The knowledge economy

Unless you are involved in academia or have some friends in humanities the announcement by Middlesex University on shutting down their philosophy department a couple of weeks ago probably failed to catch your attention. Middlesex is not an Oxbridge and the department in question was a rather small one — just six full-time faculty and about a hundred students. Although the philosophy program at Middlesex was in fact the highest ranking department in the Middlesex university and among the best regarded in the country (ranking 13th, ahead of many established and well-known universities), the administration was quoted stating that reputation made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the university.

Earlier this year, King’s College London issued a similarly under-the-radar statement where they expressed a commitment to “create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level” which meant, among other things, the dismissal of David Ganz, Britain’s last professor of Palaeography — a study of ancient texts in their original form.

Unrelated as those two events may perhaps seem at the first glance, they actually do have a common root that goes back to the gigantic pile of poop that hit the fan of Britain’s public finance in connection with the banking sector bailout last year. Trillion pounds that went into keeping the smoldering wreckage hitherto known as UK’s financial system from a complete collapse meant that there was going to be a lot less dough for the British government to spend on other parts of public infrastructure, including education. As the cuts were both inevitable and imminent, the question became that of distribution — i.e. where and what to cut. Apparently following Ronald Reagan’s resolute point of view that the state ” has no business subsidizing intellectual curiosity” and in order to assist the institutions of higher education in this delicate undertaking, the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills came up with what has became known as Framework for Excellence which is soundly grounded in “evidence-based” practice and introduces a concept of demonstrable social and economic ‘impact’ of publicly funded academic endeavors. This is meant to assure that scarce public funds go to support those fields and and research topics that actually do matter.

Unsurprisingly this idea did not go down well with academics, especially in the humanities where, as Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University has rather venomously observed:

[…] the impact of ideas is not measurable, even by double-blind clinical tests decked out with the best Bayesian interpretations.

Most cathedrals of Europe were built more than 1,000 years after the original source of the ideas that issued in them died, and the greatest single edifice owning his impact was built over 1,500 years after the same event. Even The Communist Manifesto had its main “impact” nearly 70 years after it was written. Nobody has done a controlled experiment on what the impact of either Christianity or Communism was, but only an idiot therefore believes that the jury should stay out on whether they had any.

Of course, this problem is in no way limited to only arts and humanities. For centuries, a field of mathematics known as number theory was a paragon of uselessness. What possible social or economic impact could playing around with primes and Bernoulli numbers have and why should society pay for eccentrics that wish to spend their lives by studying them? But then one day we had an internet which eventually brought along a need for some privacy and security — and all of the sudden this knowledge about the strange properties of numbers became extremely useful, as the whole online security, the lock and stock, is based on number theory and combinatorics. It is number theory.

There is actually a lot more to be said — and has been said (take a look at an article in LRB, a close look at the economics behind the UCL’s predicament here or a view from across the pond at Inside Higher Ed) on this topic, but I leave it at that. I do wonder though what our world would be like if the humanity had in the past considered knowledge purely as means rather than an end in itself and “disinvested from sub-critical areas” such as philosophy, ethics, literature, art — or combinatorics.

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