Commentary | Creativity in the age of academic production

Profit-driven university standards are shackling inventive thought

T he work that has propelled the evolution of societies where the pursuit of technological development is possible arose from disciplines having little to do with applied science. Observation has led me to believe that arts and humanities researchers have little difficulty accepting and contextualizing the role of technological development in society, even if they don’t necessarily grasp its subtleties. However, those preoccupied with technological development appear to disdain the arts and humanities; they have difficulty accepting the primordial importance of those fields for the growth and maintenance of robust, healthy societies.

The lack of mutual appreciation – hopefully not intentional – likely arises from the following ill-posed question: Who will consume the products of research, what is its commodity value, and how quickly can it be produced? This is the antithesis of curiosity-based valuation that has heretofore underscored academic discourse. A body of research is now ascribed a value based on its ultimate potential for mass application – and thus consumption.

Unfortunately, the work generated in the arts and humanities is often not readily convertible into mass-consumable products, whereas technological developments, no matter how small, are easily placed within a production chain which – it is assumed – will yield something tangible and of practical value to society at large. These notions are a consequence of a production logic that has no place in academia. Its effects are far-reaching and corrosive across all disciplines.

While the arts and humanities are starved of the cash providing basic sustenance for thinkers to think and create, the bureaucracies supporting the development of commercializable research is accelerating. At McGill, the Office of Technology Transfer, responsible for patenting and selling the University’s research, has more than doubled its capacity in recent years, and has moved into the same building as the Research Grants Office, where applications for government funding are vetted. In Canada and Quebec, the federal and provincial granting agencies funding applied science are pumped full of cash, while those funding the arts, humanities, and social sciences are drained.

The process of grant application has itself been commodified. Importance is increasingly placed on the applicant’s number of publications, instead of quality and relevance. In turn, this emphasis has commodified the process of academic publishing. The number of academic journals and the volume of frivolous content is growing exponentially. As the publication cycle shortens to fuel this growing beast, the goals giving rise to publications have become increasingly short-sighted. The fragmentation and disjointing of academic discourse is edging out the “long thought,” largely responsible for deriving the integrated visions guiding sensible, careful, and balanced societal development.

Along with the disposal of “long thought” comes the marginalization of curiosity-based research, its funding, and its practitioners. As those who held the reigns of stable, long-term academic discourse disappear, the frenzied pace of commodified research accelerates, ultimately transforming the university into a factory. In a factory, there is no place for arts, humanities, the pursuit of curiosity, or creativity; there are only labourers, foremen, and management with specific and discrete tasks.

To break the back of this trend, we must understand the universal importance of unfettered curiosity and creativity, regardless of discipline and regardless of short-term mass application and economic value. It is not too long ago that the relative importance of arts and technology were in opposite positions. It is lesser minds that ask of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, “What is your immediate function and value?” without feeling humiliated by history. It is a tragedy that such idiocy is making its way into public policy, resulting in the gutting of the supports – material, financial, and social – for the minds and bodies dedicated to exploration of the human condition and its expression.

How can “practical” researchers of all kinds sit idly by while their colleagues are disdained and marginalized? The short-term “profitability” of the expansion of technological capacity at the expense of human, and ultimately societal, innovation and reflection is a long-term disaster. As the new “academic” factory arises, how does an Einstein fit in, idly dreaming about flying through space on a beam of light to conjure up special relativity? We are living through the onset of a truly grim future.

Adrian Kaats is a PhD II engineering student, and he is a member of several PGSS committees. The views expressed here are his own. Write him at