Higher education has expanded exponentially across the world since the 1950s. In Britain, for example, fewer than 20,000 students were accepted onto undergraduate degree courses each year in 1950 compared with more than 350,000 today. Globally, the increase is even more dramatic.
Graduates are not the only thing being mass produced by modern higher education. Universities are centres of both teaching and research. They are also competing with each other – for students, for staff, for grants – and they are judged in large part by research output.
The measure of research is publication. Academic staff and postgraduate students are expected to publish. So, along with everything else, there has likewise been an exponential increase in the publication of journals and papers.
I can’t find any statistics on this, but my guess is that the increase in journals and papers over the last 70 years will reflect the expansion of higher education in general. To give an idea, a quick Google search produced a list of well over a hundred print journals for archaeology alone.
This must be a good thing, mustn’t it? We have a huge increase in scholarship, right?
But here’s the weird thing. While some excellent modern research is being done, increasingly, in my own work, I find myself ignoring most of the recent output and going back to work published 25, 50, and even 75 years ago. And what is absolutely clear to me is that, while there has been a massive increase in the volume of published papers, there has also been a dramatic collapse in average quality.
I’ve been musing about this for a while, and I now think there are three fatal flaws in the modern academic mill.
Number one. Everyone at the universities is under massive pressure to publish books and papers – as many as possible, since quantity has been imposed as the main way to measure research output. It is no good writing a seminal paper once every five years: that is still only one paper. Instead, you have to write two routine papers a year, probably by rejigging the same material a bit to suit different journals.
Flaw number two. Every paper has to say something new. In the mass production of vehicle components, difference is defect. In the mass production of academic papers, difference is a requirement. There is even a nasty word for mere replication: plagiarism.
If you have new research to report, you can of course publish a straightforward empirical paper: this is what I found on my excavation; this is the breakdown of coins by date; this is what I saw under the microscope.
But empiricism is not enough. Academics are expected to offer interpretation and synthesis. They are supposed to be purveyors of ideas. So, under pressure both to publish and to say something new, they can end up questioning the conventional wisdom not because the evidence suggests it but because they have to.
Flaw number three. The grand narratives that gave rise to so much outstanding work in previous generations have been largely abandoned. We now have fragmentation into a thousand disconnected pieces.
So, in Roman studies, it is de rigueur to stress ‘regional differences’ and a plethora of alternative ‘cultural identities’. Endless scope here for a relentless churn of papers.
But what if we want to understand the nature of Roman urbanism? Why did the state need towns? Why did local elites embrace them? Why did they all look similar? What was the relationship between town and country? And so on.
You know what? I think the best thing to read would be Moses Finley’s The Ancient Economy. Absolutely seminal. Never bettered. Published in 1973.