Sunday, June 27, 2010

Keith Thomas on the University

Keith Thomas, author of my favorite scholarly book (Religion and the Decline of Magic) has an excellent essay in the May 7 Times Literary Supplement on the situation of British universities. Alas, you can't read it without a subscription, so I will summarize. Thomas starts from the financial crisis of the British government, which is cutting every part of its budget. All universities in Britain are state run, so this means the universities will be facing budget cuts. Nothing surprising there. But as Thomas explains, this will drive the universities further along the path they have been traveling since the 1980s, toward becoming economic powerhouses focusing on scientific research and economic development:
In these circumstances, painful choices have to be made. The Labour government's priorities were clear. What must be defended at all costs, it said, are the so-called "STEM" subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). They are the most important, by virtue of their contribution to the "knowledge economy." All publicly funded research at universities should have an identifiable "impact" on our economy and society. In a document entitled A Vision for Research, the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology recommended that "universities should seek to professionalize their capabilities and structures . . . so that they operate more like consultancy organizations."
In this environment, departments that do not win big research grants or have lots of students are vulnerable:
In the unlovely words of a memorandum in King's College London, it has become necessary to "create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level."
So big cuts in humanities faculties are proposed.

Thomas then gives a quick history of the British universities from their medieval origins to the present, noting that they have changed their missions several times in response to political and social demands. Even in the Middle Ages, as he quotes Richard Southern, "No single cause had so much influence on the development of higher education as the demands of government." What many of us think of as the traditional curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge was developed in the 19th century to train civil servants for the empire. Research was hardly part of the universities' missions at all until the 1890s. After World War II, as in the US, the university system was enormously expanded, from educating 3% of young people in 1939 to 43% today:
History thus shows that the universities have repeatedly changed (or, more often, been made to change) their nature in order to meet new social needs. To their original function of advancing the Christian religion, they added that of educating a governing elite. Subsequently, they embarked upon the advancement of knowledge; and in the late twentieth century they began to provide mass education to the citizens of a democracy. Now that this vast edifice of higher education has become harder to sustain, do they need to change their nature again?
Thomas then makes what I think is a marvelous defense of education and scholarship as worthy activities in their own right. He writes, "Only a minority of academics can hope to achieve any real advance in their discipline, but all have the possibility of making an enduring 'impact' on the minds of their pupils." Thomas is put off by the pressure to publish "whether one has anything to say or not," and like other critics of the "publish or perish" university he wants the professor's role to be more broadly defined:
Humane scholarship is a vital activity, for without it we would quickly relapse into ignorant solipsism, with no knowledge of the past or comprehension of other languages and cultures. We need scholars to resist the annihilation of our intellectual inheritance, to expose myths and to remind us that there are other ways of thinking and acting than those with which we are familiar. Not all such work can be described as "research." When scientists do research, they aim to find out things which have never been known. But much activity in the humanities is concerned to rediscover and re-interpret what once was known but has subsequently been forgotten. A better word for this is "scholarship," with its emphasis less on new knowledge than on fresh understanding. . . . The new government should affirm its commitment to the notion of universities as places of humane scholarship as well as of scientific research.
I think Thomas is right in almost everything he says. Humane scholarship is a vital activity, and since Britain produces such a large share of it -- more than a third of all publishing in the humanities emanates from Britain -- the state of its universities has global significance. There is a budget crisis, so there will be cuts, but I agree with Thomas that it would be a terrible mistake to make all of the cuts in humanities departments, as if they were a frivolity the nation can easily do without.

Besides, there is something downright weird about the economic emphasis of the British government. Since Thatcher's time every British administration has been obsessed with making Britain more like Japan and Germany, and they have focused their education and research dollars on high technology. Meanwhile, Britain's tech sector has continued to languish, and British manufacturing has grown only modestly. The British economy as a whole has continued to prosper because of expertise in other areas. The industries in which the UK is among the world leaders are insurance, financial services, business consulting, shipping, publishing, aerospace, broadcasting, and brewing. The only major British company that is a world technology leader is Rolls Royce aircraft engines, but many British firms are world leaders in services and London is the second largest financial center after New York. A quick check of the government's online statistics shows that last month the UK had a 7 billion pound trade deficit in goods, but a 4 billion pound surplus in services.The real leaders of the British economy are not engineers or factory workers but the Oxbridge toffs who wear those awesome suits to their posh offices in the City. I have been following British education debates since I lived there in 1990 and I have never seen any British writer mention this. British exports of culture -- music, theater, film, books, news (what company of any sort has a better brand than the BBC?), television, and so on -- are also large enough to be economically important, but I have never seen any mention in these debates of the need to train more writers, cameramen and producers. Another British advantage is their ability to attract wealthy and highly skilled immigrants; among other things, London has for decades been the world center for Arabic language publishing.

As Thomas says, if we are going to judge professors and academic department on the basis of their "impact on society," we need a deep understanding of what "impact on society" means.

No comments: