Celibates in ivory tower find stardom

November 9, 2001

'Who are academics and what is their role?' Palgrave prize-winner Mike Finn looks at the once 'remote and ineffectual don' and finds that, although academia has not lost its idealism, communicating intellectual vitality to the public is more the rage nowadays.

The academic community has forever been dogged by the contradictions between the old and the new. These manifest themselves in ways that are simultaneously banal and complicated; it is easy to juxtapose the Tudor court of Oxford or Cambridge with the bustle of a city university but perhaps more difficult to understand the sea-changes that have taken place in academic life during the past century. In history, the "old world" is fondly remembered by some as an era of certainty, of a method (loosely tagged "empiricism") that delivered results and interpretations objectively rooted in fact. Following the advent of postmodernism and the much-vaunted "linguistic turn", the sanctity of such an approach came gradually into question, and the theoretical debates that have riven the historical community into opposed camps during the 1990s are adequate testament to the power of the epistemological crisis.

But the theoretical debate history suffers from is at once rooted in a wider concern that is reducible to the formulation - "who are academics, and what is their role in society?" This is not an easy question to answer. In the old world, the classic academic was aloof, often wholly incompetent in financial matters, blessed with erudition and genius but nevertheless still "the remote and ineffectual don" that Hilaire Belloc satirised. Consumer society, however, will not have it so. Universities have changed spectacularly over the past 150 years; the 1870 Education Act began a long process of reform aimed at developing a school system capable of delivering a rising number of undergraduates. The repeal of the 1882 University Act removed the restriction of celibacy imposed on fellows, engendering a whole new breed of university "society", while in the past 20 years, the last of the exclusively male Oxbridge colleges opened its doors to women. The academic has also changed, though not by design. Now teaching new, "bang per buck" courses, lecturers find the old ethos of Educating Rita -style non-vocational learning for learning's sake has in some cases been subordinated to the desire to manufacture the next generation of BA-qualified golf course managers.

This leaves the academic in an abject identity crisis. Schizophrenically defined as both researcher and teacher, professional historians find themselves in a struggle to transmit the joy of learning in a world of research assessment exercises and peer review. The same problem filters down the chain. Graduate students, accustomed to formalised, syllabus-style modular BA courses, have to handle an even more abrupt disjuncture in the transition to the anachronistic master-apprentice system of PhD supervision. With league tables the order of the day, but fees and loans a constraining factor, their undergraduate counterparts shop around for the best deals. Academics in short, are in the shop window.

Few academic superstars yet exist, but their ranks are growing. An early prototype was A. J. P. Taylor, whose tenure at Oxford saw him both as a powerful figure in the academic community but also an unashamedly populist commentator whose televised lectures were one of the most significant hammer-blows to the sanctity of the ivory tower. In recent years, scientists such as brain expert Susan Greenfield have seized centre-stage, along with historians such as David Starkey. Every department wants a star, a communicator who can bridge the gap between the institution and the community, or put more prosaically, the market. The shop window consists of more than stars, however. The beleaguered history admissions tutor has to pluck more students from a dwindling pool, the webmaster takes time out from research and marking to whack up the latest updates in HTML, while at endless open days, sales pitches are honed as prospective undergraduates are fought for. It can be a vicious, tiring business.

However, to say that the new world and the old world constitute monolithic opposites would be to deny reality. The new world has brought greater accountability and standardisation, while the remnants of the old maintain for academia the "noble dreams" of the quest for knowledge, of the blessings of research and even the security of a vocation. Learning for learning's sake has not gone wholly by the wayside, either. In fact, lifelong learning and the university of the third age are becoming concepts that are more and more common to every campus, while mature student numbers at undergraduate level remain healthy. It is clear, however, that the future of academic life requires a less ambiguous blend, a resolution of the conflict of interests, in the interests of the wellbeing of staff and the further development of the humanities.

The humanities in particular face uncharted territory. While it may be possible for science faculties to embrace consumer society, with its principle of cash for results, the humanities' search (in Foucault's words) for the "power that the West since medieval times has attributed to science" is likely to be in vain. This is primarily because the humanities, and the social sciences, deal for the most part with what Foucault termed "discontinuous forms of knowledge". Quantitative tools and methods have lent a veneer of scientific credibility to economic history, for example, but as Emma Rothschild has recently reminded us in her study of Adam Smith and Condorcet, even economic events transformed into numbers are ultimately only the sum of human factors. Sociology likewise depends on the deployment of the "sociological imagination" to transform survey results into theories, data into interpretation. In essence, you cannot take the "human" out of the humanities.

That begs the question - why would you want to? Although on a level of mundane practicalities the academic community may be overburdened, underfunded and maligned by all, a synthesis of the old world and the new offers the chance for a genuinely new and innovative intellectual community in British universities and beyond. History, for example, has at times veered away from its dogma of systematic analysis and towards antiquarianism in its myopic pursuit of facts unintelligible (and by consequence unimportant) to a wider public. Big questions went out of fashion, and this is often blamed on the rise of postmodernists, caricatured as barbarians at the gates seeking to make history ungraspable. It does not have to be this way. The tools may have changed, but the vision to understand the past as it really was remains the same.

History is the common meeting place for all these concerns within the humanities. Sociologists and literary critics of necessity work in a historical framework; economists and economic historians work from historical precedent to establish trends. My own specific field, social history, the burgeoning sub-discipline of people's history that roared into popularity during the crusading period of the 1970s, is an uneasy amalgam of history and sociology. This hybrid status occasionally sees it come under fire (even from its own practitioners) for the unproblematic ways in which its adherents employ sociological concepts; but despite its shortcomings, it remains the most vibrant area of historical research today. It also remains, despite the cynicism often associated with the advent of postmodernism in the 1980s, a real force for the democratisation of education. Everyone is, on some level, a social historian, and the armies of genealogists and family history enthusiasts that outnumber the professional researcher in the archive bear witness to the level of commitment many feel to their particular interests.

It is also an area that encourages pluralism in terms of aims and theories. Here, traditional methods of evidence-gathering such as visits to archives and the citation of documents, can be supplemented by hands-on methodologies, including oral history. Social history emancipates the academic from the ivory tower by forcing him or her to confront living witnesses, who can range from Nazi collaborators to working-class housewives in Salford. The value of such research is immediately obvious; in a world where Holocaust denial (most famously represented in the Irving trial) is a real menace, the interrogation of participants in the Nazi imperial project is of real didactic value - a "warning from history" if ever there was one. Likewise, the Salford housewives interviewed by Andrew Davies in his 1992 book Leisure, Gender and Poverty shed light on how our perceptions of what working-class life was really like for our immediate forebears have been shaped by a combination of mythology and the retrospective construction of community. In the light of the recent racial violence in northern towns, it seems obvious that a better understanding of the nature of historical communities in industrialised society and their stories will be invaluable to any concerted attempt to build a multicultural Britain anew.

All this requires imagination, the skill most essential to the artist. This is why any fusion with science remains uneasy, but an open mind, supposedly the most vital quality of the empirical sciences, needs to be maintained here too. The academic's role then is not as a remote and ineffectual don of old, but an interpreter, trying to communicate something of that intellectual vitality of the old world to a wider (and hungry) public. It is a far cry from the days of the University Extension Scheme and the Worker's Educational Association, but no less idealistic. While the best of the academic communicators have recently found themselves in commercialised ventures, with all the paraphernalia that brings (book tie-ins, photo shoots), some have seen a more elevated purpose. As Greenfield argues for the sciences, without a community in contact with science, or a scientific environment for debates, the public become disenfranchised. The threat is no less real for the humanities and the social arm of the sciences.

The Marxist social critic Raymond Williams, in many ways a prototype of the community-conscious academic, identified this problem in a seminal essay many years ago. Arguing that culture is ordinary, Williams went on to write Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society . The book represented his attempt to offer a key to the closed door of knowledge, a knowledge trapped by language within the ivory tower, among such mantras as dialectic, naturalism and hegemony. All three feature on the cover. He sought to emphasise, through his autobiographical recollections, that culture really is ordinary. Foucault saw things the same way; pursuing an "archaeology of knowledges" - the knowledges of the non-academic world - which he saw as equally valid. This is not news; but two dead academics have emphatically thrown down the gauntlet to the present generation, which as The THES 's letters page frequently attests, suffers disillusionment and anomie in a changing academic world. The role of the academic at the beginning of the third millennium is to show the way through the threshold; to provide a link between the seeming certainty of the past and the real uncertainty of the future. As Greenfield notes, a scientifically illiterate society would be a terrible thing, but a society that knew neither its own history nor those of the cultures belonging to it, could be even worse. In that sense at least, perhaps it is time to forsake the monasticism of the academic life forever for a more socially conscious role that will both renew the idealistic visions of the old world in harmony with the urgent needs of the new.

Mike Finn is a graduate student in economic and social history at Magdalene College, Cambridge. This essay won the 2001 Palgrave/ THES Humanities and Social Science writing prize on the past and future of the university. The prize will be presented at the Institute of Historical Research conference on E. H. Carr on November 14.

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