A precious symbiosis

Felipe Fernández-Armesto on the interdependence of teaching and research

April 8, 2010

I am in Baltimore, Maryland, giving lectures at a peculiar university. Johns Hopkins, who founded it, was an oddity: an abolitionist raised on a plantation, a Quaker who made a fortune from whisky, a Maryland patriot who supported the Union in the Civil War.

He lavished money on every kind of public benefit, especially for the sick, the poor and the orphaned. When he died in 1873, he left what was then the largest legacy ever devoted to a single act of philanthropy for the founding of a university to embellish Baltimore. He probably envisaged a conventional American college, preparing young men for worldly success under a veneer of civilised learning. His trustees seem barely to have known what a university was. They entrusted the project to a president who discarded the founder's plans and created an institution after his own heart, consecrated to research on the Germanic model, rather than to the broad educational values existing US universities represented. At first, only graduates were admitted, and the Teutonic seminar was the only arena in which teaching took place.

The experiment was financially disastrous and undergraduates soon arrived to make up the shortfall. The primacy of research, however, remained and gave Johns Hopkins a distinct and still hugely successful and influential brand. Clark University in Massachusetts and the University of Chicago imitated it in the 1880s and 1890s. Since then, traditional universities in the US have increasingly tended to switch emphasis and funds to research and to graduate programmes. Although no one has managed to create a university without undergraduates, there are plenty of academic research institutes in the US unencumbered by affiliation to universities and free of any obligations to government or industry.

At the other extreme, some of the most respected places of higher education in the country are liberal arts colleges, where professors are consecrated to undergraduate studies and research is not allowed to sully the purity of the undergraduate ideal - although several of the best have recently sidelined the ideal and rebranded themselves as "research universities" in pursuit of grant aid and international prestige. In some universities it is hard to resist drawing the conclusion that the undergraduates are there mainly to give the graduates teaching practice.

The system, in short, is constructed - with many compromises and much fudging - along the lines that Johns Hopkins University originally represented: graduate and undergraduate education, although not mutually exclusive, are essentially different projects. Teaching and research, although not mutually discrete, require separate if sometimes overlapping arenas.

Although I welcome the compromises and fudging, I deplore the dichotomy. It angers me to see universities adopt "mission statements" that speak of "learning and research" as if research were not a form of learning, and "teaching and learning", as if either term could make sense without the other.

Most of us need to air our thinking in classrooms before we can usefully confide it to research papers or books. Undergraduates, innocent of hieratic language and professional traditions, often make better audiences than graduates, who need unchaining from slavish or sycophantic habits and professional prejudices. There are vocations for learning strong enough to survive immersion in research institutes, but I have seen some colleagues' creativity wither when transplanted to some simulacrum of Princeton or Palo Alto.

Teaching unenriched by research can seem impoverished. Research unrefined by teaching can seem esoteric and introspective. The best test of what my British colleagues are now learning to call the "impact" of research is: how does it change undergraduates' minds and lives when you share it with them?

Nowadays, moreover, for teaching purposes, the distinction between graduates and undergraduates is getting blurred. Both, typically, start their courses in appalling ignorance, impoverished by deficient basic schooling in failing secondary systems and patchy higher education. Just as undergraduate freshmen increasingly need what is effectively remedial work in general education, languages and elementary techniques of critical reading and effective writing, so graduate inceptors, however "promising", often need basic nurturing.

The symbiosis of teaching and research is precious. Autonomous and independent research institutes should not be allowed to monopolise many talents. They should have few or no permanent professorships. They should, as the best do, recharge teachers' batteries and give them opportunities to concentrate their minds on research for a while - but always with the obligation of returning to the classroom. New graduates should expect to share classes with senior undergraduates so that each cohort learns from the other and professors learn from both.

A teacher's vocation should be a qualification for a grant or a job in research. And when researchers publish their results, they should think of their task as teaching in print: making what they write clear and life-enhancing to readers, just as they ought to strive to make what they say clear and life-enhancing in the classroom.

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