The Brutalist Style in Academia

May 21, 2015


Many buildings on my campus when I was a graduate student looked a great deal like this one:

brutalism at UB

The term “Brutalism,” that describes this architectural style, evolved out of the French term for “bare concrete,” as many such buildings are undecorated, often oversized, and dominate the natural environment. The style has many critics, but in the 1960s and 70s, this style overtook numerous college campuses, including mine. Most recently, at TU Delft where I taught for six years, the entire campus was created in this style. One notable example is the “Aula,” which is the major cultural and social center of the campus. 


I think it reflects a trend in academia in general, one that has shifted the focus from the best, most humanistic qualities of the liberal arts towards something much more severe, less human, and that undermines the most noble purposes of universities. I was lucky to be in graduate school from 1992 to 1997, just before the bottom fell out of the market for graduates. There was still hope, and many in my graduating class found tenure track jobs. Some have risen to national prominence. Now, as opportunities diminish, university administrations appear to have helped promote a trend that mimics the cold, stark, inhuman texture of brutalist architecture.

My department chair at UB in the 90s was one of the nicest people I ever met in the field — a true gentleman: Peter Hare. He and I became friends, he taught me to sail, he helped me learn to deal with different personalities and served to create and maintain a collegial, healthy environment for our department. When he died an untimely death right before I got my first tenure-track job, he left a legacy of civility and warmth, as well as rigorous academic philosophy, that touched people throughout the profession. When I knew him, he was already bemoaning the change in the climate that tough times in university departments seemed to foster, where increased and overly harsh competition for a diminishing number of positions and funds sometimes spilled over into bitter feuds. Debate and disagreement are a necessary part of science, but demonizing, undermining, and making personal our philosophical and scientific disputes is unnecessary and harmful to science. As in the brutalist school of architecture, it undermines and alienates us. We become less human as the scale of our surroundings, arguments, and even ideas overwhelms our basic humanity. 

I recently struck a chord with a tweet, receiving 38 retweets: “Philosophy as a discipline has been nearly destroyed by careerism, professionalization, and conformism… all driven by fear,” I think that the brutalist trend is what is at work in my field. 

Many pointed out that this is true now of all academic disciplines. The fear, I think, derives from our basic need for jobs, and the ease with which we can be replaced by a large number of well qualified and eager-to-work peers, combined with a diminishing number of positions. Careerism arises out of this fear too, as tenure-track academics must always focus on the effect that their actions, words, publications, etc., will have on their ability to get tenure, they must formulaically follow a certain path to “succeed” where success is measured by your H-index, the ranking of your department by what are essentially popularity contests, and your prominence within your department. Professionalization (as opposed to professionalism, which is a virtue) refers to the trend to use metrics, reviews, and other manners of measurement to assess academics and their work, including some of those already mentioned. Philosophy and other fields didn’t always work this way. When I was a graduate student, my greatest influences were brilliant philosophers who may have published only a few great works, or taught in a particularly engaging manner, but whose primary concern was the science, the search for truth, and the imparting of their wisdom. I never cared about their H-Indexes (nor probably did they) nor their rankings, etc. What mattered were the ideas, the excitement they generated, and perhaps the truths they helped uncover. In an increasingly professionalized environment, productivity is what matters, and solid metrics by which it can be measured.

Finally, in order to ascend in the profession, conformity is fostered. As in other fields, too much “rocking of the boat” will hold you back. You cannot cross the wrong people, and you must bow to the right gatekeepers. Don’t attempt something too new, too radical, too risky. Stay within the lines, make only incremental arguments, avoid controversy.

The academy, under these trends, will become a stark, soulless, inhuman edifice: unwelcoming, efficient, and cold. The brutalist style in academia must be fought, and it can be. With every act of humanity, with every resistance to metrics, measurements, rankings, and any inclination other than truth and the mission to continually uncover it, we help to save science and the humanities. By keeping our debates and disagreements among ideas, rather than personalities and people, we keep the liberal in the liberal arts. By remembering that universities are about the people – the students, professors, and communities we serve and not the structures, and by promoting the relevance of our studies to the world, we help save science and the ideals we strive for under the ongoing project of the Enlightenment, and bring basic and essential humanism back to the academy against the baser, brutalist trends that would undo it.