6.8.12

OPUS POSTHUMOUS.

Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper have crossed the final summit, and yet their students continue to assemble research notes into books.  Adrian Wooldridge sees in the popularity of dead academics a flaw in the incentives facing living academics.
IT IS HARD to gaze on the mounting pile of books by Berlin and Trevor-Roper without worrying that they tell us something about the state of modern academia. The world employs more academics than ever before. Most of these academics believe that they are engaged in a progressive project, producing fresh research, advancing the frontiers of know-ledge and putting their predecessors, ever so gently, in their places. And yet many of us prefer to read the work of a couple of dead Oxonians whose minds were formed in the 1930s.

The modern university is governed by an ever-proliferating thicket of rules, some of them invented by the professors themselves, to regulate admission to the guild, some of them imposed by a suspicious public. Aspiring academics must get a licence to operate in the form of a PhD (which can take up to a decade) and then publish in the right specialist journals. They must doff their caps to the lords of their particular universes and genuflect before the latest modish theorems. Academic bureaucrats tell them how to deliver their lectures and interact with their pupils. Yet other bureaucrats, some of them based in universities and others in government, assess their “productivity” and award money or promotions accordingly.
I concur in part, and dissent in part. The Ph.D. is a research degree, and it signals that the holder has produced a first attempt at research that meets the standards of the student's committee, and one well-placed wag in economics wrote advice for the Ph.D. on the job market including the quip that the committee has lower standards for the paper than the student does.  Think about it.  But the degree is at best a noisy signal of the holder's teaching ability, and in an environment where the scholar produces and transmits knowledge, getting the teaching right matters.  Thus one set of bureaucrats, although it makes no earthly sense to have those bureaucrats in thrall to the latest modish ideas of one set of researchers.  And the research is at best a noisy signal of the author's contribution, thus the obsession with impact factors and the like.  And yes, priors matter.

That noted, Mr Wooldridge's tribute reminds me of a Sibelius bon mot, about the fashionable composers of the day serving champagne cocktails, while he was offering glasses of clear, cold spring water.

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