One More Dying Dream in the Twenty-First Century, Jamming, 15/03/2014

Sometimes, I think about what makes a historically great philosopher or intellectual. It lies in the impact their lives and works had on the world they lived in. How many people in the world around them, and in worlds to come after their deaths, did a great philosopher influence? Think about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance. He was poor all his life until he made friends with Denis Diderot, which led to his books being widely read and discussed among educated people in France and across Europe. We remember these great thinkers because they wrote books that were read and remembered by a fairly wide audience. We remember them because they were engaged with the wider public.

Having read this article in The Nation yesterday, I found myself thinking that those of us in the humanities and social sciences who want our work to have a beneficial public impact must fight harder to preserve a place in the modern university system for that. It tells the story of two professors who were fired from a political research institute, the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia for not securing enough federal grant money. The article explains the situation in more detail, but government funding cuts had reduced the amount of money available, and fewer grants were being given.

So Kim Hopper and Carole Vance found themselves without offices one day. Hopper’s work on the homeless and Vance’s on human rights, gender, and health were beneficial, and inspired the work of activists working around the world to improve people’s lives. Meanwhile, grant committees frequently distribute awards based on contributions to peer-reviewed academic journals, whose high subscription prices heavily restrict their own readership. 

Really, only university libraries and databases pay these exorbitant fees. The old philosophy librarian at Memorial University once told me that Environmental Ethics, a journal in which I was published, costs $10,000/year. And they were a cheap one. Of course, such journals are only accessible to university faculty and students. The general public can walk into a library and read those journals, but high conversions to electronic-only databases puts all those works behind a username. No position and no tuition means no access.

The workers who engage with a class of peer reviewed journals with a heavily restricted readership and technical subject matter are rewarded with grant money, prestige, and in some cases, some measure of basic job security. Those who engage with organizations and activities that actually use the tools of critical thought and social science to contribute to changing the world, or at least how people think about it, are let go.

People who care about institutions of higher learning have to fight this trend. I wish I could think of anything that would be effective.

One the side of the main text, you'll notice that I posted a link to Robert Paul Wollf's daily blog in my list of interesting people. He has a fascinating post this Friday that I think you should consider my sampled conclusion to this discussion. I don't want to risk putting words in his mouth my taking his thoughts for the conclusion of my own. But I think he'd at least be glad I made my perspective known.

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