If, as I think, academia has gone from being inefficient but effective to being efficient but ineffective (a proposition I won’t defend here), the mechanism for making the switch was going from embodied cognition to abstract Cartesian cognition, or to be more precise from a rich to a shallow and superficial form of embodied cognition. Along the way a God’s eye view of the sector replaced a system in which the thinking and doing was deeply embedded in and emergent from the system.
The most important thing an academic system must do is determine relative academic merit. Alas, it’s also the hardest thing to do. Here we are at the forefront of human knowledge where literally every next step, if it’s worthwhile, is two things. It’s at the forefront of its field – which may require a substantial amount of learning and specialisation even to understand. And it’s uncertain as to its its outcome – as a rule radically so.
In this situation, the academic system we had in the 1950s was built around a centuries-old institution – the university. At least in its idealised form expressed by the conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshot, a university was “a corporate body of scholars … a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended”. Oakeshot’s description of the nature of scientific endeavour within universities helps clarify how potentially momentous our reform might have been:
Scientific activity is not the pursuit of a premeditated end; nobody knows or can imagine where it will reach. There is no perfection, prefigured in our minds, which we can set up as a standard by which to judge current achievements. What holds science together and gives it impetus and direction is not a known purpose to be achieved, but the knowledge scientists have of how to conduct a scientific investigation. Their particular pursuits and purposes are not superimposed upon that knowledge, but emerge within it.
In any event, the way this system identified and promoted academic merit was within the broad outlines of the late 19th and early 20th-century notion of professionalism. One generally needed to qualify for admission to the guild of academics with one’s educational attainments (generally a bachelors degree until the 1960s) whereupon one proceeded towards higher status positions which were also more highly and more securely rewarded. More senior academics identified the best of their juniors for support and promotion. The best got the long-term career reward of internal satisfaction and the approbation of those they respected – the very wellsprings of what Adam Smith thought drove a good life in a good society.
We can’t say how good this system was at selecting the best but it seems to have been tolerably effective at allowing the best researchers, or most of them, freedom to pursue their passions. However, there were myriad ways in which the system didn’t work as the ideal suggests it should. Just as lawyers typically come to serve their own interests ahead of the public interest in justice or their client’s need for justice at reasonable cost, academia was inefficient, often failing to put the public interest ahead of academics’ comfort in what they’d grown used to. In addition, crucial public goods on which science is built – such as peer review and the replication of previous studies – went unfunded.
Then came reform. Though it was ostensibly pursued to promote the public interest, and though to this day university research is overwhelmingly funded by the public purse and philanthropy, reformers’ imagination didn’t run to addressing these problems. Reform seems to have exacerbated the latter problems relating to the lack of explicit support for the public goods of academia.
Instead it ‘solved’ the apex problem of identifying academic merit by grabbing the nearest thing to hand – citation metrics. To put it another way, it didn’t start from where it was – with a difficult problem which was being tolerably solved by an existing institution but which could clearly be improved upon – with a thoughtful examination of the problems, a search for potential improvcements which were then slowly winnowed out and worked up into actual improvements.
Instead, it made a beeline for a God’s eye view of the problem. What would God want from the university system? Why He’d want optimality. He’s a pretty optimal kind of guy himself. So he’d want this system to reward the best. The best universities and the best academics. Well, that should be pretty straightforward. Let’s look around. Journal citations look like they do the trick. And they’re even quantitative, so they can all be added up and Bob’s your uncle. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, lots of things could go wrong and go wrong they have, and go wronger they will as the process not only becomes embedded but triggers Goodhart’s Law.
There’s a deep irony here. Economists exalt the way markets avoid this mistake of having some source, however authoritative, picking winners. Rather, the selection of winners is the emergent product of many different forms of valuation and action from many different perspectives. Yet reform of the higher ed sector is driven by economists’ and policymakers’ fondest imaginings that they’re moving towards a market-based system.
In all this what’s happened is illustrated by the image above in which birds wings are fitted to a plane. Birds’ wings played an important role in early aviators’ figuring out how to get machines to fly. But, as a degree of thoughtfulness would lead one to expect, simply taking some features of a market and grafting it into another, quite different system might make it better or worse. But when things need to be finely adapted, one would surely expect it to make things worse. For the crafting of each part of a plane and each part of a bird are highly crafted and crafted as part of a whole. Transfering the insights that birds’ wings might give one into flying will need a lot of work of the kind that led to the evolution of birds’ wings and the development of planes. One is seeking to use an insight from a mechanism in one domain in another domain which operates according to quite different principles. One might as well transplant a dog’s leg onto a Thylacene’s body and imagine it would work effectively.
Yet that’s what we’ve done in one area after another. And called it economic reform.