Song for Europe

We must listen to the Continent’s sounds and sweet airs, says Malcolm Gillies

July 28, 2011

Why are the Europeans so hopeless? I mean, the Continental ones. Look at the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11 and they are hard to spot. Of the top 40 universities globally, just two are European: the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (15th) and Ecole Polytechnique, France’s top engineering school (39th).

Perhaps Europe isn’t so great at technology these days, but at least it is the home of the arts and humanities. After all, the legacy of Aristotle, Cicero, Rembrandt, Wagner and Adorno must count for something, even these days. Apparently not. You flick down THE’s specialist table to 34th place before even encountering a Continental university, with Leiden University and the Free University of Berlin in equal position, comfortably displaced by three Australian institutions.

Well, what about the social sciences? Durkheim, Marx, Freud? Even worse. The only Continental university in the top 50 is the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris, equal 47th with the University of Arizona. In the latest Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities’ social science top 50, there are none at all.

Even in THE’s clinical, pre-clinical and health listings, just two Continental institutions appear: Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and the University of Barcelona.

Come on, who are we kidding here? THE did, however, spot a trend: nearly all the universities in its social sciences list, it pointed out, are English-language institutions; in fact, 49 out of 50. Far from indicating the utter intellectual rout of the rest of the world by the anglophones, this seems to indicate the limited utility of these tables and the domination of many disciplines by English-language journals.

It is little wonder then that the Europeans decided a couple of years ago to instigate their own league tables, to establish a ranking “that respects the multidimensional and heterogeneous nature of the world’s universities”. One of U-Multirank’s six cardinal principles is that “the linguistic, cultural, economic and historical contexts of different higher education systems” must be taken into account.

I was reminded of this monoglotic obsession with world-ranking research and the English-speaking world’s complacent lack of linguistic facility when recently attending a conference in Hungary. I’m sorry to break the news, but the truth is no more expressible in the English language, as some of our courts seem to think, than in Albanian. And the age of English as the unquestioned lingua franca of scientific research may already be meeting a challenge further East.

Language is, of course, not just a means of communicating methodologies or findings; it is both a means and an intimate part of the ends, especially in the arts and humanities. It can be an important - perhaps the most important - marker of individual expression or imprinter of national culture, and is encouraged and protected for that very reason.

When I first went to Hungary (as a Hungarian government scholar in the early 1980s), the linguistic situation was somewhat confused. The Iron Curtain was still hanging. Russian was required in most schools, but generally hated and avoided. Older scholars often spoke German as their second language, while some younger ones were starting to favour English. But in an age of limited travel to the West, the accent was heavy, the fluency variable, the grammar formulaic and the vocabulary archaic.

By 2011, Hungary held the European Union presidency and all younger European scholars at this conference, whether from the old East or the old West, spoke fluent English, German or both, whatever their language of origin.

One unassuming young man from Regensburg with an interest in vocal music encapsulated the impressive, pneumatic young European. “What language would you like it in?” he asked, just like a waiter with the menu, before presenting the final conference paper of the day. He knew we were all getting rather tired. We lazily voted for English, and so, having prepared the paper in German, he just proceeded to give it ex tempore in flawless English, on a Hungarian topic, and answered questions in the language of the questioner.

He had been preceded by another young man who despite his French name is completing his doctorate in Germany and presented his Hungarian topic in English. No stumbles. No ums nor ahs. Just perfect prose, a touch more grammatical than that of any native speaker.

But there was something else that would have been startling about this conference to the non-musical scholar. European musicians happily still mix verbal and vocal media, the way we Anglo-Saxons used to do before we became too self-conscious. There is nothing quite as revealing - as expressive of the intimacies of individual character - as human song. So, many of these paper-givers would just break into song mid-sentence: to demonstrate a theme, present a harmonic summary or illustrate a stylistic feature. Sometimes they would even drum out the accompanying rhythm or dance the music’s steps as well. I remember doing this once, without thinking, during a graduation address, to very disapproving looks from a university chancellor.

As better methods are found for assessing the multidimensional and heterogeneous nature of the world’s universities in the U-Multirank project, I hope we can better recognise Europe’s triumph in keeping linguistic and methodological variety alive, and celebrate its pride in differences of cultural value, emphasis and expectation.

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