At Cumberland Lodge – a 17th Century country house in Windsor, a cohort of academics and students from the LSE’s International Relations department sat to contemplate the future of the discipline. Something about the setting spoke to the academy’s principle and enduring failure. We debated, for hours, what the social sciences could hope to do to salvage a wounded society, on the eve of meeting Her Majesty The Queen, ensconced within a proverbial ivory tower, entirely dislocated from the wider world.
Much like the retail salesman, the athlete and the cabbie, the professional potential of the academic is defined by metrics. It is, for many in the fields of politics, economics, international relations and the like, a lamentable reality. Talk of this or that author, once prominent, who has since ‘escaped the academy’, or otherwise ‘committed academic suicide’, proliferates. For it is not enough that the academic merely meet her minimum quota of research output in any given year. More, she must relay her work through one of many ‘reputable’ journals, each with its own opaque set of pre-requisites and exclusion criteria, to which the academic must subscribe if she is to have even the slightest hope of publication. Then comes the scrutiny of review: the cumulative process which considers the sum of the academic’s output and brands her with a final grading, which will come to do shape her reputation and define her career trajectory.
There is, of course, a sense in which such processes of scrutiny are essential to the upkeep of good research. It would be short-sighted to suggest that the academy should shirk-off such mainstays of publication as peer-review, and indeed review more broadly. But the rigor of such preservationist processes has turned the discipline in on itself. It is the eternal anxiety of the academic to meet criteria, attain publication and ultimately achieve tenure, which has eroded the normative aspirations that undergird most fledgling pursuers of the social sciences. The interest of the academic, then, becomes insular. The arc and substance of her research comes to be determined less by her commitment to the betterment of society – national or international, less by the LSE’s official dictum: rerum cognoscere causas (to know the causes of things), and more by self-interest. It is this self-interest – driven by a profound anxiety which is itself rooted in the pressures imposed by the rigors of the academy, which is the source of our distance from the wider world. It is the obligation of the academic to work in a manner appropriate for peer-review, which couches her paper in needlessly convoluted language, and renders her straight-forward and otherwise widely graspable summations unintelligible to most people outside of the academy: those who are unfamiliar with the niche nonsensewords and nonsensephrases deployed so frequently by the anxious academic (indeed, to be told as a student that this or that essay was ‘well-written’ is something of a mild insult).
It is no wonder, in Britain and elsewhere, that the people have become deeply sceptical of the academic. For she is paid – handsomely, and supported indirectly by the state, but what can we say the public receives in the way of a return on investment? The answer: a collection of needlessly inaccessible and exclusionary papers, which are to be discussed at length only by a cohort of peer-reviewers and assemblages of privileged students, whisked away to comfortable Windsor country homes for the weekend.
Today’s wounded society is symptomatic of the academy’s failure to deliver the fruits of its research to the people. In this respect, the current crisis is less abated than aggravated by those ostensibly in the field of society’s betterment. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that our insular corner of society should continue to lambast the societal divisions sown by demagogues, whilst the ivory tower continues to loom large.
The solution, I suspect, lies at the confluence of the dual-crisis today facing the academy and the field of journalism. The coming together of these arenas, each embroiled in dire legitimacy crises, would prove mutually reinforcing, and work to synthesise processes of accurate information collation and, crucially, dissemination.