hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Retreat of Free Thinking

Alphen, Netherlands. 16 January. You know the parable about the emperor's new clothes.  Yesterday, a very senior academic warned me that I was challenging power and that it is dangerous.  That comment in a nutshell explains why Europe and European academia is in such a mess and how political leaders so easily avoid reality. 
 
The job of academia is to challenge prescription with analysis and political orthodoxy with rigour.  Today there are too many academics examining the irrelevant, too many leaders of think tanks who prevent independent thought to ingratiate themselves with power.  The result of the great kow-tow are endless statements of the obvious dressed up as research and think-tank reports that deliberately miss the real point to tell power what it wants to hear.  "Do not cut off our funding", the research masses cry.  "Tell us what we want to hear then", came the power reply.  
 
At this time of truly momentous change in the world and in Europe the thinking citizen must become the loyal opposition.  Indeed, as power shifts inexorably away from Europe to the wider world and away from the citizen to the unelected this is precisely the moment for thinkers to become doers.  If not the short-term will trump the long-term, the political will trump the strategic and the power expedient will in time trump liberty.
 
So sir, I demur from your assertion that I must desist from challenging power.  Instead I call on you to break out of the means by which thought is controlled - be it project funding or research assessment frameworks - and return independent thought to its purpose; to challenge orthodoxy.
 
To mix my parables it is not the job of academia to sup from the table of power but to question the very existence of that table.  As T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind, Cannot bear too much reality.  Time past and time future, What might have been and what has been, Point to one end, which is always present". 
 
If ever there was a time for elite human kind to be forced to face reality it is now.  If ever there was a place it is Europe.  And, if neither academia nor think-tanks take risk then power is merely rubber-stamped. And, if institutes of inquisition retreat into the little questions then who is answering the big ones?
 
Julian Lindley-French

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