Beyond the Academic Ethic, #5–The Tragedy, & Learning as a Value.

By Stephen Turner



This is the final installment.

Stephen Turner is Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. You can read more about him and his work HERE.



#2: The Liberal Theory of Science, & Professionalization

#3: Professionalization as a Power System, & Degenerate Professionalization

#4: The Love of Learning in a Time of Academic Cholera


The Tragedy

In a sense, it is the world of this younger generation, the one that started academic life in the middle of the century under a newly stabilized scheme of disciplines that Shils is describing in his writings on the academic ethic. They are the generation that both accepted and enforced the disciplinary order. Their legacy was a rigid disciplinary hierarchy, a narrow definition of professional, and a form of training for students that was itself narrow, focused on the job market and the academic hierarchy, and the demands of peer review in the journal system. There was resistance, but the resistance was futile. Their legacy was intellectual failure. But the disciplines and institutional structures they created were a straightjacket that was impossible for subsequent generations to remove.

The logic of disciplinarization had a dynamic that went beyond the aims of its creators — markets constrained teaching, competition constrained hiring, peer-review constrained publication, all with the result of the creation of a new kind of winner. The expansion and enrichment of the universities, and the democratization of entry, made the jobs of the winners especially desirable. The market rewarded a certain kind of cleverness and the peer-review system rewarded conformity. The winners were, accordingly, clever and conformist, though they would deny this, and point to their minor technical achievements as evidence of their innovative thinking. Nor could they be challenged within the system, which was increasingly unequal. The system of disciplinary enforcement that had been imposed as a personal mission by the generation of the mid-twentieth century now was a machine that simply perpetuated itself — an enforcement mechanism that did its enforcing impersonally and therefore apparently objectively and without authoritarianism.

It was, however, a machine that had no direction. It disciplined without a common intellectual purpose — Shils’ sense of “serious and important things.” And it was soon metricized in ways that entrenched the winners and whatever made them winners. Education became, tacitly, education to succeed in the system. Peer-review became predictable as an affirmation of the hierarchy. Merit was no longer a matter of debate, but a matter of counting. What counted varied, but the importance of the top journals remained, and was confirmed by such things as impact factors.

The system that remained was thus long on discipline, long on constraint, but short on intelligible purpose. The scientizing generation of the mid-twentieth century at least had that, and it was a purpose that could be and was subject to withering critique. But the system that replaced it had no purpose. And, ironically, it was therefore vulnerable to ideological capture.

For Shils, the point of the academic ethic was that it was an integral part of an institutional order that successfully produced truth. Today his notion of truth and of serious and important things would be challenged by critics who would argue that it excluded the interests and experiences of women, oppressed races, the victims of colonialism, the global south, and so on. Some Critical Race theorists deny any supra-individual notions of truth; all of them oppose “merit,” which they dismiss as a magical concept, denying that test scores, elite credentials, and so forth have any intrinsic connection to anything called merit (Crenshaw, 2011, p. 1228). For them, and for many others, appeals to merit, or to older notions of what is serious and important, are taken as an ideological front for white male supremacy. The institutional order has also changed, to one driven almost entirely by metricized standards of quality, together with calculated administrative responses to public issues. These were outcomes Shils would have considered abhorrent. But they raise the question of what can an individual do today in the face of these changes in order to recapture some remnant of the academic ethic? Or whether it is simply no longer relevant, or whether the institution itself is fatally flawed.

Learning as a Value

What is worth saving? The academic ethic was preceded by and depended on a different, pre-professional ideal. We can call this the ideal of learning and the personal goal of being a learned person — which in earlier times was also a socially respected status.

This was a status with social support and recognition. Professors in the pre-professional era were learned persons, primarily, specialists secondarily, if at all. They embodied the ideals of what is now called slow academia and craftsmanship — these were the norms of academic production at the time. But they were never the only learned persons — unlike “professionals,” this was not a status based on exclusion. Moreover, there was a vast body of intelligent and interested readers, without specialized academic training, who read “Great Books,” participated in reading groups and programs, bought the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopedia Americana (which had contributors like Weber and Robertson Smith) and other imitators, and proudly displayed, and even read, the Harvard Five Foot Shelf, and did not think of the university as having a monopoly on either knowledge or wisdom. Indeed, Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, gave a speech to an audience of working men in which he declared that a five-foot shelf of books could provide “a good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.”

When Shils speaks of serious and important things, he is using the language of the pre-professional learned person. And it was this language, and these goals, that professionalization supplanted. But for at least some of those seduced or bullied into professionalization, some version of this older ideal still remained salient. And sometimes, for those who soured on the professional model, it was turned against the professional ideal. In philosophy, for example, there is an active movement against professional philosophy ( ), and there are efforts to preserve a connection with philosophy among the academically dispossessed — people who have gone on to make their living outside academia. So there is something alive in the idea of learning, despite the hegemony of “professionalism” in academia and the hegemony of the university over intellectual life.

Becoming learned is a goal open to everyone. It is not hierarchical — one can learn from anyone, whether they are discoverers or just learned people, or people who simply know things you do not. To be learned is not to be an expert on a canon, even a liberal arts canon. It is not to be a specialist: to be learned is to be able to integrate different kinds of knowledge. To be sure, being learned was a status that had an association with snobbery, but this association was largely a product of academia and its snobbery and exclusions, not something intrinsic to learning. People are learned, and if there is hierarchy, it is a hierarchy that is personal: the Harvard Five Foot Shelf, despite its limitations, was nevertheless a vast collection of ideas and perspectives, which inclined the mind to tolerance and difference, rather than dogma. And one might add that the kinds of readers that the “shelf” attracted were themselves eager to learn beyond the shelf. One might cite the Tagore craze, the fascination with Indian religions that followed from the Columbian Exposition, the vogue of Zen Buddhism, and the mid-twentieth century obsession with East-West relations, including such figures as Nobelist and best seller Pearl Buck. On a more elevated level. F. C. S. Northrop’s 1946 book, The Meeting of East and West, has been continuously popular and in print ever since. This, not learning as some sort of covert ideology, is what has been lost in the present university.

With this we come to questions of value. To re-establish learning as a value is as difficult as any other reform of values. It needs social support, institutional acknowledgement, and opportunities that correspond to it. The professionalization of the humanities and social sciences undermined all three. But the much discussed “crisis of the humanities,” and the crisis that should afflict the social sciences as a result of such things as the replication and p-hacking crisis and the internal critique by John P. A. Ioannidis of the statistical practices that the social sciences rely on, may present an opportunity for reconsidering the professional model itself (2005). We will not pry the winners away from it. But for those outside the charmed circle, this is an opportunity we need to take. The distortions of the present system, and what Gloria Origgi correctly describes as our “voluntary epistemic servitude” to it, are obvious (Origgi, 2017, p. 216). The institutional alternatives are not obvious. But learning is a value that is moribund but not dead. And if we value it we have a basis for resisting the professional machine, and perhaps for something more.


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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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