Screwtape opens up

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I don’t know why (Christian apologetics are not generally my bag), but during my break I picked up the classic “Screwtape Letters“, by CS Lewis, and as I dropped off under the influence of a large glass of Old Pulteney I started to think about OER. I’m not entirely sure that “openness” is as black and white as theology, but if nothing else it was an interesting writing exercise. This is what I wrote:
I note your concerns with interest. For the last century the Groves of Academia (such as they are) have been ours, and what delights we have tasted because of it! The twisted and confused soul of a pro-vice chancellor, whipped into a frenzy of self-importance both at his own cleverness and low cunning, the nutritious sin of a “star researcher” smugly full of contempt for his fellow toilers – what feasts they have provided, as I’m sure you recall from your late visit to Our Father’s House.

Already, we are heightening the flavour of our next batch – pitting institution against institution, scholar against scholar, subject of study against subject of study; such delicious conflict, such fear, such snobbery, such self-immolation and despair! If all goes well we will feast again on your return, as richly and as lip-smackingly well as we ever have before, washed down with the finest Administrative Whines and accompanied with with our latest delicacy, tweetbreads.

When seen against these plans, your worries about “openness” seem at best misplaced. Every time Academia have tried to “share” what they have learnt and what they know, for the good of humanity (and how sickening the thought of the Enemy’s pleasure at such a disgustingly noble aim!) we have managed to distort this into the same old anxieties to lead them back to Our Father’s arms.

Remember the worries when they started to publish their research in learned journals? We convinced them to sell the journals to our expert friends in the publishing industries. So they could be managed better – and so prices would be such that they could only be read in Academic Libraries. Then, with the growth of their Internet, we ensured that sharing and learning would be behind paywalls and authentication. Even when the Enemy caused them to rise up and demand to own the fruits of their own labour, we hid these “open” resources inside repositories of astonishing complexity and scale – this, coupled with our uplifting purification of the Academic language to ensure impenetrability meant that that a merely interested member of the public would have next to no chance of finding an academic paper, and next to no chance of understanding it if he did.

But to make certain our victory, we started to reward scholars based on the amount of impenetrable research they published on the “right” subject in the “right journals”. The mechanics of human greed and aggrandisement are the most beautiful structures in the universe, and the savour of supposedly intelligent souls brought down by such supposedly base tools continues to spice our repast daily. Ah, such days!

I am certain you can adapt such tactics to your concern around “open educational resources” or “OpenCourseWare” (already a division – could you exploit this?) and that the list of suggestions that follows is superfluous.

1. My understanding is that a common worry in this endeavour is that of “sustainability”. You will know that our disguises have meant that this once-innocuous word hides a hoard of potential – do ensure that your Openers think only of the sustainability of their work, their projects, their roles. To do this once again means competition, the very highway Below. If an Opener is to chance to reflect on the wider sustainability of society or what they thrillingly call “culture” and the need for academic knowledge to support this, a new call for funding or conference papers will soon remove that unprofitable line of argument from their mind.

2. Speaking of funders – it is essential that you cement within their minds the concept of “return on investment”. Get them measuring, measuring, measuring! – who interacted with which resources, when, how and why. With luck you can get them to cancel the whole area of work as unprofitable – at worst you will be directing the majority of their attention to work that is of use to nobody and is never-ending (something that we have excelled at within so very much of Academia.). Never for a second allow them to dwell on serendipity or longer-term goals – you could easily ensure that funding is short-scale and must be re-argued for each year, for example. A deadline does much to allow us to work, as does the bringing of other pressures (such as the sterling work of our man Willetts) to bear. I am aware that you and your fellow Tempters have found great cause to rejoice within the Browne Review – but unless we push on with the idea of continued crisis it may cause our Subjects to pause to contemplate the nature and purpose of what Education is for. Such thinking is seldom to our benefit.

3. If you are unable to do this, think instead of quality and the “student experience”. Our project Apple – ah! that name! such rich symbolism… – has done much to conflate quality with a shiny appearance (and your cousin Grub has found much favour here Below for his part in this). As you know, there is no end of money that can be spent on getting the images, and the fonts, and the narration “just” so. Surely much of what is currently devoted to the fashionable cause of “open education” can be steered into this cul-de-sac – much more if you included the niceties of “pedagogic design” and “context”. As above, your goal here should be to ensure that the least possible amount of funding is devoted to the release of dangerously simple resources.

4. Licensing, IPR – such sweet words to all of our kind. Imagine our delight to see that already there are more than a handful of mutually-incompatible open (and semi-open) licenses, and that confusion and concern are already sown. I hear in many places actual lawyers – often our most devoted servants – are involved in what was meant to be a simple and cheap initiative. Legal issues can be made as utterly impenetrable and eternal as the works of the Enemy, and I trust that you (after your sterling work with academic contracts of employment) will need little instruction here. Remind them of the specialness of their circumstances, feed their naif insistence that nobody should ever profit from their work, and with the stroke of a pen they are yours.

5. As I have said before, “We live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet people who do not need to raise their voice.” Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a middle-ranking Russell Group University. You may see this as an occasion for complacency, but stay on your watch – should one of these “Openers” get the idea of sharing knowledge into one of these interminable minutes the whole game is lost. Universities do what they do because of interia and a misplaced love of tradition. If you can keep the emphasis on sharing as something new and alien you should effectively marshal opposition and prevent a decision being reached or recorded. Ideally we need working groups, if not consultants.

6. Most powerfully, of course, you have the sweet smell of hubris. If you can convince your subjects that their work is special, and unique, and most of all separate to other ways of sharing online we can ensure this potential movement becomes little more than an academic pipe dream. I do not need to underline the need to avoid, at all costs, the obvious mental link between sharing these resources and sharing other things. Separate conferences, separate funding streams – and above all a separate language – these are the tools that have brought about the successful fragmentation of academic knowledge. We would delight to see them work again here. Encourage also the “edupreneurs” (how I wish we had invented the word!) to see openness as a means of profit, a means of fame and a route to further power.

Encourage also the institutions to see openness as a new revenue stream.
Dear nephew Wormwood, there is little to worry about here. What at first seemed a great defeat of so much that we have worked for is simply an opportunity for a greater victory. Vice is best disguised as virtue, and the clearest virtues hide the oldest and basest vices. Philanthropy (and is this not what we have here, simple, old-fashioned, disgusting, philanthropy?) is often selfish and nearly always public. And we can generally benefit far more than the intended recipients.

Your affectionate Uncle,


P.S: It also occurs to me that Screwtape would have made an excellent Programme Manager…

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