Should He Who Pays the Piper Call the Tune?

Margaret Atkins

The piper and the paymaster
Some fifteen years ago I received from the administrator in charge of graduate grants at the British Academy a response to my criticism of the introduction of forms for graduate students to complete after their first year. (At the time, this struck me as a slight on the competence and integrity of graduates' supervisors.) Unfortunately, the gentleman to whom I had complained turned out to have designed the forms, and his letter was somewhat acerbic. It concluded with the words, 'He who pays the piper calls the tune.'

I thought at the time that this was an oddly inappropriate proverb: would he who paid the doctor prescribe the medicine? After a further decade and a half the consequences of acting in the spirit of a certain interpretation of that proverb are becoming all too apparent in the wider field of education, and indeed throughout the public services. 'Micromanagement' is everywhere: the paymaster is calling all the tunes, providing detailed instructions to the pipers as to how to play each note, and then checking that he has obeyed the instructions (or at least that he can make a show of providing evidence that he has obeyed instructions). It would be surprising under these circumstances if the pipers were to play musically, let alone to enjoy their playing. It seems to be time to ask: how ought I to have replied to that letter? In particular, how ought I to have challenged the assumption that the paymaster is the right person to decide the way in which the piper should account for how and what he plays?

'He who pays the piper calls the tune.' It is interesting to discover how the usage of this proverb has changed.[1] The simple phrase 'pay the piper' predates the longer version by some centuries. It was used simply to mean 'bear the cost', with no reference at all to controlling the piper's playing. Thus the Earl of Chesterfield, writing to his son about his hopes for peace in Europe, said, 'The other powers cannot well dance, when neither France nor the maritime powers can, as they used to do, pay the piper'.[2] In other words, war is unlikely, because no one will foot the bill. This usage remains alongside others right into the late twentieth century. Even when the phrase 'call the tune' or 'choose the tune' is added, the resulting proverb is not, at first, used to control the piper, but rather to emphasise the rights of the payer as against others who might be enjoying the piper's playing. Mr Evan Spicer, for example, argued, in a debate on the constitution of a public water authority for London, that as London ratepayers were paying for the water supply their council should have full control of it, rather than share control with the chairmen of outside councils: 'Londoners had paid the piper and should choose the tune'.[3]

Despite the proverb's nuanced history, I had known immediately what my friend from the British Academy meant by it: 'I am paying for your graduate work;[4] therefore you will do it in the way that I say.' How revealing it is that we so easily now assume his interpretation! The influence of the despotic model of relations between employer and employee is all-pervasive; its conceptual basis is the understanding of action and responsibility assumed by my correspondent; and this conceptual basis underlies the arguments (and the demands) of his countless heirs. For shorthand, I shall use 'the paymaster' to stand for anyone who thinks in this way.

What the paymaster thinks about piping
Let me begin, then, by summarising the paymaster's beliefs. He treats the piper - let us call him Peter - who is presumably a good musician, like a factory hand. He assumes that Peter pipes only in order to earn a wage and that he will pipe to instructions. The purpose of piping is 'the tune', which is seen as a product rather oddly separable from the playing of it. Indeed, the paymaster thinks of the piper as a producer of tunes; his actions are characterised simply by their 'products'. The piper, in his view, should discover what he must do by receiving his orders; he should obey the paymaster rather than any other person, or any musical impulse or understanding of his own. His obedience is secured by the promise of money that he needs: his motivation to act is external to his action. He is free (assuming he is not destitute) to accept or reject the contract, but he is not free to contribute his own views of what the project should be. The paymaster will consider him a responsible person to the extent that he fulfils his instructions.

The piper is accountable to the paymaster and not to anyone or anything else (he cannot protest, 'But everyone else loved the tune that I chose'.) He is accountable not in the sense that he must give an account of himself (his understanding of what he is doing is of no interest to the paymaster); instead, the paymaster will require him to prove that he has fulfilled the required instructions; the paymaster will be the judge of this. The reason that the piper is considered 'accountable' is simply that he is being paid. If he were not, he would be free to play whatever tunes he liked, however well or badly he wished. A worker who is 'accountable' in this sense is simply one who, because he is being paid, is required to show that he has obeyed his instructions.

The model of the piper and the paymaster is extremely simple. Modern micro-management is highly complex: in the universities, the 'paymasters' include benefactors long dead, modern corporations and the tax-payer. Their 'instructions' are mediated through tangled and winding underground channels by politicians and civil servants, by academic administrators and by administering academics. These 'instructions' are complicated still further by requirements to 'consult' a further variety of groups: students, parents, potential employers. Moreover, even if there were only one paymaster, with a single coherent set of desires to satisfy, he would be ill equipped to select the tunes the scholars might 'produce'. Instead, therefore, his collective persona relies on procedures: whatever is produced in accordance with the agreed procedures will be deemed the correct product. The procedures themselves grow ever more elaborate and time-consuming.

My model cannot of course do justice to all the details of this system. On the other hand, it has the advantage of clarity; the system itself is just too large and too complex for most of us to think about it clearly. Moreover, it is my suspicion that people accept the system to the extent that they assume the paymaster's view of action, which in fact underlies it. I should like, therefore, to outline an alternative model of action, which, although a little more complicated, seems to me to have the merit of being correct. In other words, I want to explore why we really do the things that we say we do, and how we ought to explain why we have done them. Most people, it seems to me, do not behave as the paymaster wishes the piper to behave; and in so far as they do, we ought to help them to grow out of it.

What the piper thinks about piping
The piper pipes because he is a musician. He pipes as well as he can because he loves music, has a vision of how to play musically, and wants to incarnate this vision. The music, and the communication of the music, are his motive. His piping conforms to Thomas Aquinas's analysis of a properly human action: it aims at what is good.

The piper, being a wise and honest man, knows that real life is complicated. Our motives are always interconnected, and rarely unmixed. He pipes in order to make music; but he also pipes in order to earn some money, to please his musical pals, to impress his girlfriend. He knows that these further goals may or may not affect his piping.

If he has a fair employer, a patroness let us call her rather than a paymaster, then piping for wages need have no effect on the way in which he pipes. The patroness has chosen him because she knows that he is a good piper; she agrees with Peter when and where he will pipe; then she leaves him to pipe as he thinks best.

Suppose next that Peter is piping partly to please his musical friend Paul. In this case, he will play as well as he can. Of course, he normally tries to play as well as he can, but Paul's presence may inspire him to make an extra effort, to take an extra risk, to give his musical imagination just a little more rein.

Thirdly, suppose that one of Peter's motives is to impress his girlfriend, Patricia. Patricia thinks she is musical, but is sadly mistaken. She thinks that Peter is brilliant because he can play fast. And Peter is in love. In Patricia's presence, then, against all his musical instincts, he catches himself sacrificing fluency for flashiness, subtlety for sheer speed. Even true love can corrupt.

The ways in which Peter's different secondary goals may affect his piping become clearer when he is asked to explain why he piped in the way that he did. If the secondary goal has not affected his playing (if, say, he knew that he would get the same wages whatever), then his explanation will pick out something about the music itself: 'It was important not to rush here in order to preserve the shape of the melody', for example. If his secondary goal was an inspiring one, like pleasing the knowledgeable Paul, then he will also explain his playing by talking about the music, and in this case, his explanation may be still more sophisticated and richer. On the other hand, if he was piping to please Patricia, his honest explanation of why he piped in the way that he did will refer not to the intrinsic goodness of playing that way, and therefore not to the music itself, but rather to Patricia's wishes. (It may be instructive to note that if he is giving this explanation to Paul, he may well be tempted to be economical with the truth.)

If Peter were philosophically minded, he might categorise possible secondary goals as follows:

  1. those that do not affect the playing;

  2. those that inspire the playing;

  3. those that distort the playing.
In the case of (iii), but not in the other two cases, an honest explanation of how the piper plays will refer not to the music, but to some extrinsic factor such as the wishes of a third person. It seems unlikely, one might note in passing, that this sort of account of an artist's work would provide much in the way of illumination.

What the piper thinks of the paymaster
The paymaster made it quite clear what he thinks of the piper. But what, on this analysis, would the piper think of the paymaster? Where would he locate the paymaster's view of action within his own, rather richer, understanding of it? The paymaster, we recall, believes that the piper pipes for the sake of money and will pipe as he is instructed. In other words, the paymaster treats all piping as if it is for the sake of a secondary goal. He further assumes that the piper's secondary goal is pay; and that he will achieve this goal by satisfying (i.e. obeying) the paymaster. You will recall that my correspondent from the British Academy introduced the proverb in question precisely to characterise a situation where paymasters wanted to compel pipers to conform with their wishes. On his understanding of the proverb, then, the piper and the paymaster disagree about the best way of piping.

It follows from this that if the piper pipes as he is required, for pay, this secondary goal will, from the piper's point of view, be a distorting one. The piper categorises motivation in several different ways; in the paymaster's eyes, however, all professional activity conforms to a single model. This model, according to my analysis, would be characterised by the piper as action for the sake of a distorting goal. The paymaster appears to have asked himself neither whether there are any other possible models of action that he has neglected; nor whether there are any dangers in encouraging the model that he has assumed. The piper might, if he were in a charitable mood, put this down to lack of imagination rather than to positive malevolence.

Accounting for the Academy
The systems of assessment introduced in recent decades into universities have clearly transformed the way that we account for what we do; they were intended to do so. They have done this by introducing into our activities the secondary goals of satisfying the various assessors. These secondary goals may, in a few cases, have proved inspiring. It seems uncontroversial that they have often been distracting, in the sense of demanding time and energy and resources. Goals that merely distract us, however, although they may hamper our fulfilment of our activity, need not distort our aims or the way that we attempt to do what we do.

It is distorting goals that threaten our own best understandings of our academic lives. Most academics can easily think of instances where the goals of success in assessment threaten to distort: the timing of publications, the criteria for appointments, the choice of methods of teaching, and so on. One example of my own might stand for them all, that is, a favoured saying of the head of a prestigious laboratory in which a friend of mine works: 'It is better to be first than to be right'.

Fortunately, it is easy to frame the questions that might protect us against the dangers of such distortion: 'Would this have been the way to do it even without the inspection?' 'Can I give a full explanation of why I am doing it this way, of a kind that refers to the goodness of this activity, but does not mention the inspection?' It is easy to frame the questions, but it may be difficult to answer them honestly. If we find that our secondary goals are distorting our actions, and we stick with those secondary goals, then we will have a choice between a cynical (or despairing) account on the one hand - 'I know this isn't the best way to do it, but that's the way the world is' - and an incoherent one on the other.

My deepest fear, however, is that many of us can now give accounts that are all too coherent, precisely because our own understanding of what is good about what we do has been so dramatically altered under the pressure of the new systems. It is as if Peter had come to believe Patricia's view of how to pipe. Here the question that might protect us against ourselves is, 'What would I have said about my reasons for doing this fifteen years ago?' (Of course, the longer the regimes of inspection last, the fewer people will be able to answer that question.) I find it helpful to remember the shock I felt early on in the era of Research Assessment when I overheard two eminent and respected members of my Cambridge college discussing seriously and at length whether or not it was fair that Psychology had received four points and Physiology five (or was it vice versa?).

I had already realised, of course, that university departments were being graded on a crude scale of one to five. What I had not yet grasped was that some scholars were now taking such grading so seriously as to be able to describe it as either fair or unfair.[5] Even five years previously, it seemed clear to me, they would both have mocked such an idea. Yet they had now appropriated quite a new view of the worth of their own scholarly activity. Their accounts of why they thought a department worthy would now be couched in the terms set by the RAE; they would disagree with the inspectors not about what was good, but only about how far one department or another had achieved that good.

Ten years later it is difficult to recapture the shock of that moment, so much do I move in a world where so many seem to take it for granted that their department merited their good grades (or alternatively did not merit their bad grades). Indeed, when our own department was undergoing QAA, I was struck by quite how difficult it was not to believe that the score we were given was closely related to the quality of our work, although the actual evidence pointed overwhelmingly to the opposite conclusion. (It is irrelevant to my argument whether I am wrong about what the evidence suggested; what matters is that the pressure on my beliefs did not come from what I believed to be good reasons.)

Different academics will have different views about the most important ways in which the assessments imposed upon us have affected our activities. My hunch is that the RAE has been more likely to distort our activities and teaching assessments to distract us from them. There are, however, several ways in which TQA, QAA and any of their successors may distort teaching: for example, by over-systematising and hence depersonalising the relationship between teachers and students, by encouraging standardised methods of teaching, and by tempting teachers and students to collude in lowering standards in order to avoid risk.

There are, of course, innumerable external pressures other than inspections which may distort our activities and even seduce us into changing our beliefs about them. The constant requirement to reduce expenditure is the most obvious of these. To take one important example: in the debate about the best size of teaching groups it is extremely difficult to disentangle genuinely pedagogic from pragmatic motives. Again and again we need to ask ourselves the questions: 'Is that how I would have argued fifteen years ago? If not, exactly why not?'

Epilogue: love and do what you will
You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,
you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon
making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,
wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function . . .
There should be monuments, there should be odes, . . .
to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner...[6]

The expressions of Auden's workers are 'rapt', because they are drawn out of themselves, to focus on what they are doing. They focus on it precisely as something good or desirable: this is how to make the incision; this is how to mix the sauce. They do not think their activity good because it gives them pleasure; it gives them pleasure because they think it good. Specifically, it gives them pleasure because they know that they are doing it well. They 'know', or they 'feel': either word is too narrow to capture the richness of being engaged with one's mind and body - muscle and nerve and sense - in an activity to which one feels called.

The Epicurean, and modern, mistake is to believe that we act, at our best, for the sake of pleasure, as if we think, 'I'll make the effort to do it well, because then I will feel good.' Of course, in our weaker moments, we sometimes need to give ourselves such encouragement - few professional athletes would survive their gruelling training without occasionally reminding themselves how good it feels to run a winning race. But they will not actually get to feel good by aiming to feel good. They will only get to feel good by focusing on the activity in question; furthermore, what will feel good to them is, precisely, doing that activity well. It is simply a fact about the world that providence, or chance, has made us into creatures that enjoy doing things well.

I have argued that distorting secondary goals make us carry out our activities less well, in our own eyes, than we otherwise would. It is no surprise, then, that such goals can also diminish or destroy the delight that we naturally take in doing things well. Peter will enjoy his piping less when he knows he is playing badly in order to please Patricia. (Whatever extra pleasure he find in the experience - say, from Patricia's appreciative glances - will not be pleasure taken in piping.) In other words, distorted goals can demotivate, in the literal sense of deprive us of our motives.

This diminishment of joy may happen simply at the level of specific actions: when playing this piece, or teaching this lesson, badly for the sake of a distorting goal. It can also happen over a longer time, to an extended project. Perhaps the ways in which I am forced or bullied or bribed into carrying out my craft badly are limited: maybe I am free to play Mozart, though not Bach, as well as I can; maybe I can teach my pupils in the manner I wish, so long as I submit them to monthly testing. The extent to which such interference diminishes the artist's pleasure will vary with the details of the case. However, it is important to remember that skilful artists see their projects as a whole; if individual elements are damaged, they may feel that the integrity and beauty of the project as a whole has been lost. Then there is a serious risk that their natural delight in their work as a whole will also fade.

Academics are no exception. Insofar as I come to teach or write in a way that is intended to please the inspectors, rather than in the way I think best, my original motive of teaching or writing for its own sake will be lost. What used to make me enjoy teaching or writing well was my belief that they were in themselves good activities. It is unfortunate that the better the teacher or scholar, the more likely it is that a small reduction in the standard of her work will lead to a large diminution of the delight that she takes in it.

It would take a different essay to argue that the fact that people find joy in their work is evidence that they are doing it well. The practical reader is unlikely to need the argument. Would you choose a carpenter or a builder or a garage mechanic who despised or disliked his job over one who loved it? Would you leave your toddler with a childminder who appeared to hate looking after children? Would you call a tune from a piper who was piping only for pay? I rest my case. The tragedy is that we have forgotten in public life the solid traditional wisdom which every householder and every parent still takes for granted.

We will not 'solve the problems' of education by holding each other to account, however sophisticated the systems with which we do so. I would prefer to adopt the more modest aim of helping each other to teach and study more competently, more creatively and more contentedly. I have argued that we will not achieve even this until we possess a sounder public understanding of professional motivation. Equipped with that, we might learn to set one another free to act in accordance with what each honestly believes to be the good. Perhaps we could then begin to aspire to a system of education in which those who work are motivated not by fear, but by love. For that is what makes the flaker of flints forget his dinner.

Margaret Atkins Trinity and All Saints, Leeds


[1]See further F. P. Wilson, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, and B. J. Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings.
[2]Letters written by the late right honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to his son Philip Stanhope esq., 25 December 1753.
[3]Daily News, 18 December 1895.
[4]He saw himself, presumably, as the delegated representative of the tax-payers.
[5]I accept that the inspectors' conclusions could have been reached in a manner that was fair or unfair, but that is a different point.
[6]Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson, pp. 62930.

CUCD Bulletin 32 (2003)
© Margaret Atkins 2003

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