The dead zones of the imagination in higher education

In his recent book on bureaucracy, David Graeber often turns to higher education to furnish examples of the broader tendency he describes. I thought this was a particularly vivid passage worth reproducing:

The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.

The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavour. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy pg 134

His claim is an empirical one: ever greater tracts of time are consumed by activities other than scholarship. This in turn has obvious implications for scholarship. Dead zones of the imagination can increasingly be found in our universities.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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  1. My husband resigned from a readership at Edinburgh university in the year 2000, when the paperwork became so immense that teaching and research became impossible. I can’t help but think that this is a key factor in the lack of imagination in new research.
    The REF or RAE is probably the single biggest cause of the decline in originality, however. The big name journals simply do not allow for research which is truly paradigm-breaking.
    The constant need for funding also means that the research which gets done is the type which serves a purpose for corporations or governments.
    Research into esoteric or controversial subjects get sidelined in favour of working within the capitalist/bureaucratic orthodoxy.

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