Apparently there are too many PhD students

7 min read

There have been some conversations in the University, I understand, that there are too many graduate students competing for too few academic jobs. There was some discussion also that we should reduce the number of graduate students. While the first statement might be true, I take issue with the second.

Globally, there might be finite resources and funding for academic work. Certainly in England, I suspect (I am not going to look at the data just now) investment in academic work has probably diminished over the last 40 years. If it has not diminished, then the source of that funding has increasingly come from private sources – whether that be applied research for industry and business or debt-funded undergraduate study. Higher education, in England, is a competitive market. This, I believe, is the source of the pressure. Whether that be the result of tightened funding or consequence of the business/corporate market language is immaterial. The issue is, then, the question of whether there is too much demand from people to do scholarly work. Should we be placing a limit on access to research degrees?

I think not.

As each moment passes, each day, as each year, decade or century passes, we create for ourselves a more complex world – a more complicated world. Our capacity for sophistication holds no bounds. Yet, we also create for ourselves considerable problems. The Enlightenment held for us so much promise. With our minds, we had an unlimited capacity to develop technology and prove ourselves masters of nature. The Enlightenment also gave us the belief that we would be able to solve rationally, moral conundrums. However, we have been repeatedly humbled by nature. If we think about the twentieth century, humanity experienced the most violent century in history. The horror and the destruction were way beyond the experience of being violently consumed by a predator. This was violence on a man-made industrial scale and was not designed with quick dispatch in mind. It was constructed withe cruel and horrific vision.

We do need scholarship – active/activist scholarship – that can help us address the complex problems that humanity faces. These problems while they exist in the chaos of nature are the product of human reason. There is something intuitive about nature’s chaos, as living beings, we can cope with the unknowable and the uncertain. I was saying to the trainee mathematics teachers on Friday, each of us as individuals, has a surface with an almost infinite area. The contact between each of us and our environments is infinite – or approaching infinity, to be more mathematically precise. There is an infinite exchange of data. If we were to remove our cerebrum – the part of the brain responsible for rational thought – then using our limbic brain we could continue to live our lives. We can cope – and we have to cope – without the power of reason, because there is simply too much to reason about.

Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error begins with the story of Phineas P. Gage, who suffered a life changing accident while at work in the summer of 1848. Gage was a 25-year-old construction foreman. He was working in the construction of the railroad in Vermont. As they blasted through rock to allow the railroad to proceed on a straight course, Gage was setting charge. At four-thirty on a hot afternoon, he put powder and a fuse in a hole. He was distracted momentarily and began tamping down the charge before the man helping him had had chance to cover it with sand. Gage was tamping down the powder directly with an iron bar. The iron bar as it struck the rock caused a spark. The explosion is considerable. The iron bar enters Gage’s left cheek pierces the base of his skull goes through the front of his brain and exits from the top of his head at high velocity. The iron rod apparently was found more than a hundred feet away, covered in blood and brain matter.

What was surprising was that Gage was not killed instantly. And despite serious damage to his brain, he recovered and lived for another 11 years. Of course, the accident resulted in dramatic changes to his personality, Phineas Gage was no longer able to respond to people in a measured way, and within the norms of politeness. However, he did live and Gage’s horrific accident demonstrates how much we rely on our limbic brain – or indeed how little we need our cerebrum.

Rationality in the contemporary university is so heavily influenced by Enlightenment, philosophy. I was only this afternoon listening to Terry Eagleton’s Luxembourg lecture from 2013 in which he talks about culture wars: in the post-Enlightenment, a position of privilege was given to science and there was a devaluation of the humanities. We turned our attention to rationality and treated the arts and humanities as frivolous and valueless. Now our science and our economics (and indeed the condition of contemporary societies) have led us back to a point at which we must critique the Enlightenment. We have created one big stubborn humanity-sized knot, a global scale conundrum of rationality. Our belief and thought, or the belief in the power of thought and rationality, has left us with one big mess. We face global problems with the environment, inequality, poverty and an unprecedented scale of human movement. Rationality is not going to be enough to solve it. Universities in their present form are not going to solve it, and scholars thinking in the way they do not going to solve it. We need the affective, intuitive narrative dimensions of the arts and humanities. We do need critical and embodied scholarship. Scholarship that has the boldness to go beyond the Enlightenment and go beyond Descartes’ Error. Embodied scholarship does not simply take place in the ivory tower it has to be out in the real world amongst people and amongst practice – day-to-day practice as Lefebvre stressed to us.

I know, that some of the most important work I do as a teacher educator, is with professional practitioners in public services. They experience, and they feel every day practice, they feel and experience the impact of our institutions and our policy on many individuals who are powerless. They are engaged in theory and practice. One is not privileged above the other. They must have the experience of doing pure research, but with the framing and experience of the everyday and of practice.

Or, might I be a farmer-scholar? I could spend part of the week working at growing food for me, my family and the community and for the rest the week. I could engage with work at a more theoretical level in relation to what I do now or concerned with the growing food.

The answer then to the excess of research students, is not that we have too many people wanting to be academics, it is that we have to reframe academia and what academic work actually is. To do this we have to think beyond the Enlightenment.

1 thought on “Apparently there are too many PhD students

  1. Faraz

    Oligarch-elite run corporations could not exist without the fundamental breakthroughs made in state universities.
    We the public own these universities in effect : they have been sponsored via government grants .
    Add to this the infrastructure of our Hi-Tech society ; created via our government .
    It is galling to think these corporations avoid taxes and do not acknowledge their benoldeness to our government.
    Corporations could not fund for example CERN . They contribute some money to universities but according to my reading of facts the amount is little.
    It’s our parental responsibility to ensure our children reach their full potential.
    We own our nation, not the elites .
    We decide how much education our youth are afforded ,not the beetle like accountants in transglobal corporations.
    Do accountants have a remit to engender as future eutopia ? or a quick profit for shareholders ?

    The shakers and makers of UK ( state-department , religious political and celebrity ) have failed to inculcate the sense of entitlement to the human rights of education , emotional and societal health., either in the adult MSM consuming sheeple or their innocent offspring.
    “Too many graduates ” ; are we savages ?

    Reply

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