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The Mind and Body Shop

September 2, 2009

Although I am not a big reader of fiction, I am a fan of books about academia.  Of these, my favorite is Frank Parkin’s The Mind and Body Shop (1986).  I read it over twenty years ago and have never forgotten it or its message.  This satire about a red-brick British university forced to become a commercial enterprise is hysterically funny and, at the same time, horribly sad.  When I read it, I found the novel’s message  irrelevant to my own situation and institution.  In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s England was a far cry from the American Midwest, where states were still supporting their universities.  Unfortunately, this is not the case today.   The times, they are a-changing.

As state university budgets inexorably decline due to reductions in state appropriations, our administrators have been forced to make a variety of cuts to staff, faculty, and academic programs and to think more and more about ways of increasing revenues.  As in Frank Parkin’s imaginary university, our administrators  are now looking at the university as a commercial enterprise.   The faculty are being urged to see this enterprise from the consumer’s perspective.  As the Vice-Chancellor puts it to Professor Douglas Hambro, the hapless Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy, “…you’ve got to think about your subject in an entirely new way.  You need to open your mind to fresh ideas, like any good entrepreneur.”

Among the fresh ideas that Parkin’s fictional faculty have embraced (or at least endured) and that have succeeded in bringing in money to the university are a political science faculty member becoming a political adviser to South American dictators (“But for him, half the dictators in Latin America would have fallen long ago.”) and another one acting as legal counsel for the Mafia.   Other money makers included installing  coin-operated turnstiles at the entrances to lecture halls,  having “messages from our commercial sponsors” at the beginning of all lectures, selling  the books in the library, providing catering to a military detention center, and requiring faculty to rent their offices.

Professor Douglas Hambro and his philosophy department would eventually put  their colleagues to shame when it came to bringing in money for the university.   “Anything can be sold if it is properly presented. …think of philosophy as your merchandise.” advises the Vice-Chancellor.    It takes Professor Hambro and his colleague Skillicorn some time to figure out what merchandise will sell in the philosophy department’s new outreach center, The Mind Shop.  The Mind Shop (alternative names suggested included Plato’s Place and Thinkerama)  is located in a dingier part of the town between “a Mexican take-away and a vegetarian advice centre” in the basement of a building housing the Bangkok Pleasure Palace.

“PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS SOLVED WHILE-U-WAIT.  MORAL UNCERTAINTIES?   ETHICAL DILEMMAS?  COME TO THE MIND SHOP – AVOID THE METAPHYSICAL COWBOYS.”

It turns out that there was no money to be made resolving moral uncertainties or solving ethical dilemmas.   The Mind Shop’s seminars with titles like all you wanted to know about Hegel and were afraid to ask  and on the fact/value distinction were not crowd pleasers, but one seminar on Tuesdays at 3:00 PM did prove to be immensely popular, “The Mysteries of Kant Unveiled.”  Fortunately for Professor Hambro, the printer had misspelled Kant in fliers describing the Shop’s offerings.  As his neighbors upstairs already knew and he quickly learned,  sex sells.

In retrospect “The Mind and Body Shop” may not have been a satire — I am not an English professor after all  — but an advice manual for universities struggling to deal with budget reductions.  The next time that I attend a faculty or faculty senate meeting that has on its agenda ways to increase university revenues I may pass out copies of “The Mind and Body Shop.”  Frank Parkin has a much clearer vision of how to solve a university’s budget problems than I will ever have.  Unfortunately, the book is out of print.  Used copies, however, are readily available.  I just bought another one for 50 cents

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