Tuesday, May 21

Critic and conscience: what should the universities offer – and expect?

Going through a tidy-up (and that’s an aspirational phrase) of my physical papers and files recently, I came across an article I had written for the NBR back in March 2003 on the issues of what is meant by universities and academics being ‘critic and conscience of society.’ That it was written for the NBR may automatically discredit it for some readers, but it was written in response to a column by James Allan, the noted law professor then teaching at Otago University and who now teaches at the University of Queensland – and continues to be a public intellectual. What we disagreed on was what was involved in academics acting as ‘critic and conscience’ of society, with Allan happy to claim this role for himself but in effect demanding most academics should not do so because if they did speak out then they were either going to be politically correct lefties out of touch with ‘the real world’ or worse, playing the Machiavellian games of a cynical government.  Considering how little has changed in 20 years, I considered it timely to rework and reoffer my views – as an act of critic and conscience.

So how might we approach this issue?

My starting point (then and now)  is to consider whether it is the university as an institution or the academics as individuals within it who are to act as critic and conscience of society. It is important to note the absence of the singular “the” in this question because I argue what is needed is the recognition that it is individual academics within the institution of the university who have this role. Furthermore, it recognizes that there is no singular, common opinion that represents the university as such or universities as a collective.  As an aside, the failure – by academics, university management, and students – to support this is a major cause of the recent vexed and intemperate discussions of Academic Freedom within New Zealand universities.  Too often it seems there is the seeking to articulate or impose a singular or orthodox opinion or belief within universities or by academics.  The other element of this absence of the singular “the” is the recognition of the fact that just because someone or even some institution claims to speak as critic and conscience of society they have no right to demand to be heard, believed, or kowtowed to just because of their position or their speaking out.

The role of critic and conscience is to present a case that is convincing in its own right; not because of where from or whom it originates. Yet to withdraw into the ivory tower (as Allan seemed to demand) is to seek to reduce insight, knowledge, and argument to the preserve of a small elite and also to radically distrust the general population.

Whether in 2003 or 2023 we must also be careful not to just attack the universities – and in particular the humanities and social sciences – and lump them together in a block of left-wing opinions and societal irrelevance, tempting as that may seem to be for many. Rather, within the universities and in wider society, we need to recognize the interrelatedness of knowledge and the importance of having to engage with dissenting opinions. You do not have to agree with all the critiques and challenges of other views to recognize that dissenting opinions can and do act as critic and conscience to those beliefs and opinions we may often hold unthinkingly. This is as important for the left to hear and consider as it is for those on the right.  For we also need to remember that many academics have tended to withdraw from a role as public intellectuals precisely because of internal critiques from fellow academics – or more recently from university management and students.

As a critic and conscience, you speak out because you have something to say that arises from the privilege that your profession grants you – and because that privilege involves the responsibility to interact with the society that allows you to have that privilege. But, and this is crucial, you do not speak out with the expectation that everyone will necessarily, or should, agree with you. And this is where academics too often get it wrong.

As the late great Christopher Hitchens stated, the important thing is to not teach people what to think but rather teach people how to think. And this thinking to be encouraged involves being able to develop a critical, analytical, and interpretative stance to whatever is portrayed and presented as the orthodoxies of the day – or, too easily forgotten or willingly ignored by academics – the orthodoxies of their institution.

That is, acting as critic and conscience of society begins first and foremost in the classroom. It means not expecting or demanding your students (the “real world” in front of you) merely regurgitate what you present as facts and figures. As I say to my students, I do not want you to just report or worse to just regurgitate what you think are the expected or set views. Regurgitation is for the weekend, not the classroom. This also means academics need to present both orthodox knowledge and dissenting views,  challenging students to not only make up their own minds but also encouraging them to clearly and concisely critique and argue their way to a position that may even directly challenge your own.

Acting as critic and conscience of society is also to recognize that the pursuit of knowledge is a conversation, an argument, a critique that is ongoing. This includes the recognition that life, knowledge, and society are complex and contain many variables that demand constant interaction and change.  It also involves the recognition that the university, because of the privilege that it affords academics and its students to wrestle with these issues, has the responsibility to ensure it does the best job possible. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences (the areas I know the best), this means we should not be expecting rote answers, uncritical expression of dominant orthodoxies nor report writing.  Rather, we must allow and facilitate informed, well-articulated, and well-argued dissent,  even if we do not hold such views ourselves.  This means in the humanities and social sciences we should aim to present ideas, views, and opinions from the right as much as is often done from the left, from conservatives as much as from liberals or radials, because we should be questioning all orthodoxies – even those that may sit at the core of our political, social and lived being. Because otherwise, we are just seeking to send out versions of ourselves into society and the workforce, rather than independently-minded, well-informed, critical citizens.

It is easy to dismiss all this and say any academics attempting to do so are deluding themselves and being distracted from the real issues of an increasing bureaucratization and managerialism of tertiary education, or falling pay rates and underfunding, increased student nonattendance and disengagement, or student under-preparedness for university,  or the threat of AI for assessment,  or university autonomy or university rankings or performance-based research fundings.

But this is actually why academics must speak out as critic and conscience to a society that is variously seemingly unaware of these events and issues, does not care or thinks we are all lazy, overpaid and that what most of us – especially in the humanities and social societies – do is not important. Because the university is in fact part of society and our issues and challenges are just particular versions of societal issues and challenges experienced across wider society and the workforce.

To undertake the responsibility of critic and conscience is to seek to fulfill one of the central social functions of the university, especially state-funded ones. It may very well mean we are ignored, mocked, or despised but at the very least we should demonstrate that we are thinking intelligently and critically, and in doing so encouraging and enabling others to do likewise. This also means there cannot and should not be any academic orthodoxy or university orthodoxy expressed as critic and conscience – and that, perhaps, is the hardest lesson for academics and universities to both learn and heed.   

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