Theodor W. Adorno on academic conformity

If you have ever had to serve on committees on whom important decisions depend, or are thought to depend, you will see how the worst and the basest instincts prevail over the better, more humane ones. I should perhaps say that you will perceive this unless you completely identify with what is going on and subscribe to its principles. This is a basic experience, even though you will not see a simple confrontation between the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’, but rather an infinitely nuanced chain of individual decisions, proposals and processes that focus initially at least on topics that seem utterly remote from such global judgements. Nevertheless, in questions involving individuals there is an overwhelming tendency not so much for the worse speech to triumph over the better one, but for the worse man to be appointed to the position that should have gone to the better one—and this is a common experience that has to be faced up to as frankly as any other experience. And only a concept of experience that is restricted in advance will enable you to avert your gaze from such events by focusing on the immediate matters under discussion. Needless to say, it is not helpful to dwell on such experiences. We have to go beyond them and ask how we can persuade others and ourselves that such things really do happen and that you yourselves will have seen them happen once you have disabused yourselves of the illusions attendant upon such processes. And if you have not experienced such things already because you have had the good fortune not to serve on any committees, then I fear I shall have to disillusion you because I predict that one day you will all remember my words on this subject, unless you succeed in repressing them—something I should like very much to prevent. To explain this further I should like to bring to your attention a number of concrete considerations. In the first place, the better course of action is in general the more productive one, the more innovative one, the course of action that does not fit in with established opinion, to say nothing of established group opinion. As such it is suspect from the outset, particularly where there are groups and a more or less settled consensus. The resistance of the better way to a conformist view is almost always compromised by the fact that it appears to contravene some pre-existing rule or other. Take the example of a young scholar whose promotion is up for discussion, as they say. If he is really able, if he has opinions of his own and is not simply a careerist, and if he retains his intellectual independence from whatever happens to him—then, when he comes to write reviews, he will not write that this or that book is a valuable contribution to a particular branch of learning, as is almost universally the case in the current critical anarchy. Instead, he will decline to mince his words when criticism is warranted and he will not shrink from saying that a dull, unintelligent book is dull and unintelligent. This will instantly expose him to the rebuke that his polemical tone is improper, that it is incompatible with the academic tradition and God knows what else. And in committees such objections will generally find a willing ear; anyone who behaves in such a deviant manner will have compromised himself by the mere form of his deviation. Those of you who are doing your teaching practice and take part in staff meetings will have plenty of stories of your own to confirm what I have been saying. A further factor is that, for reasons I cannot go into now, anyone who deviates from the consensus is not only in a superior position to what he opposes, but also in an inferior one in certain respects. This is partly because the support structures for a lone opponent are always more flimsy than for the compact majority.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006), Lecture 4, 19 November 1964: The Concept of Mediation; pp. 30-31.

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