By Michael Bailey, Essex University.
“Published some 80 years ago, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England remains a compelling and pertinent read. The nub of Dangerfield’s thesis is that, contrary to the received wisdom of the times, the war of 1914-18 was not to blame for the breakdown of Victorian liberalism; rather the decline of Liberal England was the result of radical social forces that emerged in the early twentieth century. Additionally, whereas many of his middle-class contemporaries lamented the stability of high Victorianism (a cultural hegemony that lots of Edwardians took to be unassailable), Dangerfield cheerfully mocked the conventions and modes of conduct that were associated with a Liberal parliamentary democracy, not least its civilised pretensions and political conservatism.
Nowadays, it would seem that we are witnessing the strange death of the liberal university. Various commentators have noted how British universities, though still not-for-profit charities, are being hastily fashioned after private companies and the consequent narrowing of higher education’s raison d’être. The idea of the University as a place of civic education and critical enquiry has been put to a premature death by a raft of neo-capitalist political rationalities that promote inter alia divisive competition, false economies and philistine instrumentality. Academics are bound by ever multiplying forms of spurious measurement, misleading quantification and performance management. Students, in turn, are treated more like consumers than they are citizens, increasingly defrauded with a candyfloss world of university branding and marketing gimmickry. Grant capture, consultancy, citations, impact, quality assurance, unique selling points, student surveys and league tables, have become the new deities that all shall worship.
Whilst the above developments have gathered apace since the financial crisis of 2007/2008, and austerity cuts to public spending notwithstanding, recent criticisms of higher education marketisation have noted how UK academics (among whose number I include myself) are themselves partly to blame for the passing of academia as a liberal bastion: ‘striking absence of powerful and united collective dissent’, ‘consensual silence’, ‘docile polity’, ‘almost complete capitulation’, are just some of the charges that have been leveled at university lecturers and professors. And those academics that do attempt to retain their integrity by refusing to observe the ‘Gospel of Mammonism’ risk being inculpated (as with the inquisitions of the Counter-Reformation) of error, blasphemy, heresy even – censure, denunciation and excommunication soon follow if the accused declines penance and reconciliation.
Not surprisingly, academics have long failed to defend intellectual liberty or to confront inconvenient home truths. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, the Cambridge classicist-cum-satirist, F.M. Cornford, cautioned junior colleagues, especially the Young Man in a Hurry with a conscience, to heed the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, which is to say: