More than a research factory

June 21, 2002

True scholarship involves a range of intellectual activities, writes Stephen Logan

What are universities for? One function might be to maintain a degree of historical impartiality about the cultural suppositions of our age.

Bold assertions such as Andrew Oswald's recent claim that "real universities are not, repeat not, primarily places of teaching" seem to me unsound, not least because they derive from a conception of the university that is peculiar to recent times.

The term "research" developed its academic currency in relation to the natural sciences, concerned as they were with the acquisition of new knowledge. But it is doubtful whether the term gives an altogether accurate idea of the work in which, say, a literary critic or a philosopher should be engaged. Acquiring new knowledge is just one of the activities associated with human intelligence.

C. S. Lewis, first professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, author of a great variety of works and evidently no slouch, referred to research as an "incubus". He was not opposing scholarship but he did believe that a narrow misconception of the range of activities proper to a scholar, and one not adapted to the requirements of individual disciplines, would result in a degradation of the function of the university.

The spectacle of the past 20 years, with academics being rewarded for the production of unnecessary books and penalised for concentrating on other ways of discharging their intellectual function, suggests that his forebodings were warranted. Either that, or the classical academy, with its belief in the centrality of intelligent conversation and thinking, propagated an illusion from which we have had to wait for the éclaircissement of the past 20 years to set us free.

If I write a book about the idea of a university, then by Oswald's criteria, I am presumably engaging in research. If I write an article, again I am engaging in research, provided it appears in a refereed journal and can be counted as research under the terms of the research assessment exercise. But if I write an article for a newspaper or discuss the idea of a university with students, or simply meditate on the subject in ways that fruitfully inform my work, then I am not engaging in research and am only fit for work in an institution whose inferior status is demonstrated by its failure to produce the requisite tonnage of research. What idea of our students is implicit in the notion that only people incapable of the highest order of creative thinking are fit to teach them?

The idea (in the Platonic sense) of the university is impoverished equally by false conceptions of research and of teaching. "Thinking of the sort that issues in scholarly publication" is just one of the activities in which a dedicated and responsible academic might engage. Similarly, "imparting information" is but one definition - and not a very satisfactory one - of what constitutes "teaching".

F. R. Leavis is another of the academics whose work has recently been occluded by a quasi-scientific conception of research and its presumption of progress by supersession. But this was Leavis's conception of "teaching". If one's concern is essentially with literature one doesn't think of oneself as teaching, one thinks of oneself as engaged with one's students in the business of criticism.

To see the superiority of this as a way of understanding the pedagogic function depends on a form of education far removed from the actuarial impertinence of the research and teaching assessment exercises. Such an education, made possible by a community of scholars with a historically informed conception of the university, will involve the whole person, not merely the intellect, be free of chronological snobbery and be aware of the present as a period liable to failures of perspective for which awareness of the past is a necessary antidote.

And education so conceived depends on the kind of unobtrusive, collaborative, patient, creative (and possibly unpublished) thinking that goes on every day in any university that has not become a factory for the production of mere "research".

Stephen Logan is lecturer in English, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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