Critic and conscience: where did the idea even come from?
3 November 2021
The role of a University and its academics is to be the critic and conscience of society. But what does that mean in the 21st century?
Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles casts her mind back to the start of 2020. She had been following the reports of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan and says she saw the shape of the pandemic ahead.
“There was no hesitation in my mind that telling people about it was the most important thing I could ever do. It’s one thing telling the government about what might happen and hoping it makes the right decision, but the public need to know as well so they will support those decisions,” she says.
Eighteen months later, the microbiologist in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences remains an important voice for media to make sense of the Covid-19 virus. Reporters know she will answer their calls and do her best to explain. Her work with illustrator Toby Morris from The Spinoff has gone viral, in a good way. Their explainers of everything from infection rate to border protection have earned them a place in the World Health Organisation’s strategy to battle the pandemic.
The work has been acknowledged. She is the New Zealander of the Year, and was part of the team at Te Pūnaha Matatini awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Prize for their contribution to the country’s Covid-19 response. In July, Siouxsie was one of two to receive the 2021 Critic and Conscience of Society Award, established to encourage academics to provide independent and expert commentary to the public.
The phrase ‘critic and conscience of society’ has a worthy if archaic tone. Elements of the concept trace back to Enlightenment thinkers, but the specific words came in response to the Rogernomics revolution of the Fourth Labour Government. Enshrined in the Education Act 1989 and its update in 2020, the words confer a special role and responsibility on universities and academics and are there as counterbalance to the radical changes of those years.
Barbara Grant, associate professor of critical studies in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, has researched the origins of and context to the phrase. “It represented a huge ideological change. There were a whole lot of tectonic shifts in the power relations between government, education and communities.”
The phrase first appeared in print in the controversial 1988 Report of the Working Group on Post-Compulsory Education and Training, known as the Hawke report after the group leader Professor Gary Hawke. The report was adopted as a blueprint for changes to the university sector.
“There’s not a clear story about who created or invented the term,” says Barbara. “Two people claim they came up with the phrase and it may be that, in the discussions surrounding the Hawke report, people might well have independently come up with it.
“The bill was there to turn us towards a market-driven concept of education. A key concept was that tertiary education largely benefits individuals, so the individuals (students) should pay for their education.”
The Act really makes it a responsibility and says that for a university to be a
university, it has to ‘accept a role as critic and conscience of society’.
The goal was to impose financial accountability over the tertiary sector. There was a public outcry over the loss of autonomy for universities. In response, the initial Education Act was later amended to explicitly include academic freedom and the critic and conscience role.
The legislation defines academic freedom as: the freedom, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and state controversial or unpopular opinions. In exercising academic freedom, universities have to maintain the highest ethical standards and permit scrutiny of those standards.
In contrast to the multiple clauses outlining academic freedom, the Act is silent on any definition of the ‘critic and conscience’ role.
“But the Act really makes it a responsibility and says that for a university to be a university, it has to ‘accept a role as critic and conscience of society’,” says Barbara.
The critic and conscience role is one of the social goods academics deliver, which is speaking out in public and calling things out they know to be false.
Associate Professor Matheson Russell is a political philosopher in the Faculty of Arts. He sees the two concepts, academic freedom and the critic and conscience role, as intrinsically linked.
“If academic freedom was just a privilege that academics have because of their job, there’s no rationale for it. The rationale is that academic freedom is essential for the social good that university academics deliver. The critic and conscience role is one of the social goods academics deliver, which is speaking out in public and calling things out they know to be false.”
Neither comes carte blanche.
“The next question is, how do we exercise those freedoms and are there limits?” asks Matheson.
“The Act talks about responsibilities, it talks about accountability and it talks about ethical standards.
“If an academic thought they had these freedoms and should be left to do their own thing, irrespective of the consequences or how well it was done, then that would undermine the purpose of academic freedom.”
He says there is no social good without strong scholarship.“If we’re not doing that, then we’re squandering the resources. If the scholarship is sloppy, we’re not fulfilling the social good universities need to achieve.”
Behind the aspirational ideals lie conundrums. A prevailing view is that academics should ‘stick to their lane’ and not speak publicly outside their specific research area.“That raises the question: what is academic expertise?” says Barbara.
“We make a lot of fuss about the transferable and generic skills we want students to have. We want them to know the world through a lens based on evidence with critical thinking that considers a range of perspectives.”
Therefore, we would expect, she says, those that teach these skills to have honed their own critical thinking to a sharp enough edge to comment incisively on broader and public topics.
Academic freedom is a privilege that comes with responsibilities.
The architects of Rogernomics could not have imagined the culture wars today. In 2021, Black Lives Matter and #metoo, have become shorthand for new revolutions.
For universities, the rise of ‘cancel culture’ at British and Australian universities, where controversial speakers have been ‘deplatformed’ has led to draft legislation to ‘promote’ free speech at universities. In Britain, the proposals include a ‘free speech enforcer’ with powers to fine universities.
“Academic freedom is a privilege that comes with responsibilities,” says Siouxsie. “We talk a lot about cancel culture, but it’s not cancel culture, it’s consequence culture. An academic can say something from a position of privilege and have the freedom to do that, but in doing so they can cause real harm to people by embedding biases.
“You might have the right to say something, but that doesn’t mean you should say it. Nor does it mean we have to listen or provide a platform for it. This is the tightrope we’re walking as human beings.”
Story by Gilbert Wong