Military metaphors are tired, no question. Orwell cautions that we should never use clichés that we are accustomed to seeing in print, as they will “construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you.” But with all respect to George— one of the clearest, if not greatest, prose writers of the 20th century— sometimes an old cliché is the best way to describe what’s going on.
The truth is that academia is under attack. Not by a single aggressor, nor made with a singular objective, but the attack is very real. Scientific evidence is derided and dismissed. Institutions charged with researching controversial topics are denied critical funds. Governments stop collecting the data needed to support informed policy decisions. And almost every day, some newspaper or another will run an Op-Ed questioning the utility of universities, the relevance of their work, and whether we even need them at all. Research? Inquiry? Critical thought? No thanks, say the critics; all we want our universities to train the next generation of workers.
Some of the attacks are driven by the so-called austerity agenda—in an age of public restraint, some believe we can no longer afford “luxuries” like basic research and the humanities. Other attacks are the result of political expediency, where facts and academic freedom are an inconvenient impediment to the goals of certain politicians or well-funded lobbyists. Still others come from a desire to change the (albeit tenuous) public nature of our institutions, to open higher education to markets and put them at the service of private interests.
No matter the motivation, all of this adds up to something that looks very much like a war on knowledge. Both the institutions and substance of academia are being pressured in unprecedented ways. Citizens, students, professors, and academic librarians are all unwilling combatants in this fight, but it is one that they can’t turn away from. We need data, facts, ideas, theories, and knowledge— not to mention the institutions that sustain them—to feed our democracy, to make informed decisions about public policy, and to solve the urgent and complex challenges we face.
This issue of Academic Matters has explored some of the elements of this war on knowledge. Carol Linnitt reviews the Harper Government’s attempts to muzzle federal scientists and shut down climate change research, while Myron Groover examines the stifling new Code of Conduct at Library and Archives Canada. Munir A. Sheikh looks at how the cancellation of the long-form census will affect our ability to make informed public policy decisions. Also on the Statistics Canada front, Felice Martinello laments the loss of the University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) database, a trusted source of salary data used by both university administrators and faculty associations in collective bargaining. Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian— whose office exists in part to defend access to information and knowledge— calls for public organizations to release information as a matter of course, not just by request, in order to improve accountability and transparency. Finally, Aaron Bady looks at how the hype behind Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) obscures a push to obscure the public goods of universities and privatize higher education.
Worrying stuff, but our contributors also offer solutions. They call for us to join the protest against attempts to muzzle, starve, or dismiss knowledge and knowledge institutions. Others argue that a truly open approach to data is needed to improve the health of our democracy. Knowledge can also be defended by giving our research organizations true independence from government, or to replace lost datasets with new collaborative arrangements. The battle is not lost; if we act now, we can help keep knowledge at the heart of public life.
This issue of Academic Matters has particular resonance, as it will be distributed at the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Victoria, BC. If you’re reading this at the conference, take note: many aspects of the war on knowledge are aimed squarely at the disciplines you work in. And what better place to talk about our response to the attacks, than at a conference dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge?
We also know that many readers will not share our assessment, or have a different take on the issues we’ve explored in these pages. Please take the time to send us your thoughts in a letter or as a comment here on our website. If there’s one thing that open, unfettered knowledge supports, it’s reasoned debate.
As always, thanks for reading.
Graeme Stewart is the Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters, Communications Manager for the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, and a PhD student at the University of Toronto.