There are indeed legitimate complaints to make about academia and this isn’t one of them. That academics study advertising and its effect upon us humans out here. For the proper study of Man is Mankind, no? Therefore studying what Man does is that proper study. But that’s the complaint that George Monbiot wishes to make today:
Advertising – with its destructive impacts on the living planet, our peace of mind and our free will – sits at the heart of our growth-based economy. This gives us all the more reason to challenge it. Among the places in which the challenge should begin are universities, and the academic societies that are supposed to set and uphold ethical standards. If they cannot swim against the currents of constructed desire and constructed thought, who can?
Studying what humans do does seem a worthy focus of academia to us.
But there’s rather more to this as well. For Monbiot’s underlying complaint is really that said academia should only be studying those things which he approves of:
Humans, the supremely social mammals, are ethical and intellectual sponges. We unconsciously absorb, for good or ill, the influences that surround us. Indeed, the very notion that we might form our own minds is a received idea that would have been quite alien to most people five centuries ago. This is not to suggest we have no capacity for independent thought. But to exercise it, we must – consciously and with great effort – swim against the social current that sweeps us along, mostly without our knowledge. Surely, though, even if we are broadly shaped by the social environment, we control the small decisions we make? Sometimes. Perhaps. But here, too, we are subject to constant influence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. And there is one major industry that seeks to decide on our behalf. Its techniques get more sophisticated every year, drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. It is called advertising.
As Mr. Venning used to say, the correct answer to any question containing the word “surely” is “No”.
If the academics were looking into how to persuade us of things that Monbiot already believes, or thinks we should believe, then he’d be fine with it. In fact, that’s his very argument – that universities should be popularising and researching those things he does approve of. Which is, of course, what Gramsci’s long march through the institutions was all about. Gain control of the places where people learn to think and you’ll control what and how they think. Entirely the same point as Paul Samuelson’s, that he cared not who was elected to run a country as long as he got to write the economics textbooks.
The one little bit that Monbiot misses is that this has already happened. Women’s Studies is the insistence that all men are bastards. Gender Studies ditto. Most sociology is that all capitalists are bastards, all anthropology – when that’s not about how whites are all bastards. Post-modernism is the proof that all are bastards except thee and me and critical studies the query that I’m not so sure about thee neither.
Or more seriously, how can anyone critique the partiality of modern academia without noting the basic worldview being indoctrinated into everyone studying anything at all not involving sums?