The spirit of things

A message from the Executive Dean of Theology and Philosophy Professor Dermot Nestor

“There is no present or future,” declared the American playwright Eugene O’Neil, “only the past; happening over and over again.” Though he denied the charge he was himself a sceptic, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the fatalism so evident in his statement. As the diligent philosophers among us are aware, ‘fatalism’ refers not to an attitude of resignation in the face of some future and inevitable event. Rather, it implies an acceptance that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do. The former explanation is easy to understand, the latter more difficult to accept.

But what is it that we actually do and what are the rubrics that define its quality? All colleagues at ACU are acquainted with the principle of academic excellence. Defined as the goal of our work and how that goal is pursued, academic excellence is presented as an objective quality somehow set out in advance. All who seek recognition and reward must adhere to its prescriptions and all who have gained promotion or preferment are evidence of its transparency. Excellence has become part of our analytical toolkit rather than our empirical data. It is something we use to explain things with as opposed to that which we want, or need, to explain.

While this sleight of hand has fueled the often-rakish caricaturing of academic staff as the ‘proles’ of Orwell’s dystopian vision, it is a parody borne from the prevalence of a deficit model of analysis. One that assumes the need for corrective, and for control. One that justifies the need for direction, and for decree. Its antithesis rejects these postures. It is holistic in its nature and multidisciplinary in its orientation. It celebrates agency and interests, affirms experience and aspiration, salutes knowledge and is absorbed by the multiplicity of meaning. The change is decisive.

Over the coming six to eight weeks, ACU will embark on an exploration of academic excellence. There is no map, only a way ahead. That path will be determined by those who respond, by those who act, and by those who contribute. Metrics and numbers retain their importance, but we are as concerned with disposition as we are with data. As Allen Ginsberg once reminded us, our business is with the human. In that spirit, the journey begins.


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