When I finished my PhD, or maybe even before that point, I knew I had to write a warts-and-all account of my time at a world-renowned, British university. Certainly by then I had learned that the shabby morality, desperate deceits, undeserved qualifications, fiscal skulduggery and quasi-enslavements, which I witnessed, were not a given but also not unique.
At Edinburgh University and at conferences abroad, I heard tales of woe that put my experience in the shade. And I read articles and heard stories from fellow disillusioned PhDs and identified with their shock, faint trauma and ironic laughter. The result is You Must be Very Intelligent which, perhaps inevitably, poured forth as a black comedy.
To an extent, the book is a cautionary tale to students contemplating a career in academia. I arrived in Edinburgh brimming with hope and positively overflowing with grit determination to prove I was worthy. After all, only the extraordinarily learned and the astonishingly intelligent ever hold chairs and professorships. I knew in my bones that researchers are idealists yearning to enrich the stock of human knowledge. I knew university is the apotheosis of civilised culture. I knew… very little…
The cliché, ‘you couldn’t make it up’ is most apposite. There really are people collecting degrees in subjects they know pretty much nothing about. But their parents know how to pay massive fees. There really are tin-pot dictators lording it over well-intentioned, bright students whose duties might include babysitting and might preclude precisely the research they were taken on to conduct. There really are people claiming credit for other people’s research and doing so quite brazenly. And there really are a lot of PhD students doing their utmost not to sink into alcohol, depression or bitterness. In the book, the protagonist’s life becomes a black farce.
There is nothing new about any of the afore-mentioned situations in academia. Universities have always been a competitive environment right from when they began, in Italy during the High Middle Ages (a logical progression from the Christian Cathedral schools for aspiring clergymen). My book does not bemoan this. It merely says the rot is rife, largely because of money and because there are no checks and balances on egomania and bullying. Fear stills tongues; to complain is to end your career.
Thankfully for many, being a good researcher can go hand in hand with being a talented leader, and a caring supervisor. But I saw the monsters beneath the meniscus of human nature surfacing in a world that is supposedly sedate and thoughtful but is all-too-often thoughtless and grasping. The terror of being randomly thrown on the scrapheap spawns frustrated egos the size of Africa. Pathological and completely illogical competition abounds. Volcanic rages seethe and faculty members are drunk on oh-such petty power. And it is, obviously, a deeply flawed system which unleashes these monstrous mind-states. How to fix it and how to treat next generations of young scientists is the big question modern universities need to face.
You Must be Very Intelligent is not didactic, merely a descriptive, black comedy depicting a typical descent into depression, excessive wine and, naturally, ill-advised sex. I say I felt compelled to write it but it was not simply a matter of personal catharsis. Undoubtedly it is that too, but I hope it is also a clarion call for change. I still work with academia. I still believe it can work.
At the moment, academia can too easily become an environment enticing young adults into roles that make Lord of the Flies look like Enid Blyton. Glory is the goal and desperation is the order of the day. An element of this has pervaded academia since time out of mind.
However, it’s a quantitative problem, not a qualitative one. In a nutshell it’s just too easy and too acceptable to behave like a monster. And the monsters – miserable creatures of course – earnestly believe this is the only way to survive.
Hopefully, You Must be Very Intelligent also works as solace and comfort for anyone who has ever aspired to life in the ivory tower and felt the cold hand of bitterness tapping their shoulder. It is written in a spirit of critical disillusionment rather than resignation. It is a warm-hearted story of hope gone awry, wherein passion and innocence are merrily bludgeoned by big egos, ludicrous farce, tawdry corruption, pimped-out brains and the sheer unreality of trying to be a grown-up in a brat’s world.
Ultimately it is, I hope, a revealing comic-tragic tale of the modern European university system; wherein money and power are the amoral Gods, and the noble search for truth quietly atrophies. It is also a cheerful rebuke to anyone who accepts that this state of affairs is inevitable or should be denied.