So, What are universities for?

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

Stefan Collini seems to be wherever you look; well, his book reviews are: THE, the Observer, and the Economist – which goes to show something of my narrow reading these days.  But for someone like me, who is a part-time student of the idea of the university in practice, a book which asks What are universities (now) for cannot be wholly ignored.

Collini, who’s professor of English literature and intellectual history at Cambridge, says that universities provide a home for attempts to extend and deepen human understanding in ways which are, simultaneously, disciplined and illimitable.  The Economist review quotes Newman's "silky prose"

“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society.  ... It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.”

... because it reckons that Collini understood what Newman was about.

I listened on-line to Collini's recent RSA lecture the other week with great expectation and was rather underwhelmed.  I expected a liberal tour d'horizon, a setting out of the ways in which the modern university can exercise its historic mission to save us from ourselves.  But all I remember was his plea for a graduate tax to replace the emerging arrangements.

Stephen Gough and I discussed this "mission" like this at the start of Chapter 21 of our 2007 bookHigher Education and Sustainable Development: paradox and possibility ...

We might summarise the argument so far as follows.  Universities are open systems.  They are discrete entities, capable of planning their actions and coordinating their internal component parts.  At the same time, they have fluid and permeable boundaries, across which they interact with a wide range of external agencies and groups.

Most of these interactions can be classified as teaching, research or administration.  A particular tension exists across all three of these domains (in administration because it must service the other two).  We might think of this as a tension between stability and change, and between certainty and speculation.  It is fuelled by, on the one hand, the imperative to archive, protect, apply and bequeath existing knowledge; and, on the other hand, the imperative to challenge that knowledge, to break through into unexplored territory, to go beyond problem-solving into comprehensive problem-redefinition.  The ‘breakthrough’ has always been the gold standard of research.  It is breakthroughs that win Nobel Prizes and shift paradigms.  In the present, however, and as we have seen, there is an expectation that everyone will face new, presently unimaginable circumstances in their lifetimes with which, in one way or another and for better or worse, they will learn to deal.  This means that the tension between the known and the unknown is just as strong in teaching – particularly university teaching – as it is in research.  We have sought to capture this tension with our rough-and-ready distinction between the Real World and Ivory Tower views of what a university is for.  Particular people, at particular times and places, may want the answer to be one or the other: but it is inescapably both.

The word ‘inescapable’ is appropriate here because this tension is also characteristic of societies.  One might question whether this is necessarily true of all societies, but we would suggest that it is certainly true of societies that have universities.  In fact, it is to universities that societies delegate a large part of the responsibility for informing their management of the problem of, as Diamond (2005) puts it in the title of his book, ‘choosing to fail or survive’.  As his historical analysis well illustrates, this choice involves, crucially, knowing at any time which knowledge to revere and which to abandon.  However, we should note that the importance of ideas has been understood for a very long time, and was apparent even in the modern era long before anyone began a discussion about sustainable development.

That's why Collini so disappointed me.

22nd March Update

I see that Simon Jenkins has weighed into the argument.  I do wonder how 'Guardian readers' put up with him.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations


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