I have been working away at two texts – a book chapter entitled Re-visioning “North” as an ecosophical context for an education in creative practices – and a presentation for a panel at the Royal Geographical Conference in London in September: The realpolitik of the art/geography nexus as ‘generative encounter’. Both, in very different ways, relate to what I increasingly see as the abject failure of the university system to provide an education appropriate to the situation in which we, as Northern Europeans, now find ourselves both socially and environmentally.
My usual difficulty with writing has been further exacerbated in the case of these two pieces by a couple of additional problems. Firstly, I’ve needed to keep the very real anger about what is happening to good people we know due to the rank abuse of power and privilege by members of the psychiatric and medical establishment out of my writing, since it’s inappropriate in that context. That’s proved very difficult and I’ve had to do a lot of editing and rewriting to achieve it. Secondly, I’ve been struggling to reconcile my sense of that abject failure “in general” with a couple of encounters I’ve had recently with ex-students from arts courses for which I once had responsibility.
Both women have typically compound interests. One now works as a librarian and a volunteer at the Royal West of England Academy. She talked at length about its exhibitions policy and the positive public perception of the current exhibition Gemma Brace and I co-curated there. The other is involved in socially engaged arts practice and facilitation, works part-time in a local gardening center, and is considering applying for a Masters degree in curation. Both recognised me and were clearly pleased to talk to me again. Both are people who, although I had long ago forgotten them, I am pleased to have discovered are still living and working in the city we all share as home. I also feel – perhaps inappropriately – rather proud to have been a part of their education, something that seems somewhat at odds with my current sense of the deepening failure of the academic enterprise. I am starting to wonder, however, whether this is a wholesale institutional failure affecting the outlook and actions of all its members or, alternatively, something more like a virus that infects some members of the institution to varying degrees but not others not at all. While it is tempting to assume the first, the second is almost certainly the case.
Some time in the late 1990s I read Arran E Gare’s Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis. Of the many observations it contains, few are more chilling than those that occur when he is writing on the class he refers to as ‘the new international bourgeoisie’. This class – which certainly includes many senior academics and academic managers – is, he insists, a class contributing nothing to human welfare; a class whose attitude he believes is “summed up in the words of an economist writing in Business and Society Review: ‘Suppose that, as a result of using up all the world’s resources, human life came to an end. So what?”’ (p.12).
When I first read that I assumed that he was over-reacting to the glib bravado of some aberrant junior economist who, given a chance to make his voice heard, was desperate to impress his equally glib peers in some junior office backroom in an international counting-house. I even imagined the speaker in the image of the type of immature, arrogant, pampered late adolescent who, as a drunk first year Bristol University student, thinks it is daring to shout obscenities at the top of his voice at 2.00 am on a Sunday morning in Clifton (where I used to live). In short, someone unthinking and irresponsible as they are profoundly irritating is, beyond that, hardly a cause for concern.
I now realise I could not have been more wrong.
The attitude Gare identifies is not that of an aberrant individual who, with a bit of luck, will quickly grow up a bit but, exactly as he claims, one that defines the essential orientation of a whole class of people – including many of the political elite running the country. Taken in conjunction with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s recent article Big Science is Broken , the ongoing deconstruction of what is starting to look like blatant scientific fraud in conjunction with the Pace medical trail , which is also featured in George Falkner’s report In The Expectation of Recovery: Misleading Medical Research and Welfare Reform , Gare’s characterization is a stark reminder of the depths to which a substantial proportion of the professional classes have descended in a world now wholly given over to the culture of possessive individualism. What I find particularly distressing, given my own personal employment history, is the extent to which the academic world is implicated in the worst forms of deception and self-serving opportunism that Gorbry and Falkner document.
Going back to my two former students, I’m still left pondering the tension between my sense of their worth and persistence and the increasing degradation of the system through which they passed. Part of that tension is, of course, down to the difference between academic teaching as a vocation – the face-to-face business of a conversational exchange – and the world of academic research that, at least outside the arts and humanities, has now very largely been co-opted by the new ‘entrepreneurial’ orientation of academic senior management – epitomised by the self- identification in financial terms of Vice-chancellors as CEOs.
In the end, however, I’m left with a sense of pride in the achievements of those in whose education I’ve played some small part. Not because of their “achievements” in the sense used by Deans and Vice-chancellors to impress anxious parents on public occasions – although I’m also proud of the extraordinary work my PhD students, for example, do manage to do – but because they have survived into early middle age with their curiosity and spirit intact, have in some indefinable yet very real way found ways in which to be – to borrow from Hannah Arendt’s book title – good people in dark times.