What are universities for?

Dot writes: there’s a class of powerful person these days who at heart hates the universities, and unfortunately it’s the class of people who run them. This is obvious in the horrifying cuts being made at King’s College London, whereby (not the only casualty) one of the big names in my own field, the Professor of Palaeography David Ganz, is being made redundant at a time when the university is recruiting for senior management positions. It’s also obvious in the proposed new Research Excellence Framework for the British universities, under which 25% of the rating for a department would be based on the ‘impact’ of its research; by this is meant not its influence within the discipline, or even the academy more generally, but its demonstrable immediate usefulness to people outside the university sector, especially business (I can imagine Debenhams being really interested in my work on Anglo-Saxon ideas about shame, for example). (There’s a good piece by Ross Mc Kibbin about the REF proposals in the LRB for 25th February.) These developments witness to an extraordinary philistinism on the part of managers and government: an inability to see merit in anything that doesn’t contribute to the economy in the most crudely direct way.

But, ok, what do the universities contribute? What is the point of researching shame in Anglo-Saxon England, or the navigational abilities of guppies, or the pressures produced by defecating penguins? What is the point of our teaching, unless we teach people things they will use in their jobs – and in my department we largely don’t, unless they become teachers themselves? When I emerge palely from Pearse Station on Monday week, what is the shining ideal that should drag me past the coffee shop and into my office?

It has, I suppose, two aspects: the disinterested pursuit of truth, and education. Knowledge for its own sake is not, I think, just a luxury – though it is one of the precious things that our society’s wealth allows us to have more of; it is, in fact, one of the things we get to spend our money on rather than a means to more money in itself. The pursuit and preservation of knowledge can often result in finding new ways to prosper materially, but they are themselves enriching. Moreover, as we try to practise them in universities, they express a particular way of valuing other people and the world around us. The labour of studying something in the detailed but oddly abstract way we do – to find out about it, to make comparisons, to analyse, while attempting to remain as far as possible objective or at least aware of the nature of our subjectivity – this is a way of honouring people and things by trying to know them while letting them be what they are. It is quite different to how our society behaves most of the time, and all the more important for that reason. As places of education universities don’t just prepare people for the workplace or help them to be intelligent and questioning citizens (though they do): they make them part, for a while, of a peculiarly humane and morally admirable way of relating to the world. It is not a relationship that can be sustained by many people for much of the time. But I think it’s worth paying a few of us to have a go, and to share it with our students. I think it makes our society better. I really do.


2 thoughts on “What are universities for?

  1. Ken

    An American senator once said: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts. Or words to that effect.

    I think the role of universities in public life is to be a body dedicated to finding out what the facts in question are. For any conceivable topic. Be that the existence of God, or what constitutes a meaningful life, or whether marijuana use leads to harder drugs, or whether there is anthropogenic global warming or anything else you care to imagine.

    Universities can play this role because they pay researchers to find the facts out and don’t make payment conditional on getting the right answer. It is also true that some departments of a university may be able to make a more direct impact by inventing something useful, but this is an added benefit. It would make universities less useful overall, not more, if their purpose switched from finding out what is true to making gadgets. And I do sometimes worry that closer links between businesses and universities might change the incentives of researchers away from the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

    (I do agree with Dot that providing people with a general education is also extremely important. It is a perfectly coordinate activity of universities to do this, because good research and good teaching are mutually supporting. )

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