Beyond the Academic Ethic

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In the early 1980s, Edward Shils, together with others, undertook the task of defining what he called ‘The Academic Ethic’. It is perhaps best to think of this task in terms defined by Alasdair MacIntyre in many of his writings, in which he observes that the formulation of an ethic typically came at the point where it was no longer a matter of general tacit acceptance but was becoming lost. Shils’s exchanges with his friends and collaborators who commented on the project bear this out: they understood the changes in circumstances that had made the traditional academic ethic obsolete. So did Shils himself. He understood science in terms of what might be called ‘the liberal theory of science’, which treated scientists, and by extension all of academia, as independent agents seeking truth in their own ways, governed by their own sense of what was promising to research, bound together only by a strong tradition of truth-seeking and mutual respect. This, however, required independence of finance – something that the high costs of science rendered prohibitive. The grants system undermined autonomy, and similar issues undermined the autonomy of non-science academics. What is the relevance of traditional academic values today? If the liberal theory of science is dead, what has replaced it? Answering these questions takes us to the heart of problems of the organisation and financing of academic life, the audit culture and the question of truth itself.

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Beyond the Academic Ethic, in F. Cannizzo & N. Osbaldiston (Eds.), The Social Structures of Global Academia, Routledge, p. 35-52