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Academia: from inefficient effectiveness to efficient ineffectiveness

November 8, 2019 - 17:18 -- Admin

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.

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 both at the forefront of its field – which may require a substantial amount of learning and specialisation even to understand – and uncertain, very often radically so, as to its outcome.

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”. His description of the nature of scientific endeavour within universities helps clarify how potentially momentous the steps we have taken 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 solved the problem of identifying and promoting 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 secure. Academic merit was identified within this system by way of more senior academics identifying 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.

And then there were all the rest. 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, just as lawyers came to serve their own interests ahead of their clients’ or the public, 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. To take a shortcut and speak ahistorically though ‘reform’, 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 which are as bad or worse than they’ve ever been.

Instead it ‘solved’ what I’ve argued is the apex problem of academia, which is the identification of academic merit by looking around and 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 and a working of potential solutions into actual solutions.

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. They avoid any authoritative source picking winners. Rather winners are chosen by the emergent product of many different forms of valuation from many different perspectives. Yet reform of the higher ed sector is driving 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 making one system look more like another might make it better or worse. 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