I am a Bad Academic

The Secretary of State for Education (yes, Education) responds to criticism from a hundred academic specialists in education (yes, education) by labelling them and their work “bad academia“. He concedes that there is also “good academia”, although he does not give examples. It’s not clear what he thinks good academia is, but I’ve had a look at his response and at what the bad academics said and did, and I think I have some idea of what bad academia might be.

It looks as if bad academics think they have a responsibility to express their judgements and concerns about matters of public policy to which their expertise is relevant – whether or not they have been invited to do so by government or opposition.

Bad academics, it would seem, are also very interested in critical thinking, and would like as many people as possible to learn to think critically – whether those people go to university or not.

Moreover, at least some bad academics consider it their responsibility critically to examine any and all of the implicit and explicit claims about humanity, and the good of human life, that shape public discourse and public policy.

Judging by the number of signatories on this and some other recent letters, at least some bad academics are prepared to work and publish collaboratively, including with people with whom they disagree about many subjects.

Bad academics might want to have an impact, but they want to have an impact by telling the truth as they see it, on the basis of the considerable and specific expertise they have acquired.
Perhaps naively, they assumed that this was the point of academia. (See this blog for more thoughts on impact following the Gove incident).

Bad academics invite one to ponder the question: if the “ivory tower” is the space of isolated and unaccountable thought disconnected from a wider community, who is really in an ivory tower – the social science academic with (perhaps) decades of experience of empirical research, and subjected in all his or her professional work to the intense critical scrutiny of experts; or the politician who judges her/himself free to ignore all evidence and argument that does not fit with a decision already made?

Bad academics are, of course, quite likely to get things wrong. (I personally can see several potential problems with specific claims presented in that letter, although one would have to see the underlying research to evaluate them fully; I assume the Secretary of State for Education has studied the underlying research. Hasn’t he?) They’re not called Perfect Academics or even Good Academics. But they do know that ad hominem arguments and name-calling do not prove anybody wrong; which is why they might just about cope with being called Bad Academics.

I aspire to be, in my own very small way, a bad academic.


One response to this post.

  1. In my own very small way, so do I. But the problem with the likes of Michael Gove, I’m afraid, is the problem endemic in politics generally: that with very few exceptions ministerial positions are filled by rank amateurs.

    Ministers are there because they are politicians, not because they know anything whatsoever about the policy responsibilities of their departments – and as modern government gets more and more complex, that fact becomes more and more apparent as poor decisions have to be revisited – sometimes more than once.

    There’s nothing to be done about it: it’s the price of having a democratic system instead of rule by philosopher-kings. But the whole thing would be more palatable if ministers (of whatever political stripe) were more inclined to take advice and exhibited less blazing certainty in their own infallibility. When I read about Michael Gove’s previous statement on how history ought to be taught (kings and queens, our island story and all that) I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.


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