Learning to disappear

October 07 2014

I work in an Italian university.If Italy is Hell, the Italian university is the vestibule of Hell, as described by Dante Alighieri in the Canto III of his Inferno. The vestibule of Hell is the place of the Uncommitted, “those/ Who lived withouten infamy or praise”. Dante's poetic justice sentences them to an endless race after a blank banner.

In 2012 Harvard yearly operating expenses were 44% of the yearly state funding of all the Italian universities. We are becoming poorer and poorer. In such a predicament, Italian professors must not only research and teach: they are also forced to spend their time in a lot of administrative and managerial work. Their overwork is paid with promises – with the promise of blank banners called academic honors. Our government is curtailing our budgets and our academic freedom [1], our country is lingering in an unending crisis, financial and, above all, moral and political. Yet, the game of tenures remains the same, even if it has become so directed by external standards that it has nothing to do with science any longer.

Our government is evaluating our research by asking us: how many articles did you publish? Did you publish them in high impact journals? How many times were they cited?

It is not necessary to bore you with “googleable” technicalities like the serial prices crisis, the growing power of a few academic publishing oligarchs and the open access publishing movement. The major outcome is that we are accustoming to the idea that it is possible to evaluate research, to hire and to fire researchers, through standards established outside the scientific public sphere, by political and market powers. It has already happened – more violently - in the past: the accusers of Socrates were three well-meaning democrats; Galileo Galilei's main accuser was a saintly cardinal. Now we all see them as the villains of the story: how will our well-meaning bureaucrats and economists be judged, tomorrow? What will the future generations think of our good-natured uncommitted professor and scholars that keep on racing after their blank banners?

Trying to live a committed life in a world of Uncommitted is hard. Maybe my vestibule of Hell is my personal delusion – maybe it would be better to limit my horizon to my self-interest. Or maybe not. Dante's point of view - the point of view of a fictional afterlife - is a thought experiment, helping us to consider ourselves from the outside. Our self-interest filling the horizon of your life will die with us. Our memory, our footprint on the world, however, will last: how would you judge your footprint after your self-interest is gone? How would you judge yourself?

Everyone of us has been taught to appear. But the time of our appearance is short. Learning to disappear in a meaningful way is a more challenging task.

[1] If you are interested in understanding the situation of the universities in EU southerly countries search for the journal “Roars. Returns on academic research”.


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