Dwarves at the feet of giants

January 6, 1995

An enduring reminder to scholars of the humanities is set in the windows of Chartres cathedral. On top of each of the four great Old Testament prophets stands a small evangelist, using his prophet as a look-out post. "We are as dwarves perched upon the shoulders of giants," Bernard of Chartres had written a century before, "So that we can see more and further than they."

Even in those days, the monkish professor may have been tempted to the occasional twinge of academic pride, and thought himself a giant too. But the official line was there in glass for all to see: we are privileged heirs to a great tradition; and junior servants in the sacred task of its handing-on.

Our own official records are not cut in glass, but collated on computers as part of research assessment exercises or departmental quality assessments. The message that their dreary statistics yield is apparently optimistic. Our universities are thronged with thrusting young scholars, whose industry, originality and energy allow them to leap ahead of their predecessors, stimulated by the bracing air of competition.

More than ever now, historians have learnt to treat the narratives of the powerful and their flatterers with a degree of suspicion. Was the Emperor Constantine really the pious Christian ruler portrayed by the court theologian Eusebius? Can we strain our ears to hear other voices: the voices of the poor he neglected, or of the enemies he silenced? There is a place for such suspicion when we assess ourselves. The official records contain a little truth perhaps. But what are the truths that they are suppressing?

In the nature of the case, then, my own sources are anecdotal, the buried hints that I unearth impressionistic. My experience suggests that some of our finest young scholars deeply disbelieve the official findings. They view the assessments with a pragmatic, even cynical eye.

They recognise that the learning and insights they are being pressed to parade are (as yet) vastly less informed, less profound and less mature than those of their teachers. Why does this matter? Why not simply publish in haste and be damned? Why not just pretend to an excellence, to a "five-star rating" for the sake of political pragmatism?

Three dangers at least lurk within such a response. First, the more honest young scholars find the pretence intolerable. Their vocation is to seek the truth; but in order to be allowed to do so they are constantly forced to pretend to an expertise, a competence, an importance, that they know they have not yet earned. The more sensitive (often for that reason the finer) teachers are more likely to find the strain unbearable and simply abandon ship.

Second, the pretence moulds the way that we work. Pride has become an expedient virtue. But the true scholar's virtue is humility: the humility that allows him to listen attentively to the voices of his sources and of his teachers. The humility that allows him to lay aside his prejudices and acknowledge those uncomfortable facts he would rather ignore. The humility that reminds him that his own contribution will never be more than a drop in the vast ocean of scholarship that is providence's gift to him.

By contrast, in order to make our mark on the public records, we are to emphasise only our own originality and significance. We are urged to score points not by seeking the truth but by bolstering our own case; not by attending to those quiet voices that take patience to hear, but by shouting immediately and loudly enough to drown our rivals. And to a frightening degree we come to believe what we are saying.

Third, the pretence encourages us to say too much. We are better than our teachers (we are supposed to believe): we have more to contribute than them; we can produce it faster. So we expend our energies less on reading them than on replacing them; and in doing so, we build a barrier out of our papers that threatens to block our own pupils' access to the inherited tradition.

We dwarves need time to climb up to our look-out posts. Time to acquire the painstaking and ancient skills of languages and of familiarity with our evidence. Time to assimilate the newer theoretical insights shared often with other disciplines. Time to integrate our understanding of our own topic into all of this, and to learn to share it with enthusiasm and with clarity. Time above all then, to listen to others before we pass on to our own heirs the tradition to which eventually we may make our own modest contribution.

Scholarship is a cumulative discipline. The scholar needs time to mature. It is so obvious that those of us who administer the bureaucrats' assessments can be tempted to think that the game of pretence does no harm. History should remind us how frighteningly easy it is to forget those voices that are silenced. We must keep asking: "Which are the lies?" Mine is not the official history. The public records proudly proclaim that our young scholars are brighter, busier and more productive than ever before, able to crush the teachers on whose shoulders they stand with the weight of their publications.

I have eavesdropped on humbler sources: the whispered confessions in the smoky pub, the heart-to-heart over a late-night cup of cocoa. Humbler sources -- yet more honest; and they report that we dwarves are struggling even to sit at the giants' feet. We suppress such voices in order to fool our paymasters; but in the end we delude, and disinherit, only ourselves.

Margaret Atkins is a recent research fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge.

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