In 2009, I spent a term as a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University in the UK. It was a unique experience and provided me with an unparalleled opportunity to complete my recent book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century. I am duly appreciative of the wonderful facilities that were provided to me.
I also spent quite a lot of time at lunch and dinner listening to the anguish that was felt as a result of the terrible questions that were being asked of academics in the humanities—they were being asked to show “the impact” what they did—and the subsequent budget cuts that seemed to be imminent at the hands of the Labor government. With the recent change in government, it now looks like the cuts are going to be even deeper.
THE CRISIS IN UK ACADEMIA
Simon Head writes in the New York Review of Books:
The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship. The theories and practices that are driving this assault are mostly American in origin, conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms.
The complaints are growing louder. Alain de Botton writes for the BBC:
Speak to anyone working in the humanities within academia right now and you will hear that this country is about to enter a new Dark Age. The reason lies in the coalition government's decision to impose swingeing cuts on almost all departments.
De Botton’s conclusion in summary is:
Arts subjects are being cut because those who teach them are not saying why they matter,
This is, I believe, a mis-diagnosis. It's not only that the humanities academics haven't made their case. I fear that there isn't a case to be made, based on how they have conducted themselves in the past.
ONE-TOP DOWN SYSTEM REPLACES ANOTHER
What's upsetting the UK academics is that a top-down system run by and for the benefit of the humanities academics is being shifted towards a top-down system driven by "managers" who are set on introducing “efficiency” into education, at the very moment when the private sector is coming to the conclusion that such a move is utterly counterproductive. One can lament the latter without celebrating the former.
The fact is that most humanities teaching did little to show students how to live or did nothing to uplift the souls of the students. Given the subjects they were teaching, it might have. But it didn't.
In fact, whenever I would ask one of these academics whether their work would show students how to live or whether it would uplift their souls, they would look at me with a look mixed with non-comprehension and embarrassment. How could I ask such a ridiculously naive question?
Humanities teaching in the UK has been been a system, like many bureaucracies, that was run by academics for the convenience of the academics. The “scholarship” that is now being lamented as endangered was not typically a scholarship that reached deep into student’s souls, or stimulated a love of learning. Instead it was a scholarship that prized academic accuracy and precision in matters of steadily smaller relevance. It did little contribute to making meaning in people's lives or help students to understand what mattered in life. There were many exceptions of course, but that was the norm.
Instead, academics need to start conducting themselves differently. They need to be rethinking their working lives and to start from the goal of "students first". In other words, ask themselves: what can I do that will stimulate, energize, inspire uplift and elevate the minds and souls of my students? How can I rethink my subject so that it will generate meaning, rather than more academic papers? It's the educational counterpart of "radical management".
For earlier posts related to applying radical management to education: