By Taye Negussie (PhD)
Plato’s Academia, founded around 300 B.C in classical Greek, is widely thought to be the precursor of the modern University System. Plato’s motif in establishing a residential educational center by then was reportedly his conviction that the virtuous path to truth is a persistent rational deliberation and exchange of ideas among those who feel free and equal amongst themselves.
Apparently, over time Plato’s idea has turned out to form the basis of today’s much celebrated notion of autonomous and independent academic institution, albeit, whose practicality has greatly diverged among nations due to mainly ideological and political reasons.
Apart from this practical variation, yet there also appears an underlying common misconception regarding the very notion of academic autonomy and independence both within and outside of the academic community; the tendency to consider it as a mere institutional prerogative only to shield academic institutions from unwarranted exogenous mingling in their academic and administrative affairs.
Subsequently, this has led to the turning of blind-eyes to internal irrational and authoritarian tendencies and practices current within the academic institutions themselves.
Evidently, since long many academics have witnessed through their own lived-experience the gruesome realities of deeply conservative and authoritarian mode of thought and behavior. Such behavior is operating on the feudal principle of honor, dignity and hierarchical lord-vassal relationships permeating some academic institutions across the world in a manner akin to that of aristocratic authority; hence the “aristocratic spirit”.
More specifically, this seemingly aristocratic style of organization may manifest itself in greatly varied forms and manners as expressed in overt or covert actions and behaviors of some individual or groups of academics in the course of carrying out the business of an academic institution, particularly at the lower tier.
The case of ‘paternalism’
To be sure, probably owing to their relatively longer duration of attachment, some academics would usually be observed tending to act out, so to speak, the role of ‘patron’ of the institution – ‘only I know what is best for the institution’.
Clearly, inspired by this self-made image, they more often than not attempt to portray themselves as the ‘person-embodiment’ of all the institution’s rules, regulations and ambitions that would readily entitle them both the moral right and the intellectual competency to direct and shape the institution solely in the image of their own liking.
In order to realize their dominating and controlling ambitions, they often opt to a range of well- improvised course of actions and practices. To mention but a few: striving to acquire some strategic decision making positions by themselves and/or their confidants; making ‘kings’ and rules (even including extra-legalistic ones) behind the scene; working hard for tradition and established practices, instead of rational deliberations, to prevail as the main principle of decision making; monopolizing course offerings and other academic and administrative activities along with their close associates, and resisting any new initiative in the working of the institution that they suspect might disrupt the status quo.
In this regard, factional networking, intense lobbying, backdoor conspiratorial dealings, ‘herd-thinking’- lining behind their back those innocent but uncritical staff – are but some of the key tools they invariably put into use for influencing and directing decisions and thereby turning their repressive wishes come true.
Meanwhile, those who rightfully dissent against these irrational and authoritarian activities and practices would soon be subjected to all sorts of undeserved labeling, backbiting, ridiculing, isolation and persistent factional bulling.
The “camel spirit” at play
A common tale has it that camels never go near the mountain. They have chosen to live in the desert because in the desert they are the walking mountains, but near the mountains they will look like ants, and that hurts.
Likewise, those operating with the aristocratic mentality in academia and are accustomed to confining themselves in their den of enclosed ‘comfort-zone’ firmly uphold obstinate close-door approach towards the issue of employing especially new senior staff. This is apparently with the view to maintain their unrivalled dominance in the affair of the institution ad infinitum.
Probably, at the root of this closed-door policy lies the pervasive stereotypic ‘insider-outsider’ profiling of staff on the basis of their recruitment into the institution. The ‘insider’ category implicitly represents those staff who have joined the institution directly upon completion of their education, and are supposed to pass through the quasi-official norm of rigorous coaching and grooming. This is done in the myth and prejudices of the ‘masters’ ostensibly with the purpose of duplicating them into their own replicas.
Whereas, in the ‘outsider’ category we find mainly those who have joined the institution after working for a while in some other institutions and are often looked upon with suspicion for they are suspected not to have sufficiently been remolded.
In this aristocratic tradition, everyone is tacitly presumed to hold a specific prescribed position in the underground hierarchical arrangement.Any endeavoring staff wishing to achieve his own life aspiration with little regard to this archaic arrangement is bound to have some hard time.
In similar vein, here each and every action of ‘non-conformist’ staff is viewed with deep suspicion and mistrust. Even when one is commanding a measure of public trust, acceptance, and respect owing to dedication and commitment to duty, he will be viewed suspiciously. One’s engagement in persistent pursuit of truth, adopting a simplistic, fair-minded and humanistic mode of life – which is, under normal circumstances, by far the more potent form of power than any formal position – would be eventually liable for unfounded accusation of leniency in official duty, which clearly depicts the extent of jealousy and hostility current in that tradition.
Hardened intellectual conservatism
As we may all know what has set a scientific knowledge apart from other forms of knowledge -at least theoretically – is the fact that it is an open and ever evolving knowledge-seeking endeavor. A scientific knowledge never asserts any fixed and conclusive solution to persistent human enquiry.
Nevertheless, in the academic context under discussion all seemingly conventional theoretical perspectives and methodologies in a certain field invariably receive almost a status of “absolute truth” and are upheld in the like of a dogmatic belief. Thus single-handedly guiding all curriculum development, research undertaking and knowledge dissemination endeavor. It also shows a sheer disregard to the unconventional and critical ones along with all their potential intellectual and practical merits.
From the foregoing account one may discern the immense injustices and the subsequent adverse public consequences – denying individuals the freedom of thought, compromising intellectual autonomy and integrity, stifling creativity, restricting intellectual and experiential diversity, and constraining the circulation of novel knowledge. This, in many ways, is a result from the reign of an authoritarian “aristocratic spirit” as is the case in the conduct of some academic institutions.
Despite all this bleak assessment, however, I am optimistic that it is still possible to address the challenges by helping, to the extent possible, for the nurturing and flourishing of an open-minded, just, compassionate, transparent, and progressive internal governance in those academic institutions plagued by the problem in line with the spirit of the classical Plato’s Academia.
Let me wind up this piece by way of reminding all of us the profound insight in the maxim: “It is not necessary that we should all think exactly alike, but we should all think.”
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