01 January 1970

On The Neoliberal Age Of Pervasive Intellectual Retrogression

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On The Neoliberal Age Of Pervasive Intellectual Retrogression

Although it is not an impossible task with appropriate depth and meticulousness to prove such a hypothesised process of intellectual retrogression, we here build up a case for an imperative need for sternly reforming current neoliberal reign and policy.

One of a pair of coloured aquatints by T&W Daniell, 1808, showing Samrat Yantra sundial in Delhi.
One of a pair of coloured aquatints by T&W Daniell, 1808, showing Samrat Yantra sundial in Delhi. Getty Images

Of late, there has been mounting evidence affirming that neoliberal reign in educational thinking and policy in global higher education (HE hereafter) – its philosophy, curriculum, financing, leadership and management – has set in a steadily declining trend in academic/intellectual quality and standard. This is apart – though closely interlinked with – from growing recent evidence of the declining quantum of knowledge actually learnt among school students in many countries. The ramifications of such widespread declines in academic standard of education should eventually encompass almost all walks of life including society, politics, culture, and arts or even quality of day-to-day functioning and living. There is, indeed, some scattered ethnographic evidence which shows a ubiquitous process of what can be called ‘intellectual retrogression’, with its genesis lying in neoliberal ideational reign with reforms which include a steady withdrawal of public funds from HE, its rapid privatisation, drastic vocationalisation/dilution of academic curriculum and pedagogy, neglect of basic/original research – all being contingent on market-centred neoliberal visions, philosophy and policy. Although it is not an impossible task with appropriate depth and meticulousness to prove such a hypothesised process of intellectual retrogression, we here build up a case for an imperative need for sternly reforming current neoliberal reign and policy.

For example, HE is key to the shaping of a wide array of professionals and intelligentsia including technocrats, bureaucrats, artists, academics, scientists, media personnel and politicians, among others, who actually shape entire traits and texture of a functioning polity. Thus, if academic quality, rigour, and standard of higher level of learning declines steadily with the passage of time, it should create correspondingly grave ripples – at least in longer run - in the whole functioning of our society and polity. Let me illustrate a little more deeply how a comprehensive intellectual retrogression is constantly manifesting itself in various spheres of contemporary life and society.

For instance, the term ‘innovation’ lately has earned an unprecedented currency, popularity, and deference of which promotion is one of the frequently stated missions of HE institutions. But innovation essentially connotes a tinkering with, or application of, an already invented principle/law in natural/physical and socio-economic worlds or of an already created original artistic or literary forms or style in sphere of arts and humanities. Innovation represents neither a transcendence and revision of an existing knowledge, nor a falsification, nor an original or new creation. Indeed, a dichotomy has historically been maintained between original ‘academic research’ hosted by public-funded university/institutions and ‘innovation’ carried out generally by hired personnel of a manufacturing industry for evolving either newer cost-cutting methods of production or for a differentiated product (so-called ‘product diversification’) as a strategy for augmenting private profits.

But there is now a growing bid on the part of even best-known universities toward blurring this age-old distinction even to the point of hosting and encouraging a new mongrel genre of research called ‘innovative research’ – meaning either collaborations between university faculty and personnel of private industry, or research projects designed only for innovations, not inventions. This diluted (unoriginal) breed of academic research commissioned by private industrial/business houses at HE institutions/universities was unthinkable even a few decades back. This new trend has resulted in an intellectual retrogression in research through a dilution of very notion of academic research itself. Nowadays when a university calls itself a ‘research university’, in actuality a major part of its activity is only little more than that of a typical R&D wing of a big private company. This understandably produces deeply degrading backlash effects on intrinsically superior creative and inventive minds/researchers who are now exposed to an overall diluted environment that makes them intellectually partly drained or constricted within a narrow vision centred around commerce, market and profits. Is it not dangerous for the future of human civilisation if current academia increasingly even loses the capacity to realize that boasting on conducting large number of commercially-oriented patents (innovations) and its associated wealth by a university ultimately spells out an intellectual degradation vis-à-vis glorious preceding – not too distant - period marked by a steady flow of inventions and new original/basic knowledge?

The moot question, of course, is whether industry-academy collaboration ends up blighting an innately curious and truth-seeking imaginative mind of a gifted academic researcher who for its full flourish badly requires utmost (academic) freedom about choice of subject for research, which intrinsically stems from the researcher’s instinctive volition, curiosity and imagination, not from the lure of perks and positions or what mainstream economists call ‘incentives’. There is indeed some ethnographic evidence to suggest that
researchers whose innate volition and academic ability is for carrying on an original/creative research, get demotivated, dejected, or sometimes, most damagingly, adapted to an intellectually-frail academic environment marked for its high priorities for marketable innovative research commissioned under university-industry collaborations. In fact, similar contaminating or constricting effects on intrinsic intellectual powers for creativity and originality in a mind are being produced by neoliberal ideas and policy bent on making education more directly instrumental or utilitarian towards production of human capital - a bundle of (mostly mechanical) skills (and hence being less imaginative and creative). Indeed, a neoliberal anti-intellectual move was formally heralded by pro-capitalist state initiatives of elevating polytechnic/technical colleges to the status of a university after WWII.

Even many globally renowned universities are currently – more so in developing countries – are officially treating even petty innovations as something equivalent to basic/original research outcomes as if a market-oriented innovation (patent) – which is by definition less original - is the highest outcome or the height of academic research exercises, not to mention awarding of highest academic degrees to them. This marks an academic/intellectual retrogression from traditionally prevalent standard/norm of academic research, notwithstanding recent attempts at showing subtle elements of creativity or originality imbibed in some specific innovation exercises. In same vein, eminent academicians, scholars, or celebrated authors who have spent a large part of productive or professional life in academia, teaching, and researching, are now being increasingly replaced or displaced by powerful politicians, business magnets, popular film-stars and wealthy corporate owners as chief guests addressing academia during annual convocation or other ceremonies at colleges and universities. These business leaders/influential politicians in their talks as chief guests would characteristically try to inspire student-folk including the most talented/gifted ones to become at best good and efficient innovators of new products or gadgets, not inventors or original. This illustrates how contemporary large-scale celebrations of academic pursuit for market-driven innovations could subtly contribute to an imposition of stifling/degrading constraints on vision/ambition of a precious academic mind born with innate curiosities, inventive aspirations, creative affinities and imaginations.

All this entails a great loss to society or perhaps even humanity if a highly capable academic, creative and curious mind which could give a new original creation or invention under appropriately inspiring environment, ends up doing ‘innovation’ meant for private profit. The same is the case with the talented faculty members being dragged down into innovation research while they could have produced, in terms of their ability, far more original and inventive research with great potential benefits for humanity. In the wake of such
comprehensive intellectual degradation, it is not really rare to find nowadays a potentially promising young film director ending up making a qualitatively and aesthetically a sort of ‘innovation’ or what is more popularly called ‘re-make’ – if not outright imitation or ‘copying’ – of a landmark film produced by an eminent film-director in the past.

Similarly, in the wake of rapid growth of youth participation in HE, very often irrespective of adequate academic merit and motivation (thanks to large-scale privatisation of educational institutions), society is getting increasingly filled with hordes of degree-holders of mediocre calibre. However, the problem is not so much that a large majority with mediocre abilities are characteristically producing less imaginative or less mature or less original outcomes/performances even with added aid of steady growth of technological innovations. Rather, the crux of the evil lies in the informed as well as grave plausibility that amid pervasive celebrations of productive skill formations of majority possessed with mediocre intellectual endowments/ability through diluted/vocationalized curriculum, the society is increasingly losing innately talented and gifted minds. It could well amount to a civilisational crisis if careful and intensive cultivation of minority with superior gifted minds is no longer a part of most important missions of HE institutions including university.

Would it not be a matter of great global anxiety if we can hardly find a film director who can make a ground-breaking original film? How would be our world if we have to look only in vain for a writer who can create stories or novels that would enlighten us with deeper penetrative evaluations of newly emerging realities, values, and culture in relation to what is universal or eternal about mankind, its life, society, emotions, sentiments and relationships? That the talent or creativity per se is limited, can hardly be manufactured at will, and is indeed sparsely distributed among a populace, is a natural dictum. Therefore, a steady erosion of such naturally limited number of innately talented and gifted minds who could invent and create and make us progress in all walks of our civilized life, is a matter of sheer alarm.

The ongoing process of lowering academic standard in HE produces an intellectually impaired section of professionals/intelligentsias who tend to depend on incessantly innovated technical commodities, software, and mindless automations in their bid to hide, or compensate for, their lack of independent intellectual maturity and analytical thinking. For example, a young bureaucrat, while preparing an official report/document, would apply her computer-driven copy-and-paste skill which require minimum intellectual ingredients/analytical thinking. Thus, although the report is produced very fast – thanks to her disproportionate dependence on IT-aided computers and internet – but it contains many logically inconsistent ideas, interpretations, or policy guidelines because of her relatively little intellectual/analytical capabilities/standards imparted by a diluted educational curriculum at college/university level. Thus, if current official documents/reports are found particularly lacking in their logical rigour/consistency, or if most of current periodic statistical reports published by ministries appear less satisfactory (albeit with good/glossy look) than before from standpoint of the ways the data are presented/tabulated or interpreted, it can well be considered to be reflection/evidence of what we call pervasive intellectual retrogression. Also, there are many films being made by young generations of film directors in which many shots (e.g. human actions deep inside a sea or in the sky or a mountain) reflect glaringly their sole purpose of testifying to their know-how of some newly innovated technology, rather than any aesthetic/artistic necessity for cause of unfolding a lasting message creatively/originally drawn from society or human relationships. Likewise, much of recent research in social sciences appears to be wasteful because researcher is more motivated and skilled just on running a newly innovated statistical software than on developing a deep understanding of social issues on which she applies her learnt mastery of mechanical computer-led operations. All this manifestly points to grave ramifications of pervasive intellectual retrogression lavishly indulged by diluted educational standards and rigour wittingly made and maintained in contemporary HE institutions.

Another symptom of declining levels of intellectual maturity, scholarship, independent original thinking at higher learning level is (at least) partly being implied by the fact that proportionate share of single-author academic publications (vis-à-vis joint or shared authorship ones) has been declining fast especially in social sciences over recent past. Based on a quick assessment of the distribution of research articles by respective number of authors as published in Economic & Political Weekly, a well-known Indian social science weekly journal, at two points of time, namely 1973 and 2017, we have found a drastic drop in proportionate share of single-authored-articles. Out of 168 research articles published in 1973, those by single author was 140 (83%), whereas out of 199 research articles published in 2017, the respective figure is 92 (46%). Of course, such huge drop in single-authorship, though by no means generalizable across diverse fields and journals, could reflect several things: increasing sway of multidisciplinary research, growing necessity for team-based research in view of rapid growth of individual disciplines, growing popularity of giving joint authorship status to research assistants, or even an escalating professional pressure of ‘publish or perish’ kind. The last two factors clearly involve ethical considerations. However, even in the face of a considerable multiplicity of factors/forces at play behind this tendency toward joint/shared authorship of academic output, a declining intellectual capability/maturity, originality, academic aptitudes/scholarship of individual researchers cannot but loom large. Even 900-word-long opinion pieces published in newspapers’ editorial pages are often appearing with joint-authorship and even more shockingly, are being produced or considered as professional academic output in universities. Although a concrete conclusion on this issue can hardly be drawn without much deeper investigation, it is hard not to find a smell of an increasingly pervasive intellectual debilitation/retrogression in this fact of rapidly rising joint authorship.

As time passes by, the number of people of earlier generations who were educated before neoliberal reign’s full-blown unfolding, shrinks fast. It makes judgement about true infirmities of present generations’ intellectual powers increasingly partial and biased in favour of the present. The accumulated size of several preceding generations fed on neoliberal education increasingly snatch away possibilities of objectively assessing or even recognising current intellectual retrogression. The new generations of faculty, principals and vice-chancellors, ministers are so adapted with current diluted system that they either cannot normally see anything significantly amiss with respect to present standards of curriculum, examination, teaching, and learning, or their ‘incentive structure’ under a neoliberal reign does not induce them to act even if they do see the malice. This is, of course, apart from influences/manoeuvres engineered by both multinational corporate houses and multilateral institutions such as IMF, World Bank or even UNESCO through their ‘interested research’ and political lobbying and also by money-driven media which has generally been so far in favour, unsurprisingly, of neoliberal reign in HE explicitly promoting privatisation and commercialisation of education. For example, currently-in-vogue practice of assessing an artistic performance or creative output – music, drama, painting, literature, sports, film among others – in terms of its popularity rank (the number of ‘like it’ responses) feeds into, and manifests, ongoing intellectual retrogression. In the same vein, worth or quality of an academician’s research is often being judged now by the number of its citations which often largely reflect, in a sense, its ‘popularity’ rather than its real contribution to human progression. This populist mode of assessing an artistic or intellectual worth clearly undermines role of perceptive powers, scholarship, insights, and tastes of assessors. Enforcing majoritarian mediocrity at the expense of minority of innate talents and creativity often leads to declines in overall quality of academic, creative exercises and performances. Likewise, setting multiple-choice questions in academic tests produces effects not only of attenuating rigour/standard of education, but also of dangerously undermining importance of cultivating, through education, abilities of critical/original thinking, curiosity, imagination, and creativity. Thus, entire burden of neoliberal ideational dispositions and policy that culminate into a steady declining trend of academic standard over last several decades, pervades, accumulates, and contributes to creation of many vicious circles enabling its own sustenance or stability, which is understandably feasible for only a short to medium-term, but not over a longer run when whole society should have got crippled.

A key to the remedy of this current pervasive intellectual retrogression caused by inter alias declining standard/quality of HE, thus, lies in reforming neoliberal educational ideas and policy that were brought into global dominance over preceding six decades. This calls for nothing less than judiciously reinstating fundamental ideas, notions and precepts pertaining to the purpose, functions, and finance of HE/university that had reigned over a century before WWII. Only the foolish can forget that despite changing ‘times’ in terms of technology, faster communications, various gadgets, other comfort-enhancing commodities, universal basics of education, like the basics of human life, can be sought to be altered/bypassed only with great perils even on such popularised or widely touted pretexts as fast economic growth or winning or withstanding over an escalating international competition.

(Arup Maharatna is a Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor at Central University of Allahabad)