Friday, January 23, 2015

Tenure track & Auschwitz track

My job, as I see it, is to convince you over the course of the life of this blog that the tenure track, intellectually speaking, is not that different from the track at Auschwitz, the one with the little girl in the red coat.

Both tracks were designed to keep overwhelming numbers of untutored geniuses from competing for the too few good jobs that the tutored un-genius children of un-tutored geniuses regarded as their own - by simple birthright.

(Most educated people today are half aware that large numbers of bright, driven Jewish scholars tried to get some of the relatively few academic jobs available in the 1920s and 1930s .

And that this badly rattled the the equally bright but not so driven Aryan and WASP students expecting those same jobs as their birthright.

Columbia University's solution was quotas ; Chelmno used gas.)

small "m" modernization

Open commensality, in fact global commensality, is the inevitable end result of the unconscious process of modernization.

In self conscious reaction against modernization a new form of the ancient black art of closed commensality, one involving hierarchical selection and certification procedures, arose.

As much against the simultaneous and self conscious ending of a land-based noble aristocracy as against the unconscious arise of modernization.

Big "M" Modernity

Thar reaction we now know as the supra-ideology of Modernity.

Today's tenure track and peer review - together with yesterday's Auschwitz train track, are the very pinnacles of achievement for Modernity.

The retort that 'to a hammer everything looks like a nail', has never really lost its sting because so many of us have seen it ring true in the lives we live.

Let us see how accurately it describes Modernity's science.

Land aristocracy almost instantly replaced by Professional aristocracy

The passage, beginning in the 1830s, of the various Reform Acts in Great Britain, then the globe's leading edge power, signalled the slow death of a land based noble aristocracy.

I do not consider it at all a coincidence that, at that very same point in time, the student bodies of universities and colleges began to rapidly change their character, becoming dominated by the driven and the competitive.

No longer did Daddy extract the rents from thousands of acres of prime farm land to buy an Army commission for his surgeon son.

Instead wealthy, connected Daddy bought 25 years of extremely expensive education, from childhood tutors and holiday foreign grand tours, prep school, the best university money could buy its way into, grad school and post-grad specialist training overseas.

Then surgeon sonny got a commission in the military, after displaying his considerable credentials and passing a tough series of exams - open to all (with similar extensive credentials) - 'on his own merits'.

To professional science , every natural event looks like a tenure procedure...

Science had once been an amateur activity, open to all who loved it - allowing untutored geniuses from poor families, people like Michael Faraday, to secure world fame for their discoveries.

Jealous tutored un-geniuses envied the untutored geniuses that the open commensality of amateur science threw up.

They tried (successfully) to create a scientific world where 'who you knew' (who was your academic mentor, what institutional letterhead was your grant application written upon) once again became far more important than 'what you knew' (the actual discoveries you had made).

Soon these would-be professional scientists had created a closed commensal hierarchy of worth.

At the top, the only ones with a good salary, a secure job for life and a direct line to the media and the powerful were the full professors and department heads at the biggest research universities.

These positions had been obtained as much by luck as by effort, family money and genius.

Connections, dad's money, sheer hard work and raw genius could only take one so far.

For one had to also have the acute political sense of what were likely to be the up and coming sub-disciplines when one was forty, paddle to those pools and always swim well within their circumscribed intellectual worlds.

Espousing the 'wrong' intellectual theories - in their eyes - before tenure was fatal. After tenure, you remained alive. Remained alive as an associate professor for life - just barely tolerated by your ever collegiate colleagues.

Peer review gatekeepers guard the sacred flame

Always, always there were endless peer review gatekeepers to ensure the continued purity of the sub-discipline's sacred flame.

Peer gatekeepers always were about : busy deciding who got into graduate schools, into tenure streams, got the grants, the conference invite, book contracts from the biggest university presses, invites to honour-based academic societies, calls to serve on government commissions.

On and on.

You and I could take all this as a bit of a joke - the sort of things that we tutored un-geniuses simply must do to live happy and fairly productive lives.

But when science's peer review hammer heads out into nature to do some real work , trouble ensues - for now every looks like a nail.

Survival of the fittest, normal and deviant, lives worthy and unworthy of life, lower and higher fungi, virulent and avirulent bacteria are just some of many similar sounding modernity era scientific concepts.

And today - to me - they all seem like direct echoes of the selection processes that so dominate the lives of the academic and professional scientist then and now ...

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