The “Older Academic” Trope

I was asked today about the wording I used in a tweet last night

Firstly I agree with Kate’s article 100% – older academics are not the problem. The zombie question of whether unproductive older academics are refusing to make way for the next generation being asked in this post frustratingly masks fundamental problems in the structure, function and measurement of higher education.

What I was commenting by adding “a narrative that emphasises the erosion of soul” wasn’t at all about academics, but the unfolding narrative around universities and higher education around the world. A narrative focused on trying to turn a cultural institution into an economic one. This narrative has led to concepts like productivity and efficiency driving the discussion around how education should adapt to significant cultural changes rather than quality and benefit. This focus on “produfficiency” has allowed governments around the world to defund education over the past couple of decades, while drastically pushing larger enrolments and to then have the audacity to cry about falling standards, literacy and employability. It feels like a conspiracy or at least policy that at its heart is being driven by a neoliberal agenda.

What has happened during this debate is the development of certain tropes that aid the “produfficiency” agenda. One of the most common and convenient is that of “older academic” who is pretty easy to assign characteristics:

  • stuck in the past
  • out of touch
  • can’t use technology
  • don’t contribute
  • have outdated wisdom
  • past their use by date

… and in general are unproductive members of an imaginary elite. In fact here’s a great list of TV Tropes around elders they could borrow from. Tropes build on our own stereotyped and overgeneralised experiences – so there’s alway a nugget of truth in there. But using tropes and playing into them has the effect of allowing the debate to be de-personalised and de-humanised which assists produfficiency by reducing and abstracting real people, actual human beings, into a column on a ledger.

When I made the comment about the “erosion of the soul” it was a about the simple fact that educations contribution to society is the development of knowledge, and knowledge = people. Without people education shifts from being a cultural activity and one that embodies the soul of its community, to something that simply performs an economic function, transactional and ineffectual.

By debating the tropes and feeding the trolls we become distracted from the real issues that are manifest in education – increasing casualisation, insecurity and debt – which point to significant and fundamental problems with how education is measured, funded and recognised.

Update: from twitter just this afternoon these are the kinds of issues that warrant discussion – Student Debt Linked to Worse Health and Less Wealth and Most university undergrads now taught by poorly paid part-timers

Update 2: According to Pearson the proper term isn’t produfficiency but “efficaciousness”. Apologies.

Update 3:  Or this becomes reality for more students

or an industry develops to exploit a generation of young people for profit.

This is great reporting from Jon Oliver:

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One thought on “The “Older Academic” Trope

  1. Pingback: Should older academics be forced to retire? | The Thesis Whisperer

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