The descent of man

As the year moves towards its close I can’t shake off the feeling that we are looking at the end of times. We know that climate change is hard upon us and we know the adjustments needed to our way of life are not happening quickly enough. Government is in chaos. More immediate, the state of universities, Kingston especially, is not improving and threats to our livelihood are ever looming. Spier and his shower of mismanaging Scrooges are fond of saving the worst threats until December.

Way back in the Seventies, when an academic career was still considered a good one to have, the BBC broadcast a seminal programme, The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski’s personal view of the cultural development of mankind. This was recently shown again and those who weren’t around the first time have the pleasure of watching Bronowski’s spectacles glint at the camera as he delivered his thoughtful analysis of man’s progress, especially scientific. It’s perhaps no surprise that this programme was commissioned by David Attenborough, the last great man of television broadcasting?, when he was Controller of BBC2. Contrast that mighty programme with the current coffee-table offerings.

But Bronowski, as he pondered the future in the final episode of the series, was no starry-eyed messenger. He understood that freedom of the imagination was vital to human progress, but even back then he could sense how the West’s intellectual impetus was in decline — ‘infinitely saddened . . . by a sense of a terrible loss of nerve’. He worried that science so closely linked to and controlled by government would mean ‘the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism’. That seems to me as good a description as any of what is happening in universities today. The notion of research, a form of intellectual play, a unique activity destined to produce far more failures than successes, has been turned into a form of accountancy. At Kingston people who’ve never had an original thought in their lives are made up to professors, and any number of incompetent managerialists have been promoted to senior positions. This is the real crime of Spier and the rest of them. Instead of guardians of academic freedom, the freedom to work without fear or sanction, they have become oppressors of knowledge and understanding. Obsessed with finances and league tables, consumed by the strictures of corrupt government, they preside over decay. Maybe they will eventually reflect on the damage they have done in their working lives, though I doubt it.

Bronowski was ultimately optimistic: even if the ascent of man faltered in the west, it would continue elsewhere. Right now it is hard to see where this will come from. Autocratic China? Russia? Somewhere else in the world? None seems likely. The rise of populism and small-mindedness, the rejection of knowledge in the west may go into reverse over the next few years. If it does not, mankind’s progress may come to a halt for as far ahead as any of us can see.

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1 Response to The descent of man

  1. Suzie says:

    This is quite profound- Certainly HEI was definitely not the career I thought it was going to be- I loved the students and teaching contact, but the job took over my whole life and i was working weekends and evenings and for what? I was totally burnt out when i left

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