Des Dalton shares his thoughts on the challenges faced by any authentic culture of education.
Plato argued that education was the ultimate means to achieve justice in society. This can only be achieved when each person has developed their abilities to the fullest. Therefore, justice is excellence and for Plato and the ancient Greeks excellence was virtue
We now live in an age of great uncertainty about the future. The current Covid-19 health crisis has enveloped our world in a cloak of fear and questioning of much that we took for granted. It has also raised questions that are as old as time. Debates now rage on what value is to be placed on individual liberty when set against the common good. The relative weighting of the economy of a society against the health and wellbeing of its people in the face of a pandemic. These are all monumental questions that go right to the heart of what defines us as human beings. No more than in the past, to deal with such challenges, and to engage meaningfully with such ideas we need to develop our critical faculties. Now more than ever we value the ability to engage in critical analytical thought, which is why it is deeply troubling to see the unhealthy and unbalanced relationship that is and has been developing between academia, the state and big business.
We can argue about academia as a bastion of establishment thought, however the academy and third level education has also been a gateway for many to break out of the bonds of poverty. Now we see that gate being steadily closed; those who wish to advance to post graduate level have found that gate has been slammed shut amidst a dearth of funding courtesy of cuts. At an institutional level academia has also traditionally been a vehicle for more progressive thinking to develop. The brightest and best academics have pushed the boundaries of thought and been prepared to go out on a limb to advance a daring or innovative piece of research. Others have deepened our understanding of who we are, or at least have fuelled the debate on that question. What marks us out as human beings, what makes us unique among the other species with whom we share this planet, is our ability to critically engage with the world around us, to be self-aware and willing to expand the reaches of our understanding. To be creative in the sciences, art, literature, music, history and politics, the list goes on. However now that academia has increasingly come under the thrall of the state and the big corporations in terms of funding, we see that independence of thought and freedom to research come under threat.
Academics are formally assessed in Britain and the Six Counties every seven years under the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the results of which are linked to government funding provided to universities. The REF increasingly places significance on the non-academic impact of academic work; within this category contribution to knowledge is not viewed as impact. Funding bodies are increasingly asking academics to detail the non-academic impact that will result from their work, which will have massive and extremely worrying implications in many fields, notably in political science and history.
The impact that is demanded of research now by state funders attempts to put a price on what is priceless. How would you value the impact of a ground-breaking study on for instance the dynamics of church and politics in pre-Norman Gaelic Ireland? Or the development and growth of existential literature and what it has to say about us as a human race. The bean counters and those in positions of political and economic power, seeking to shape society in their own image, have imposed their own arbitrary value on such research. The criteria that must be met in order to receive research funding demands that the research must show a tangible impact outside of academia. Who defines that impact and how is evidence to be provided for the tangible impact of research and writing on a whole range of the humanities? There is a cliché about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It looks as if that is where we have arrived at. How can any type of liberal arts or humanities survive within academia when such arbitrary criteria are imposed for funding of future research?
Also, the independence of researchers to carry out innovative research in areas that the state deems to be subversive or radical is being fundamentally challenged. One only has to look to the Boston College saga to see a practical example of such state interference and the inability or unwillingness of academic institutions to protect their researchers and their research. State interference was then backed up by a judicial process which, rather than deal with the pertinent big issues of academic independence and protection of sources, bizarrely and in a more sinister turn chose to focus on the researcher and echoed very deliberate attempts by the state forces to undermine this individual who had collected invaluable interviews which significantly challenged the establishment narrative.
In 2016 a trailblazing public event was being considered by a republican organisation to take place in Dublin. Speakers included senior and prominent academics in political science who had reluctantly agreed to take to a public platform and openly highlight these dark developments within the academy. This unprecedented public event would have blown open the lid on state interference in independent academic research. Unfortunately, this event did not take place due to the machinations and interference of an individual from outside Ireland, at the time studying for a PhD while temporarily located at the notorious MI5 linked St Andrews University. This same individual was a member of a republican organisation but was later expelled. One has to ask, in whose interest was it that this event collapsed and the flame of insider knowledge going public was extinguished.
Historians must question who will write our history? And more importantly whose stories will be recorded? If academic independence continues to be eroded, so with it, will be the confidence and trust of the interviewee, which is essential for any historian who wishes to engage with and record the testimony of radical political activists.
If all of this this goes unchallenged it is to allow the barbarians to storm the gates of our civilisation, making us more malleable for the financial and political power brokers. A people who would walk unthinkingly into such a dystopian future, would be a population largely devoid of the ability to engage in creative and critical thinking about the world around them.
⏭Des Dalton is a long time republican activist.