On speaking truth to power


Should FE staff speak truth to power? I don’t mean in the way the US Quakers who originated the phrase in 1955 meant – as an alternative to conflict – but as a critical and quite probably friendly voice that challenges the rising tide of commercialism in education.

Christian Christensen, Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden, insists “yes” categorically in a fascinating blog. He argues two things. First, a public education realm dictated to by commercial interests and considerations will leave no room for much-needed intelligent dissent. Second, a media “soaked in the logic of the commercial” is losing sight of the importance of public service and the public sphere more generally.

Christensen argues from a higher education perspective, asking whether such “loss-making” luxuries as modern foreign languages will even be taught at university when his two-year-old daughter is old enough to apply in 2027. And will essential research against the commercial grain still be permitted? Since about 8% of HE goes on in FE colleges in the UK, his arguments surely apply here in FE as well as in HE. In fact, shouldn’t all knowledge workers speak truth to power from time to time? Isn’t that a defining characteristic of knowledge work?

Christensen’s arguments are all the more telling coming from a media academic, because many of them can be levelled at the media itself. Journalists have a duty to speak truth to power but how many do so? What sort of truth is Daily Mail truth? Most of the media, including the Guardian to a surprising and disappointing degree, rests in the cosy consensus of a neo-liberal marketplace. As media outlets increasingly commodify material, putting the best behind the Pay Wall, as indeed the TES is doing, what space then for “minority” interest stuff such as FE, which doesn’t attract big revenue (for the TES at least)?

Christensen points to the (not to be overstated) importance of social media, a tool all journalists should use – and the best do – even thought there is little or no money in it (by that I mean money for survival or wages, not for profit). The best of the younger journalists, still needing to carve out a career, use social media superbly.

But there is more to this argument that needs close examination and consideration: academics and journalists are alike in that they adopt the same tools and methods in order to speak truth to power. The trend can be seen in the way academics increasingly shun traditional publishing houses by resorting to Open Access publishing – see, for example, the remarkable success of Open Access journals such as PLOSone and PeerJ. The whole trend suggests a further coming together of the academic and media professions, either within one person or department or across teams and areas of expertise. After all, what are the best academic blogs if not good journalism? (See, for example, the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog). Within this realm we also find an increasing partnership with some of the best freelance journalists.

While Christensen doesn’t actually raise anything new; there have always been greedy academic publishers and fortune-seeking press barons. But his arguments are really well put and remind us that there is real and freer alternatives to standard market-based approaches.

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