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Reflections on ‘efficiency supremacy’ in academia

Author  :  Liu Chao     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-09-14

At the end of the 18th century, human history experienced huge transformations, which marked the advent of a new era. It seemed that history abruptly expedited within one night, and it has become normal that changes now occur within society. Since then, the revolution of efficiency has swept across the globe and a craze for efficiency has ensued, impacting almost every country, region, and community, with rare exceptions. Given the evolution of technology itself and people’s unremitting pursuit of efficiency, efficiency mutated into a superpower which has disrupted people’s intellectual tradition.

Speedy universities

Universities are the core intellectual institutions of society. The problems persistent within society would naturally permeate universities and the whole knowledge system. In their co-authored book The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber point out that life has become too speedy in today’s universities and everybody is overloaded with work and affairs. To them, the processes that produce this grandiose hustle and bustle (even frenzy) now threaten the original purpose for the existence of universities themselves.

Indeed, the knowledge production system today now encounters unprecedented challenges and leisure is considered mediocrity and even decadence. Carefree curiosity seems to have become lost in the past. Instead, order, accountability, transparency, and certainty have replaced it as the new values. Under the supreme sovereignty of efficiency, academic creation has turned into only a link in the procedure of the “knowledge factory,” the humanistic concern of which has been eroded. Speed prevails and everything becomes fast. Knowledge production has thus kept up its pace in improving output, but only by bringing new dilemmas of self-denial by knowledge itself. The growing knowledge production does not necessarily mean creativity, and the factory is fraught with “growth but no development.” The knowledge production system is now infatuated with formulas, regulations, ranks, benefits, and effectiveness.

Knowledge concerns social system

Since ancient Greek times, the axiom “knowledge is virtue” has been widely accepted. Knowledge encompasses moral commitment and shoulders public responsibility. In the framework of efficiency-dominated academic capitalism, the knowledge factory seems to have embraced prosperity. However, in terms of the originality and animation, the current knowledge system is sometimes poor and weak. Is knowledge production the means for human beings to achieve their purpose, or has it turned in reverse and become a tool which enslaves human beings?

To humanities and social sciences, the core research object should be people’s minds, and what their inner hearts believe, think, and feel. Knowledge creation should be aimed at improving the wellbeing of mankind and fostering their emancipation.

The reality is, the excessive pursuit of efficiency tends to make non-utilitarian knowledge exploration into utilitarian competition. The original intention of scholarship has been neglected. However, there are many things that are difficult to measure by numbers. The scholar Mei Yiqi (1889-1962) once posited that academic attainments cannot be judged by quantity. Some scholars say bluntly that scholarship should be judged but not calculated.

In the era of global marketization, it is hard for knowledge production to avoid market factors. But after all, the knowledge system does not equate to the economic sphere, the logic and laws of which should not be completely transplanted. Market fundamentalism should not be used to train the knowledge system.

The issue of knowledge is not merely isolated academic issues, but one which concerns complex social systems. The solution to resolve intellectual issues also resolves issues of social orders and cultures. The knowledge of humans should reflect humanity and serve people, and possess the vivaciousness of life instead of the coldness or rigidness of objects. Melodious tunes of both humanity and technology should be found within it, as well as balance between instrumental rationality and value rationality.

For individuals, a more lucid mind and more patience is needed for revering the nature of scholarship. It is not necessarily true that more is better when it comes to writings and publications.


Liu Chao is a professor from the School of Education at Zhejiang University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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