Friday, March 12, 2010

Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities

By Anthony Grafton

(from New York Review of Books)

British universities face a crisis of the mind and spirit. For thirty years, Tory and Labour politicians, bureaucrats, and “managers” have hacked at the traditional foundations of academic life. Unless policies and practices change soon, the damage will be impossible to remedy.

As an “Occasional Student” at University College London in the early 1970s and a regular visitor to the Warburg Institute, Oxford, and Cambridge after that, I—like many American humanists—envied colleagues who taught at British universities. We had offices with linoleum; they had rooms with carpets. We worked at desks; they sat with their students on comfy chairs and gave them glasses of sherry. Above all, we felt under constant pressure to do the newest new thing, and show the world that we were doing it: to be endlessly innovative and interdisciplinary and industrious.

British humanists innovated too. Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, Frances Yates and Peter Burke, and many others formulated new ways of looking at history for my generation. But British academics always admitted, as we sometimes did not, that it is vital to preserve and update our traditional disciplines and forms of knowledge: languages, precise interpretation of texts and images and objects, rigorous philosophical analysis and argument. Otherwise all the sexy interdisciplinary work will yield only a trickle of trendy blather.

There was a Slow Food feel to British university life, based on a consensus that people should take the time to make an article or a book as dense and rich as it could be. Good American universities were never exactly Fast Food Nation, but we certainly felt the pressure to produce, regularly and rapidly. By contrast, Michael Baxandall spent three years at the Warburg Institute, working in the photographic collection and not completing a dissertation, and several more as a lecturer, later on, writing only a few articles. Then, in 1971 and 1972, he produced two brilliant interdisciplinary books, which transformed the study of Renaissance humanism and art, remain standard works to this day, and were only the beginning of a great career. Gertrud Bing, E.H. Gombrich, J.B. Trapp, and A.M. Meyer, who administered the Warburg in those days, knew how to be patient. Their results speak for themselves.

From the accession of Margaret Thatcher onward, the pressure has risen. Universities have had to prove that they matter. Administrators and chairs have pushed faculty to win grants and publish and rewarded those who do so most successfully with periods of leave and other privileges that American professors can only dream of. The pace of production is high, but the social compact among teachers is frayed. In the last couple of years, the squeeze has become tighter than ever. Budgets have shrunk, and universities have tightened their belts to fit. Now they are facing huge further cuts for three years to come—unless, as is likely, the Conservatives take over the government, in which case the knife may go even deeper.

Administrators have responded not by resisting, for the most part, but by trying to show that they can “do more with less.” To explain how they can square this circle, they issue statements in the Orwellian language of “strategic planning.” A typical planning document, from King’s College London, explains that the institution must “create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level with no realistic prospect of extra investment.”

Link to complete text:

NYRblog - Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities - The New York Review of Books

1 comment:

Dharamjeet said...

Excellent article. This is globalization. When the Humanities all over the world are being questioned for not being profitable departments as other like management, computers, media are. The logic of profit is a new universal Law that drives our contemporary society. As Derrida says "the future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger", the Humanities also need to think of their own future in terms of the impending disaster in this neoliberal order. I think the time has come to collectively raise a voice against the powers that be.