Chapter 7 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

Beliefs are vital resources in power struggles. If members of an oppressed ethnic group believe that they are inferior or undeserving, they are much less likely to challenge their oppression. To a considerable degree, beliefs are a reflection of the existing power structure. Many people simply assume that the distribution of wealth, or the application of the law, is either just or inevitable. But beliefs also play an important role in maintaining or undermining these same arrangements which they reflect. Contending groups attempt to mobilise support by reaffirming prevailing beliefs, by questioning received knowledge, and by promoting alternative beliefs.

To serve as political resources, beliefs do not have to be correct or even make any sense. Judging by mail received by television stations, quite a few people believe that the episodes in serials are really happening. Much mass advertising is blatantly misleading - such as cigarette advertisements that imply that smoking enhances sexual potency, when actually the reverse is true - but is nonetheless effective in persuading some people. Often it is an advantage to be promoting beliefs which stand up to critical examination, since such beliefs are harder to challenge. But many incorrect beliefs are widely held because they are congenial with social or political arrangements, such as beliefs about the laziness or worthlessness of poor people.

A set of beliefs which is organised into a coherent whole can be called a world view. Another term for this is ideology. The term ideology is usually applied to a coherent set of beliefs which is selectively useful to a particular group of people. The term 'ideology' is often applied to a set of beliefs in order to discredit it. This is a typical example of the use of ideas in power struggles.

Academics deal extensively with ideas and subject them to close scrutiny. But that does not mean that academics are any less susceptible to beliefs which serve themselves or other groups. In this chapter I outline some of the beliefs about academia which are prevalent among students and academics. I have divided these into four groups, under the headings of individualism, neutrality, privilege and status quo. These four groups cover many but far from all academic beliefs. My main aim is less to expose the inadequacies of these beliefs than to point out how the beliefs relate to the 'academic power struggle' in the widest sense.

It is necessary at this stage for me to reiterate that nearly everyone is well-meaning and sincere in their beliefs. That is not the point. At issue is what purposes beliefs serve.


There is a whole complex of beliefs which fall under the category of individualism. Some representative ones are:

* anyone can succeed if they are good enough and try hard;

* failure is a product of individual deficiency;

* the academic system operates as a meritocracy;

* brilliant academic work springs from individual creativity;

* to be successful you have to go it alone;

* criticisms of academia derive from disgruntled individuals.

The basic theme here is clear: the operation of the academic system is based on individual behaviour rather than collective or structural processes.

The evidence against individualism is enormous. Most obvious is the structural discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and the working class. In addition, the state, capitalism and the professions influence the opportunities and criteria for academic success. The academic hierarchy, with its cliques and empires and systems of exploitation, is far from an individualistic system. In getting ahead in academia, it is much less a question of what you know than of what credentials you have, who your supervisor is, what your speciality is and who your friends are. The belief in individual creativity overlooks the social factors that allow creativity to be expressed and recognised. The belief in individualism denies the essential power dynamics of academia.

Many students and academics are sceptical about individualism. They are aware of the role of patronage and power-broking. But beliefs about individual responsibility are very deep-seated. It is assumed that individuals deserve what they get. "He's a respected professor and a member of the national academy. He must be good!"

Beliefs about individual responsibility for success or failure are useful to academics who succeed. They bask in the glory of individual triumph; their commitment to the system is reinforced. Those who fail often blame themselves. They too believe in individual responsibility. Therefore the hierarchical system is not challenged by those who are given poor or inappropriate teaching, those who are kept in dead-end jobs or whose work is exploited, or whose ideas are denigrated.

Beliefs in individualism are prevalent in academia partly because they are promoted by other powerful groups in society who use them to limit challenges to their power. Beliefs in individualism also flourish due to the system of credentials and the hierarchy of career positions, which are perpetuated through formal systems such as examinations which give the illusion of equality of opportunity.

Those who question individualism thereby question the academic power structure. The academic system is touted for its fairness. If it is exposed as a prejudiced system, then those who have lost out may organise to challenge it. One of the major aims of feminist scholars has been to document structural biases against women. This lays the basis for demands to alter academic policies.

Beliefs about individual responsibility are often used by academic elites to defend against challenges. Rather than responding to criticisms on the basis of their content, attacks are often made on the motivations of the critic. When individual students seriously question the content or organisation of a course, a standard response is to ask what is wrong with them and to suggest that if they don't like it they can leave. When masses of students confront university administrations with demands for reform, one standard response is for the administration to blame the unrest on a small group of 'radicals', 'agitators' or 'malcontents'. In case after case, administrators have selected out student leaders for reprimands or expulsions, believing or attempting to portray the student movement as a conspiracy. To counter this, students have tried to demonstrate the broad base of their support and the collective nature of their demands.

Beliefs in the key role of the individual are often detrimental to those who believe them. Students and academics who absorb the idea of individual achievement are less inclined to organise themselves for collective learning or research, and more likely to be caught in syndromes of self-blame. Administrations often exacerbate the problems confronting them by attributing criticism or protest solely to individual disaffection.


The second group of beliefs centres around the neutrality of academic knowledge. Many academics are quite convinced, and eager to emphasise, that their research is 'value-free': untainted by political or economic imperatives. 'Pure research' is the holiest of academic activities.

My whole argument about tied knowledge is based on a denial of the possibility of knowledge free of values. Claims about neutrality are useful to academics since they help ward off threats to academic autonomy, and leave unquestioned the links between academics and powerful groups. Beliefs about neutrality also enable individual academics to think of their work as a higher calling. This would be more difficult to sustain if the selective usefulness of their work to profit, social control or academic privilege were acknowledged.

Beliefs about neutrality have several other manifestations. One of these is that higher educational institutions are not involved - and shouldn't be involved - in political activity. This belief legitimates routine political involvement, such as institutional investment policies, academic consulting and service on government committees, and perpetuation of academic styles and credentialing systems which serve to create and perpetuate a system of privilege. Beliefs about institutional neutrality are used to attack those who disturb this nice harmonious arrangement. A key part of the student indictment of higher education in the late 1960s was precisely that academic institutions are not neutral.

Academic freedom is normally justified as protection of research and teaching against political demands by outside groups. Beliefs in academic neutrality thus are closely tied to arguments about academic freedom. If higher education were acknowledged as unavoidably political, then its particular political stances would have to be justified.

It is relatively easy to expose claims to neutrality as the shams that they are. The wide use of academic knowledge in all sorts of contexts, from town planning to intelligence testing, reduces most claims to neutrality to the equivalent of "I only load the gun; someone else fires it." Furthermore, the justification for funding higher education on the basis that research will provide social benefits is hard to reconcile with claims to neutrality.

The alternative to claiming that academic knowledge is value-free is to admit that values are always involved, and make an attempt to expose what the values are. Often this approach is linked with efforts to make academic knowledge more relevant to disadvantaged groups. Not always, through. Governments may be quite able to recognise the value-laden nature of academic knowledge, and at the same time apply pressure to direct that knowledge towards their own interests.

Beliefs about neutrality do not always serve the interests of powerful academics and their patrons. Dissident academics often can make interventions on social issues, for example through critical teaching or research, and find themselves partially protected by beliefs in neutrality. Those objecting to the dissident's activity often will attack it only on technical points. To make an attack on the grounds of the values in the teaching or research might lead to a wider questioning of the values in the work of other academics.


Tenured academics are privileged in a number of ways: they have security of employment, a comfortable income, a stimulating occupation, periodic opportunities for travel, social prestige, and considerable leeway to determine the conditions of their own work. (Undoubtedly academics are not as privileged as many of them believe they ought to be.) An important academic belief is that these privileges are necessary to the achievement of academic work.

Associated with this basic belief are beliefs about subsidiary points, justified on a variety of grounds. Tenure is claimed to be necessary to protect academic freedom. A good salary is claimed to be necessary because otherwise top scholars would leave for more lucrative employment. Study leave is claimed to be necessary to maintain intellectual stimulation. It is claimed that only academics are qualified to make decisions on academic matters. There are many and varied defences of academic privileges.

The beliefs about the need for academic privileges are routinely used in justifying the privileges.

While many academic privileges are justified on the grounds of necessity, many academics also believe that academic privilege is deserved. It is taken for granted that intellectual ability and performance - also taken for granted - should be rewarded by special privileges.

Beliefs about the necessity and justice of academic privilege do not square with the perspective in which the claims of academics are based on tying knowledge to powerful groups. Privilege is far from necessary for intellectual work. It simply makes life more comfortable. The image of the struggling artist is appropriate here. Many artists, including freelance writers, have little security, low wages, and few opportunities for 'broadening their horizons'. This is basically because artists outside the major commercial empires have little collective leverage. Anyone can write a novel; no credentials are needed. Associated with this exploitative situation is the belief that creative artistic work thrives on hardship: a soft secure career would shrivel the critical impulse. Logically, the same could be said of academics, but exactly the opposite conclusion is drawn. In this case, beliefs become popular because they justify the reality rather than because they explain it.

Academics can be quite fierce in their defence of academic privilege. For example, when the Australian government cut back on academic study leave (also called sabbatical), many arguments were brought to bear in protesting against this move. The arguments each emphasised why academics needed study leave. No attempt was made to expand the domain of privilege by arguing for example that manual workers need periodic occupational leave to recover physically and to rekindle interest, or that mothers need leave from housework and child-rearing. Study leave is seen as a special, academic privilege. To extend it too widely would be to weaken the status of academics.

The Australian academic protest against cutbacks in study leave was weak and unsuccessful. It might have had more chance if alliances had been built with other occupational groups based on demands for occupational leave for all. But building such alliances was quite at variance with the professional self-image held by academics as a 'higher occupation'.

Status quo

The belief in this category are essentially that arrangements in academia are pretty close to optimal: a few adjustments are needed, but no fundamental changes. Beliefs here include:

* the marketplace in ideas is basically fair;

* standard teaching methods are either necessary or superior to alternatives;

* the course structure is close to the best compromise possible;

* there are no viable alternatives to the academic career structure;

* academic hierarchy is necessary for scholarly and organisational purposes;

* the division of knowledge into the disciplines is unavoidable;

* teaching and research require the employment of many full-time professional intellectuals;

* academic credentials signify meaningful achievements.

These beliefs by and large are reflections of the academic status quo. The main reason for beliefs in the status quo is that it is easier for students and academics to believe in what they are doing than to continue doing something they believe is pointless or hypocritical.

Beliefs about the necessity of the status quo are potent in deflecting challenges to standard practices. Educational innovation and experimentation are routinely blocked on the grounds that alternative methods have not worked, do not work, could not work or even that they should not work. In making these judgements, academic decision makers seldom resort to evidence, nor are they likely to allow experimental tests to be made. Rather, they rely on their own power to restrict innovation, and use beliefs about the optimality of the status quo to justify their stance.

Any fundamental challenge to the academic power system will necessarily confront the standard beliefs about the necessity and optimality of the system. It is not primarily the beliefs which sustain the system but the system which sustains the beliefs. Even so, challenges to standard policies and to the prevailing power systems need to be nurtured by alternative beliefs. Coherent frameworks, such as certain strands of feminism and Marxism, allow sustenance for challenging groups.

Furthermore, many individuals will persist in their beliefs long after events have shown their irrelevance. For these reasons struggles over beliefs can never be ignored.

I have concentrated in this account on beliefs which are common among all people in academic life. There are also quite a number of beliefs which are found among certain sectors. In these cases the beliefs reflect the interests of particular groups, and are used to promote their interests. Here are a few of these beliefs.

* Many natural scientists and engineers believe in the superiority of hard science over other disciplines.

* Many scientists believe that scientific knowledge is the only fundamentally valid type of knowledge.

* Many academics believe that academics are, as a group, ethically superior to most other occupational groups.


Tom Meisenhelder, 'The ideology of professionalism in higher education', Journal of Education, vol. 165, no. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 295-307.

Michael Young, The rise of the meritocracy 1870-2033: an essay on education and equality (London: Thames and Hudson, 1958). An amusing satire highlighting the link between formal education and privilege.