Goethe's the guy v-c goes to for advice on reform

Expert on 18th-century German thinker to counsel Melbourne's leader. Hannah Fearn reports

June 4, 2009

He was described by George Eliot as "the last true polymath to walk the earth", and there can be little doubt about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's academic clout.

But it comes as some surprise that the 18th-century German thinker is being called upon to guide the reinvention of a modern research-intensive university.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, appointed Goethe expert John Armstrong as his personal adviser after reading his book Love, Life, Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World (2006).

The associate professor, a Briton, is now advising Professor Davis in a role that parallels Goethe's position as adviser to Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

Professor Armstrong said: "It was the Goethe book that got me the job. Professor Davis was asking me: 'What would Goethe do?'

"He asked me this several times, and eventually I said: 'The fact is that in this discussion you are Carl August, and really the kind of conversation we're having is one where I need to work as an adviser.' He accepted that."

He added: "If you're going to undertake ambitious educational reform, you need a lot of creative, unconventional thinking going on around the person driving it."

Professor Armstrong, who is also philosopher-in-residence at Melbourne Business School, said the focus of his advice was on overhauling the university's research portfolio. He wants Melbourne to consider abandoning peer review, a common academic measure employed in last year's research assessment exercise in the UK.

"Research is a word that signals high-quality, creative intellectual work," he said, adding that peer review "is a good safeguard, but doesn't address the fundamental problem, which is why these ideas matter in our society".

Warning that universities were distracted by "extremely 'techie' problems with evaluations and measures", he said that many felt peer review was the only option.

Another Goethe expert, W. Daniel Wilson, professor of German at Royal Holloway, University of London, said it was "not surprising that a vice-chancellor sees himself in the role of a sovereign".

But he added: "Goethe, a minister of state firmly committed to his Duke's interests, would have had none of it.

"He helped restrict the autonomy of the University of Jena, participating in the disciplining or firing of 'uncomfortable' professors ... If Armstrong is to emulate Goethe, he will have to develop considerable self-interest and not a little ruthlessness."

Professor Armstrong's new book, In Search of Civilisation, is due out this month.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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