Peadar Kirby: A debate spluttered into life over the last week or so that added yet another crisis to the growing list of crises we are living through. This one focuses on the knowledge crisis: who knew what and why didn’t they act on it. Perhaps the most extraordinary intervention of the debate was the admission by Professor Frances Ruane, director of the ESRI, in a Primetime interview that the Institute lacked the expertise to recognise the crisis that was coming. This was handy as it took the focus off the Institute’s persistent optimism right to the point where the economy went over the precipice – lack of expert technical knowledge avoids neatly the question of conforming to a dominant ideology and being seduced by its myopia. Yet Dan O’Brien’s revelation in The Irish Times on Monday last (June 28th) badly holed the argument that what was lacking was expert knowledge, this time in the Department of Finance.
O’Brien referred to an EU report of 2007 which showed that Ireland came last out of the 19 countries studied for its deficiencies in having arrangements in place to manage the public finances. Furthermore the report found Ireland to have a total lack of foresight capacity, having not one of the five measures that insulate the public finances from crisis or set warning lights flashing if one approached. So the Department of Finance was alerted to the deficiencies of its regulatory and supervisory arrangements and did nothing about it. The question therefore is clearly not lack of expert knowledge but rather why the knowledge available was not acted upon. To this extent, there is a neat parallel between the crisis of ecclesiastical authority in the Catholic Church, where senior churchpeople didn’t act on their knowledge of the activities of sexual predatory priests and brothers, and the inaction of senior officials in the Department of Finance and the regulatory authorities.
In attempting to answer why this was the case, one must examine deeply rooted cultural traits. Foremost among these is the authoritarian legacy of the Catholic Church which has deeply marked Irish intellectual and public culture. The sheer intolerance of dissent during the Celtic Tiger years, epitomised by Bertie Ahern’s advice that the critics go and commit suicide, illustrates a public culture that still lacks a fundamental pluralism of viewpoints. As John Kurt Jacobsen put it in his excellent and much neglected 1994 book ‘Chasing Progress in the Irish Republic’ Irish political culture is marked by ‘a high degree of deference … a high propensity by non-elites to defer to policy prescriptions’ (p. 95). Our failure to break this and develop a genuine pluralism of debate is certainly one of the reasons for the mess we are now in.
Aiding and abetting this authoritarian public culture has been the media which treated dissenting voices during the Celtic Tiger boom with little short of contempt, denying any legitimacy to their critique. This was not absolute but it was very widespread. Instead of keeping a critical distance and asking hard questions, the media were all too willing to latch on to seeming evidence that those were the best of times for Irish society. My favourite was the astonishing treatment by The Irish Times of the ESRI book ‘Best of Times?’ (2007) making it its lead story on the day of its publication, publishing a lengthy opinion piece by its editors and devoting an editorial to it, all in the same edition of the paper (29th June 2007). Never in the annals of the Irish social sciences must a book have been given such high profile and kids glove treatment by a key organ of the media. And this for a book that contained little that was new to anyone acquainted with the work of ESRI welfare economists and sociologists except that it was wrapped in a comforting message that this was the best of times for Irish society, a message that was far from supported by the scientific evidence provided in the book. So the lack of a critical media is a second dimension of the knowledge crisis.
A final dimension concerns our universities. If we accept that they play a privileged role in any society in the generation of knowledge, then the failure to generate more critical knowledge in Irish society over recent decades does raise serious questions for our universities. One might expect that this would stimulate a debate within the universities and among those who make public policy for our universities about how they have failed in their role to offer more critical knowledge for our society. Such a debate one would expect to focus on the role of the social sciences and why they are not playing the role they should. Yet, far from this happening, the paradox is that there is an ever more determined assault by state bureaucrats and certain politicians, ably aided and abetted by most of those who run our universities, to integrate them as functional agencies in the dominant commercial technological paradigm that so dominates our society. Of course, I am not denying that one role of universities is to create cutting-edge technological knowledge some of which can be used by commercial groups to create goods and services that drive economic progress. However, what shocks and frightens me is the complete failure by those who fund research in our universities to recognise that all technological and scientific knowledge is mediated to society through social institutions; therefore neglecting the social sciences and the Humanities means that we are simply avoiding the challenges of creating the social (including the political and economic) structures and policies that could integrate scientific and technological knowledge into a wider strategy of national development. One consequence is the pressure on the social sciences to provide technical forms of knowledge and to neglect what has always been their main contribution to society, namely critical thinking. Indeed, the ever more vigorous implementation of matrices of ‘impact’ on us academics is driving us back into narrow disciplinary silos and creating incentive structures that make it far less likely that our universities are going to produce critical social thinkers, the public intellectuals we so badly need.