Monday, May 28, 2007

Irish Heritage vs. Bottom Lines

This snap (straight outta Bono and his pals' own hard teen streets o' Ballymun) sent by Lee to me via her Hibernian pals sums up much about how we postmoderns view Irish culture, mingling those pagan fertility festivals with Catholic ritual processions and eating the dead god in sacred groves with sanctified garbing of young maidens. First Communion meets Riverdance if not Flashdance. Queen of the May or the Moy. The other day I read of the Archer School in Brentwood having a mysterious May Day pole erected on its lawn without warning or explanation the past few years. The paper called it delicately a "Celtic renewal" symbol.

Fintan O'Toole speaks in the Irish Times about delicate reticence regarding bureaucratic Irish attitudes towards the real remnants of a bastardized and blessed pre- and once thriving Christian and now coldly mercenary, post-Christian culture in an Irish academic climate chilly to its fluid multiculturalism. An exchange across Europe and the Atlantic, not to mention if you read Bob Quinn the Mediterranean and North Africa. A trade of ideas and goods millennia older than the EU or "diversity."

I heard Daithi O hOgain at the IASIL in Debrecen a few years back dazzingly discuss ancient Irish texts with flair matching O Corrain for O'Toole. I agree that our intellectual leaders can draw connections that make the recondite relevant. This is ignored by bean-counters running our universities as if they are MBA generators and nothing more makes our best colleges into diploma mills. Not to mention the rush to mediocrity in those colleges not in the top tiers. First the American schools opened campuses and admissions post-WWII out of a mingled ideal of class and race access beyond those with the "gentleman's 'C'" and the silver spoon. But this now means we prop open the doors to career-oriented education, not only where it has the right to be, and I should know from where I teach, but in the liberal arts and humanities in traditional research bastions. What goes for electrical engineers and accountants should not go for classics majors and Sanskrit scholars. Yes, I can in my spare time study Irish in all its forms in my own time, but without the grants and resources and leaves and seminars that a university provides those "professing" advanced knowledge in a field that they in turn advance by research and conferences and publications and teaching, scholarship stagnates. This is already the case in many areas of medieval studies, at least from what I have been told by professors in the fields in which I was trained but am not now employed.

We need all these-- familiar and obscure both-- positions to be filled from our colleges, not only those that draw hordes of MBAs at job fairs or entice immediate placement for PR firms for those web-savvy enough to work not out of a cubicle but from a coffeehouse. There should be room for all scholars in all pursuits to mingle with the eager dentists and teachers and salespeople who emerge with diplomas. Idealism, I confess. But how often is today's wish for such academic reform cherished vs. the lip service, affirmative action, massive social and political and lobbyist pressure brought upon the reforms that led to the opening of higher education in postwar America and Britain, so regardless of class or race one could perhaps attend, and at one time afford, higher education? What began as well-intentioned updating of curricula in the 1960s has been perverted by the Thatcher-era British and the anti-meritocratic French and now the budget-addled Irish higher education elites in the name of profit.

With my own doctorate in medieval literature and my own considerably eclectic, arcane, and unrenumerative pursuits paid out of my own pockets vs. my own position at a proprietary technical and business institution, I face daily this bottom line rationality. Funding all but the registration fees to travel to conferences where I present, and buying my books and my materials to learn, I recognize the plight of "the independent scholar who happens to teach." There are fewer places in academia for those trained in these rarified realms, and this is the grim game I went into knowing my ignorance of the "it's who you know" rules. But, the chance to play was there for me to make when I entered graduate school. It should be there for others today, nearly a quarter-century later.

However, after the Reagan-Thatcher years began this concerted push towards income over intelligence in our advanced educational centers, the opportunities to enter the competition have narrowed. The classics, medieval, and Celtic studies areas all depend upon dedicated learners little regarded by most universities. Once UCD eliminates OI, it will be like a tenure-track line for the Chaucerian, Latinist, Irish-language or Welsh Arthurian expert that is slashed to make room for the flavor of the decade post-Atlantic, Lacanian or trans-whateverist (we being beyond post- and into transgression in this new century's snug coteries). I lament too how the Irish counterparts of my own technologically centered institution take the trouble to imagine and create bolder innovations than more traditional bastions of higher education regarding fresh thinking, think-tank idea factories, and interdisciplinary ventures.

26ú Bealtaine 2007

Afraid to speak out about universities

Culture Shock: A letter from a senior academic, who cannot be named, reveals the extent to which our third-level institutions have ceased to be centres of free inquiry, writes Fintan O'Toole.

Last month, after I wrote in this column about UCD's decision to end its degree in Old Irish and what it says about the narrowing of minds in our universities, I received a long letter from a very senior Irish academic. He is in many ways an exemplary figure: a hugely popular teacher but also a prodigious writer and researcher who regularly publishes work of the highest quality. But I can't tell you who he is. The saddest and most startling line in his letter is one in which he says that, although he would be quite happy to speak out for his own sake, he fears that doing so would have adverse consequences for his department.

It is possible, of course, that such fears are unfounded. But my correspondent is a calm, amiable man, not given to obvious paranoia. His anxieties are ones that I have heard expressed by a number of academics in a number of institutions. And the very fact that such fears exist within our universities is itself a cause for deep concern. Universities are supposed to be centres of free inquiry and of intellectual curiosity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the radical restructuring that is currently affecting most of them, there is something utterly askew when even very senior academics feel that they cannot engage in an open and honest discussion of what is happening around them.

My correspondent's letter is about what he calls the 'managerialist' culture, 'which is running riot in our university system, particularly in the two largest universities, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin". His view of this process is worth detailing, especially since it involves subjects other than his own, and cannot therefore be dismissed as the mere product of academic amour propre.

'Classical languages,' he writes, 'once a distinguished tradition in UCD, scarcely are known any more. Ireland used to produce distinguished classicists; nowadays we import them from Britain and elsewhere. Medieval studies in UCD, once a jewel in the intellectual crown, is being let die; again, we used to produce medievalists of world stature, now we import them. Similar and equally scandalous assaults on the teaching of modern languages have gone unnoticed by Irish journalism. Again, the attempts to force shotgun marriages on subjects that are dissimilar have been ignored. History, sociology and political science have been forced together in Trinity in a way that threatens the identity of all three. At one stage UCD proposed a shotgun marriage between classics and philosophy, betraying a ludicrous ignorance of the nature and content of both intellectual areas.'

His argument for the intellectual autonomy of different subjects is not, however, an argument against 'intellectual synergy'. On the contrary, he argues from his own experience the relevance of a broad, open-minded education, even to specialised areas of research such as his own: 'The social sciences and the humanities depend on each other intellectually: you cannot become an adept in my subject without some background in philosophy and a reading knowledge of several languages other than English. My old-fashioned classical secondary education is a boon to my present-day teaching of the subject. In the United States, a PhD in the subject from a good university usually requires a testing in at least two foreign languages.'

THE OLD IRISH system of broadly-based undergraduate degrees in the humanities, he argues, 'has offered historically an extraordinarily rich variety of subject combinations to generations of undergraduate students. It has produced a large share of our writers, academics, public servants and political leaders, and Ireland would be much poorer intellectually and culturally without it. That richness is under threat . . . '.

I was thinking of this letter earlier this month when I was fortunate enough to hear the UCC medieval historian Donnchadh O'Corrain at the Burren Law School. He was engaged in something that most sane people would assume to be profoundly pointless: the exegesis of a number of early Gaelic legal texts. He is probably one of a tiny number of people in the world who can not just read these texts, but place them precisely in the context of European intellectual history. In the new 'managerialist' culture of our universities, there will be little place for people like him. Of what economic utility is a professor who specialises in Brehon law? Yet his talk was both riveting and utterly contemporary, effortlessly connecting the old words with present-day concerns about the Iraq war and political corruption. It was a reminder that people who really know one subject actually understand a lot about most things.

There are particular ironies in the current narrowing of minds in our universities. It is happening at a time when there is a burgeoning interest in Irish culture abroad, so that we may eventually end up importing scholars of Old Irish from English or American universities. It is also happening at a time when the institutes of technology, supposedly more narrowly career-focused, are widening their remits (the Institute of Technology Tallaght, for example, hosts the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies) because they recognise that critical thinking is increasingly important in the real world of jobs and business. And it is happening at a time when the arts, as the huge increase in State funding recognises, are becoming increasingly central to national identity. If our institutions of learning are narrow and fearful, how can we sustain a vibrant, innovative culture?

© 2007 The Irish Times (via

1 comment:

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