As university teachers, we set ourselves the goal not only of knowledge but also of critical understanding, of thinking both about what we know and also how we know it, and indeed asking whether we do in fact know what is assumed to be known. In other words, our whole posture is (or ought to be) not only critical but self-critical (or at least mutually critical, which is not quite the same thing).
We extend this awareness also into our teaching, in the sense of arguing endlessly about what should be covered by the syllabus, and how (for instance) to cope with the fact that students of language now arrive at our doorstep without ever having heard the words adverb and noun. We also debate methods of teaching: lectures? seminars? discussion groups? tutorials? undergraduate theses?
But at each stage in this progression in, or rather away from, real critical self-awareness we become more amateurish, more uncertain and less equipped with anything worth calling knowledge. But our sheer lack of knowledge, let alone any serious critical stance, in those areas which we touch on in our daily professional lives are as nothing compared to our total lack of critical understanding of the very institutions in which we work: universities.
We can approach these by posing large philosophical or ethical questions. What are (or should be) the defining characteristics of a university? What is a university education for? (Producing cultivated gentlefolk? Turning out citizens for democratic countries? Providing technical training? Serving the needs of "industry"?) Or we can ask precise empirical questions. Are universities, in this country or others, controlled by the state? If so, by political or ideological directives or by financial pressures, or both? Who exercises formal sovereignty in any one university? What decision-making machinery does it have? Which of the groups that work in or for it (the academics, the administrative and secretarial staff, the students) have a right to a voice in its affairs?
If we are honest, we will (almost all of us) have to admit that our attempts to cope with the broader questions are feeble and platitudinous, if we make such attempts at all. As for the second type of question, we would have to admit that we are, in almost all cases, almost totally ignorant. We work extremely hard on understanding medieval history or biochemistry. But we rarely study, or analyse critically, what universities are, in different countries, or in our own country. If we were to do so, the three books under review would all be of some help. But, frankly, not much, since the best of them involves very detailed empirical studies of three different systems, and the other two illustrate with painful clarity the tendency to vacuity mentioned above.
Much the best is the cross-cultural, or cross-systemic, study by Harry Judge, Michel Lemosse, Lynn Paine and Michael Sedlak on the changing relationship of the universities to teacher training in France, the United States and England. The very valuable principle has been employed of having Judge write on France (as well as supplying a conclusion), while Lemosse, from the University of Nice, writes on the US, and Paine and Sedlak (from Michigan) consider England.
Drastic contrasts immediately stand out: the dominance of academic values in the training of teachers in France; the diffuseness, and total absence of central (federal) control in the United States; and the moves towards integration of teacher training with the university system in England, rudely shattered by the legislation of 1994 creating the Teacher Training Agency (a word which - perhaps even more clearly than its authors intended - embodies the notion of this new quango as an instrument of government policy). It is worth quoting Judge's comments on this development: "It was now hard to say what, if anything, the distinctive contribution made by a university to the training of teachers might in principle be"; and then a few pages later: "The Secretary of State now controls the standards, content, financing and location of teacher education". We shall see whether the TTA has any independence at all, or whether it too will be bound by confidentiality, and will be wholly subservient to ministerial direction like the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The University and the Teachers is a book of real interest, which for us in England must underline painfully the sombre and paradoxical fact of the wholesale nationalisation of education by a (supposedly) Conservative government. It both surveys empirically important developments over the past few decades and confronts major problems. Here, I may conclude by quoting Judge again (my italics): "This distinction - between the education which the teacher needs and deserves at a university, and the training which is needed by a school teacher but not by a university teacher - is the fault line which runs through the passionate debate about the IUFM (Institut Univrsitaire de Formation de Matres) in France, the controversy which surrounds the proliferation of alternative routes in the States, and the debate on the relative virtues of the BEd and PGCE in England."
Compared to this book, both of the other two under review are, while interesting and suggestive, lightweight and impressionistic. Academic Community is a collection of papers derived from the 1991 conference of the Higher Education Foundation. It is thought-provoking in addressing the visible fragmentation of the (barely existent?) academic community, divided into "subjects" and sub-specialities, and lacking any common approach to learning and research, or to the nature of the institutions in which these fragmented activities take place. It also lacks (implicitly, since this aspect is never addressed in the book), any way of confronting the domination of the pursuit of knowledge by funding councils, research councils and grant-giving bodies. John Wyatt, discussing "Maps of Knowledge", does however touch on the fundamental effects of current "funding mechanisms": "A bureaucratically generated system linked to funding and resourcing is a powerful force for the disintegration of the notion of the universality of knowledge. In a collection system there is an inbuilt requirement to relate to institutional structures outside the university." There are worthwhile insights throughout the book, as well as, for instance, a detailed discussion by Patricia Roberts of the actual steps involved in "Creating a Learning Community on Campus". The most suggestive paper is perhaps that by Ruth Finnegan, arguing that an "academic community" need not be a closed group on a defined location; a real meaning for the term - in the sense of a community of interest - can be offered by the commitment involved in distance-learning in the framework of the Open University.
To an extraordinary degree, however, none of the essays in this book attempts to see the problem of "academic community" in terms of political structures. None refers to the proliferation of unions representing teachers in further and higher education; none examines the constitutional structures, patterns of entitlement (if any) to information, or decision-making procedures in universities; and none, except for passing allusions, examines the deliberately divisive and (in a quite literal sense) deliberately degrading structures imposed since the 1980s on universities. These structures embody the notion of the academic as the employee "providing" a particular segment of knowledge, following norms dictated centrally, and aspiring to compete with his or her colleagues for promotion and financial reward. Not to speak of course of whole universities being encouraged to "compete", rather then collaborate, and to attract away "research-active" scholars from less well-funded institutions, just as the next Research Assessment Exercise comes round.
Readers of Will Hutton's timely book, The State We're In will recognise the debased, pseudo-capitalist market in research and researchers which our state has created. The interest of David Damrosch's We Scholars, essentially concerned with the American university, and with professors in humanities and social sciences, is that it reveals with painful clarity how an ethos in which a sense of "community", whether within departments or across whole universities, is very largely absent, can arise without government pressure. "Many professors, and particularly the most original and productive scholars among them, no longer behave like good citizens, or even like citizens at all. They are more like resident aliens."
In my experience, many American universities, including some of the most famous, would compete strongly for the title of the most dysfunctional institution on earth, and are marked above all by individualistic competition for promotion and increased pay, and by competitive avoidance of communal responsibilities or attention to teaching - or indeed avoidance of being at the university at all ("What is the difference between God and Professor Smith?" "God is everywhere, and Professor Smith is everywhere except here.") Damrosch's observations on all this, and above all on the domination of priorities by ever more specialised research, are of some interest, though the suggestions he makes are of rather localised relevance. But, first , he never looks sideways to mathematics and the sciences, where (whatever one might say about hierarchical structures and the overwhelming importance of the search for funds) collaboration within and between laboratories, along with dialogue and discussion, is fundamental. In most branches of science, there most certainly is an "academic community", scattered (though not everywhere) across the globe, and mutually communicating every day.
At the more localised, departmental level we in arts and social sciences have indeed a great deal to learn from our colleagues in science about collaboration, team-working and dialogue.
At the level of the university, Damrosch too has almost nothing to say. But both the nature of his concerns (all too real and important) and the absence of any significant proposals for structural change, are very relevant for us. For it seems to be largely from the model of the American university, ultimately run by remote trustees and controlled by its president and "administration", in which academics function as individual providers of research or teaching, competing for favour, preferment - and freedom from teaching - that the New Right here has derived it ideas, and has imposed them by state power, mediated through quangos. If we are ever to go back to a republic of letters (and sciences), we should start by asking why it should not be made up of separate republics with defined constitutions, in which the academic citizens have both the rights (such as voting on policy) and the responsibilities which are appropriate to citizens.
Fergus Millar is Camden professor of ancient history, University of Oxford.
The University and the Teachers:: France, the United States, England
Editor - Harry Judge et al
ISBN - 1 8739 08 8
Publisher - Triangle
Price - £24.00
Pages - 285pp