Boundaries are there to be leapt

October 19, 2007

A visit to a US college filled Frank Furedi with the hope that UK academics too can cross the disciplinary divides that hold them back. Although it has been more than two weeks since I returned from my visit to St Norbert College in Wisconsin, I continue to reflect on my experience there.

St Norbert is small liberal arts college just a few miles down the road from Green Bay. What struck me most about this institution was the seriousness with which colleagues regarded their role as scholars and teachers.

Although St Norbert is a teaching institution, and staff are expected to devote most of their time to teaching, everyone I encountered was buzzing with ideas. People took their roles as teacher-scholars seriously and successfully constructed a lively academic environment.

In contrast to my visit to UK institutions, where talking shop tends to focus on departmental gossip and administrative issues, colleagues at St Norbert appeared to be principally interested in discussing ideas.

I have become so used to living in a world divided by sharp disciplinary boundaries that I had almost forgotten the pleasure of sitting down and having a conversation with a sociologist, a philosopher and a theologian about problems that preoccupy us all. Such conversations are very different to the discipline-based discussions that often confine the imagination to the demands of professional specialisms. After a few days at this college even the most one-sided social scientist would realise the importance of the humanities for university life.

What I remember most is encountering academics who were involved in a genuine conversation about what constitutes the purpose of the university. Some were concerned about becoming engulfed by the growing tide of what they called the Disneyfication of higher education. Others were searching for ways of successfully transmitting academic values to their students, many of whom had signed up for vocational-oriented degrees.

What became evident was that the issue was not academic versus vocational education but how you give meaning to both.

"Should we attempt to launch an introductory course for all the first-year students" was one of the questions debated. Other professors were interested in discussing the question of institutional values. Was it possible or desirable to promote liberal values traditionally associated with the humanities?

I was also puzzled and delighted to note that my teaching colleagues did not regard administrators as their enemies. The silent war between the two sides that permeates many UK campuses was noticeably absent. One possible reason for this unusual state of affairs was that academics take the view that their institution takes their opinion seriously about issues that affect their community.

Of course St Norbert College has its share of problems, but despite all the pressures it faces it still manages to conduct a conversation relevant to all its staff and students. Maybe it is easier to acquire the habits integral to an academic community on a relatively small campus.

When I reflect on my experience in a small Midwestern liberal arts college I feel inspired and optimistic. There is no reason why British academics need to perform to the prevailing technocratic script. We can begin by taking initiatives that allow us to have a common conversation. We can engage in more boundary crossing. Why not get all of our first-year students to read the same book? Better still, why don't we get all the academic staff to discuss it too?

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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