The value of dissent

In her post for this blog yesterday, my colleague Helena Sheehan set out her own personal record of dissidence, in her life and in her work as an academic and as a public intellectual. For those readers who may not know Helena personally (though I know there are many who do), I can pay her a personal tribute by saying that she embodies the academic values of critical analysis and curious inquiry, and that she combines scepticism of establishment views (which perhaps with justification she also attributes to me) with personal courtesy and collegiality. She represents many of the values that should make the case for a critical, detached and intellectually driven academy.

In fact, dissent is at the heart of scholarship. Real learning is about the pursuit of truth, and a reluctance to treat received wisdom as that truth. Truth in turn is most easily discerned, if often through a fair amount of mist, where contrary views have been put and debated and assessed. In that sense, dissent is at the heart of that process, because once we have an established viewpoint with no opposition we lose the benefit of critical inquiry. Furthermore, dissent should have an audible voice. There are in fact organised locations on the internet for dissent from prevailing orthodoxy, such as the website Dissenting Voice.

In a university, the culture of critical analysis including dissent should also be presented to students as a positive value. My generation of academics, who were students some time in the 1970s or so, sometimes feels that students have become respectable labourers for a qualification that will impress the establishment. That is often an unfair and in the end inaccurate assessment; but maybe it makes the point that intellectual skills are not best practised by learning to accept and agree with whatever is put in front of you.

However, dissent as a state of mind can also acquire its own sense of orthodoxy. For example, a Marxist critiquing capitalism in, say, 1975 would generally have been putting up one orthodoxy against another. Neither side would probably have embraced the possibility of being persuaded by the other, so that there might not have been much critical inquiry in the debate. Furthermore the Marxist dissident back then opposing the capitalist culture in, say, New York might not have seen any value in allowing capitalist dissent in a debate taking place in Moscow. To be wholly valuable, dissent needs to be conducted with some openness of mind, or else it may just be a playground game with all the intellectual sophistication of name-calling.

But true dissent has real value. I probably do hold what some might describe as establishment views, though I would like to think that these have a critical and questioning underpinning and also have elements of dissent. So I believe that the modern university needs to be engaged in society, including the economy, and needs to channel the benefits of its activities to support social improvements and economic growth and cultural benefits. I suspect that the traditional model of a detached academy is no longer viable, in part because nobody is now willing to resource it. But I also believe that the modern university needs to nurture within it a counter-culture that is sceptical about these aims and provides a critique of them, and it needs to allow that counter-culture to influence reviews of what the university does and why it does it. Even in the more networked state of today’s university there should be no room for an unquestioned orthodoxy.

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7 Comments on “The value of dissent”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Do you not feel that those of your generation and slightly earlier, I’m thinking those with a dislike of Nelson here, did in their hay-day dessent to beat the band. But think that having done all that heavy lifting are now the same if not worse that those they railed against.
    And there seems to be some sort of thirty year rule that the ’68 generation benifeted in a major way where a number of positions opened up around ’78.

  2. belfield Says:

    An admirable and heartening piece. I wonder though about how this view stands up generally to the argument that voices from the counter-culture seem increasingly so marginaised within the Irish university sector they can’t influence reviews.

    • That’s a difficult question to answer. It may be correct, and that may have different reasons. I don’t necessarily think the counter-culture is inaudible. Both in UCD and in UCC it has been heard at a number of levels over the past decade. Whether it has influenced events is another matter – probably it has in UCC. But then again, dissent does not necessarily have a claim to determine the outcome of things, but rather to help shape the discussion. But as I say, that’s a difficult judgement to make.

      • belfield Says:

        A fair response. And I would fully agree that dissent does not necessarily have any particular claim to determine outcomes in any conversation. But I think those conversations are always richer when there is serious consideration given to the less tractable voice.
        Where I lose heart a little is in seeing the exclusionary practices that seem to emerge so readily around converations with ‘well-placed’ insiders. (Should perhaps add that UCD is probably no worse than any other corporate university in this regard.)

      • Vincent Says:

        Oh, like the bricks were shaped by the Huff & Puff of the Wolf not his teeth. However much like the poor wolf, the pauvres pécheurs that attempt to enter inside the brickwork are very likely to find themselves cooked in hot water.

  3. This blog post appeared in my feed reader at the same time a student in one of my classes questioned why she had to follow an immersive experience inside an electronic social network as part of her syllabus-directed training. Intrigued by her dissent and armed with the cross-talk here, I’m now permitting her to engage in my academic module as though she was a member of the Facebook Amish sect.

  4. […] University Blog « The value of dissent […]

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