Joined in battle 1

May 8, 2008

Derek Attridge is absolutely right when he argues that criticism in literary degrees should be open to what he calls a certain "magic": that intake of breath at the unexpected, the requirement that we stretch our imagination to accommodate worlds and thoughts previously undreamt of in our philosophies ("We've lost those magic moments", 1 May).

He is even more right to describe the struggle to maintain this as a "battle" and one that is "worth fighting". That battle is to be fought against those who are systematically damaging the possibilities of such freedom of imagination at large - not just in English literature but in all aspects of tertiary education.

The predominant audit culture - governed largely by the Quality Assurance Agency and its tawdry consumerist vacuities parading as a pious protector of quality and customer - has now reached the point where its bureaucratic newspeak and intellectual banality threaten the fundamental freedoms that a university might be thought to protect: the freedom to think differently and in unpredictable ways. We used to call that "research"; and the best teaching was and remains research-led, in the sense that, when we start out, we do not know where we'll end up. That is as true for world-leading engineering as it is for Shakespeare.

In place of this we are required to ensure that we have endless audit processes that have become self-serving, proceeding in ignorance of what really happens in education. We need an opening to the future, not a bland checklist of alleged outcomes in which no one has any imaginative intellectual investment. As Attridge hints, we teach well; if we do so, it is despite the prevailing ideology, not thanks to it.

Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and of comparative literature, University of Warwick.

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