This Christmas I’ll be hunting hedgefoxes

Matthew Flinders thinks this mythical mammalian hybrid could serve as a guide through a complex higher education funding landscape

December 12, 2018
Person dressed in fox costume
Source: Getty

My Christmas reading will focus on a little book called The Hedgehog and the Fox. It was written by Sir Isaiah Berlin in 1953 and developed a reputation that baffled its author: “I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.”

The animal parable establishes an intellectual divide based on a simple fragment of text by the 7th century BC Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This dichotomy became an entertaining lens through which Berlin could explore the fundamental distinction that exists between those who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things (foxes) and those who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system (hedgehogs).

Dante, Pascal, Ibsen and Proust were, according to Berlin’s eloquent analysis, hedgehogs – and Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Balzac, Goethe and Joyce were foxes. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, on the other hand, appeared to defy such animation categorisations.

This puzzle is really the primary focus of the book. It had originally been titled Lev Tolstoy’s Historical Scepticism and was retitled only on the advice of its publisher – a decision Berlin would live to regret. “I am very sorry to have called my own book The Hedgehog and the Fox. I wish I hadn’t now,” but he ultimately accepted that he was “probably a fox”.

This little book – just over 100 pages and written by Berlin in two days – offers little in Christmas cheer but has attracted my focus because my wife and I like to play a holiday game whereby she insists I must not work and I insist that I am not working (while reading books that are clearly work-related).

And I’ll be reflecting on Berlin’s dichotomy this Christmas because of its value in understanding the changing intellectual emphasis within higher education.

Put very simply, the research funding landscape is changing in ways that demand the skills of both the fox and the hedgehog. Funding is increasingly being channelled towards projects that are large and ambitious; they are inter-disciplinary, they engage with potential research-users, and they have a strong international component while also adopting a solution-focused approach. The challenge (and the opportunity) this presents for the social sciences, arts and humanities is adapting to this increasing emphasis on “team science”.

The problem, however, is that the emphasis of higher education reforms in recent decades has served to produce generations of hedgehogs. The research excellence framework in the UK arguably represents the acme of this position – the incentivisation of hedgehogian characteristics within academe – with concerns about hyper-specialisation emerging as a symptom of this deeper malady.

The introduction of attempts to assess the non-academic social relevance, impact or value of publicly funded scholarship in many parts of the world represents an attempt to shift the balance.

The twist in this Christmas tale, however, is that Berlin was arguably mistaken in adopting a binary lens, and so too will be any institution that thinks responding to the shifting funding landscape involves little more than the cultivation of intellectual foxes. If only it were that simple. The challenge facing higher education focuses attention on the merits of a quite different species of scholar. That is, a mammalian hybrid best understood in academic terms as the “hedgefox”.

While the hedgehog sniffs and scuffles and the fox leaps and bounds, the hedgefox offers the rare ability to understand and synthesise, to connect islands of research that would otherwise remain disconnected. They are creative and entrepreneurial but differ from both their parent species in two critical ways.

First, hedgefoxes are not purely academic animals. They may have held roles beyond academe, and because of this they can draw upon a wider set of skills. They possess a certain outsider status that can often create resentment among purist scholars.

Second, hedgefoxes are not solitary beasts and possess a strong herding instinct. They seek to build teams that combine to offer far more than the sum of their parts – not for reasons of survival or mutual protection but simply because they believe that a vibrant intellectual ecosystem demands diversity.

And yet hunting for hedgefoxes is, if we are honest, a rather painful pastime. Although not quite in the same league as unicorns or the Jabberwocky, they are a special breed that has been allowed to almost die out for the simple reason that the skills and qualities that are captured in the notion of hedgefoxism have not been prized or nurtured in recent years.

The result is the risk of a great chasm emerging between the dominant skill set and cultural mores of academe and the contemporary expectations of society as mediated through funding bodies. This is why I’m going to spend this Christmas hunting for hedgefoxes in the hope that just a little of their magic might rub off on me.

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics and founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also president of the UK’s Political Studies Association.

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Reader's comments (1)

Interesting... from this description I think I'm a hedgefox! I'm a late entrant to academia having done all manner of other jobs before slithering into an 'ivory tower' but am now relishing finding out about loads of things, some superficially but many to considerable depth... it's great fun.

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