Leader: Where do the curious people go?

Academia long gave asylum to awkward geniuses. It is less welcoming now, and scholars and students both feel the loss

March 12, 2009

The history of the academy is sprinkled with geniuses who have worked painstakingly on whatever nook and cranny of their research area piqued their curiosity. Bob Horvitz, Nobel laureate in physiology, is said to have spent 30 years studying the 22 cells of a worm's vulva. Arguably less usefully, the Victorian eugenicist and polymath Sir Francis Galton was addicted to classifying, using strict criteria, the attractiveness of young women whom he passed on the street.

For some, universities are "places where people with Asperger's get asylum"; for others, their classes are "padded cells for obsessives", for whom writing books stops them from "assaulting strangers and being the biggest bores that ever existed".

Whatever the truth, in recent times it seems that "stratospherically intelligent semi-crazies" have been made less welcome in academia as speculative and risky projects have been shunned and the safe and compliant recruited, the "moderately intelligent dullards".

So is it the case that, as Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College and biographer of Tony Blair, said this week in his inaugural lecture as professor of education at the College of Teachers: "We have embraced dullness and so close are we to it, we do not even see what has happened"?

It is this dullness of mind and purpose that Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, alluded to in his submission to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee on students and universities. He blames a process that amounts "not to dumbing down but to dumbing into the middle", where the bright student "is forced to turn her intelligence to handing examiners what she knows they want". Bureaucracy places more value on being "clear and predictable" about course content than on stretching students' minds.

In a place such as the University of Oxford, he says, where any alert and organised student can get a 2:1, the effect is that "lots of students get firsts" because "they have put in a methodical, well-organised, high 2:1 performance; but it would be absurd to cut the number, since we have asked them to do a particular job and they have done it impeccably. The problem is that we haven't asked them to do something more interesting."

It is the relentless pursuit of that "something interesting" that many scholars find appealing. Unfortunately for students, the genes for that academic tunnel vision are apparently the same as for Asperger's syndrome. So you often get the intense focus and persistence, but not the skills to relate the passion and inspire others. Sir Isaac Newton would work obsessively on a problem for days until he had found the solution. But he dropped out of academic life in middle age to become a civil servant because he did not like teaching or students.

Happily, today's academy has many teachers who do like students, so why assume that they should not also want to give them something interesting to delight in? They may now arrive at university with an imagination stultified by the national curriculum and an intellect blunted by a battery of examinations. They may turn up with demands because they pay tuition fees, but at that age can the customer always be right? If we accept Seldon's warning that "a soulless, loveless, desiccated education damages children for a lifetime", university is the last chance to stop that happening.

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