LAST WEEKEND I PUT on my uniform, for the volunteer emergency services of which I’m a member, and attended an awards ceremony. It’s a strange experience but also at the same time an oddly familiar one. Some people take these civilian honours very seriously. The world of uniforms and medals, of long service awards, citations for service, of badges and recognition, is strange—it imitates military models unpleasantly—but to me it also mimics a world I’m too familiar with: the academic world where titles and qualifications and baroque regalia are joked at, but also taken deadly seriously.

I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon recently, of people in established careers and solid professional background, enrolling in PhD programs, though without any desire to actually work in universities or pursue an academic career. It clashes entirely with my own experience of doctoral study, which involved enrolment at a time in my life when I had no better prospects, and led to subsequent failure, with all the career setback that entailed. (What I got: crippling low self-esteem and anomie. What I did not get: a doctorate.) I had always understood doctorates to be a grounding in research, the beginning of a career in exactly that, research. But what I think is going on is the change in what people understand the doctorate qualification to be. It’s no longer the certificate you get after Basic Training as a future professor, but rather an add-on to other certificates.

For a subset of candidates academic study is no longer an entry qualification to a career in research-teaching at university, but rather an accomplishment in a professional life that acts as proof of one’s intellectual credentials (let’s call it smartness). It was a cliché of mid-20th century firms that they proliferated titles and meaningless awards, things like ‘third assistant deputy vice-president’, and yearly award best-employee ceremonies with trophies, through which professional workers could identify status; but outside fusty throwback fields like the law, where grown adults wear wigs and silk, they’ve ceased to do this, and we must all find other ways to be humans in a hierarchy. Enter the university system, and the doctoral gown.

There used to be ways in which relative strangers could assess one another’s commitment to a shared set of values, and of knowledge production, and in which people in a society could establish a hierarchy of respect (which is I think, despite our egalitarianism, a real human need). It was the capital-E Establishment, the world of actual titles and peerages, which also expressed itself in odd byways like Freemasonry, where men could indulge properly in dressing up and acts of communal belonging-ness. The Establishment has gone, and in its place is a neoliberal competitive arena, in which accomplishments must be tested and serious and above all, real.

By ‘real’, I mean these badges and accomplishments must reflect, in a neoliberal world, some value or quality more than itself (rather than being self-referential in the way of aristocracy, a Lord is a Lord because they’re a Lord); degrees in a university reflect on their face the amount of study put in, and at a deeper level reflect the ‘smartness’ and virtue of the person claiming the title. They can be relied upon to respect scientific method, for example, or serious academic review. They can approach a topic as a disinterested inquirer. At the basic level, it’s proof they aren’t a plagiarist.

Most of all, it means that they belong to a class of professional workers who have a commitment to producing knowledge in a hierarchy, and of respecting each others’ intellects as a proxy for virtue. The neoliberal competitive arena, not coincidentally, is a world where ‘belonging’, especially in the world of labour, is made very difficult. No wonder we grasp at the last vestiges we have, even if they’re difficult and expensive.



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