this results in "thinking of your work as an intellectual as something you do for a living,
between the hours of nine and five with one eye on the clock, and the other cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behaviour - not rocking the boat, not straying outside accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable..." Appropriate forms of professional behaviour take on a style of self-presentation from appointments panels to the plenary colloquium but also produce habitual judgments concerning not only what is valuable but also what is valid. Auditable forms of value (publications, grants, etc) provide the medium through which we come to see our own worth and that of others. I think it is difficult to remain vigilantly impervious to the occupation modes of evaluation captured in phrases like, "Does this person have enough publications to be entered in the next research assessment exercise?"
In Said's argument there are three dimensions to the damage that professionalism does to scholarship and thinking. The first of these is the processes of specialisation. For him the paradoxical result of the cultivation of research expertise is that it results in anti-intellectualism. Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz explains: "There is a serious danger that the specialist, forced to compete with his colleagues in acquiring more and more specialised knowledge, will become more and more ignorant about other branches of knowledge, until he is utterly incapable of forming any judgement on the role and importance of his own sphere within the context of human knowledge as a