23 April, 2012Issue 19.1Politics & SocietySocial PolicyThe ArtsThe Humanities Debate

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Public Schools

Gabriel Roberts

BritishStefan Collini
What Are Universities For?
Penguin, 2012
240 pages
ISBN: 978-1846144820


On the face of it, Stefan Collini’s new book is an attempt to defend universities, and the humanities in particular, from the meddlesome intrusions of government. It draws on Collini’s work as an historian and a commentator on higher education to give an intelligent account of how and why universities exist. But it’s worth asking, as Collini asked of Christopher Hitchens in a 2003 London Review of Books article, what cultural authority this type of writing can lay claim to. It doesn’t offer detailed analysis of educational statistics, engage in meticulous scholarship, or explain how universities should be funded. Nor does it propose any general theory of higher education or, in defiance of its title, explain what universities are for. So what has Collini got to offer?

His answer is that he offers a polemic, a genre which he places somewhere near satire, jeremiad, manifesto, and cultural criticism. This distinguishes his book from a philosophical monograph on the one hand and a government White Paper on the other. Its aim, he insists, is to talk about universities in a new way by redescribing and recharacterising their function. By these means, Collini hopes to reacquaint his readers with their half-buried intuitions about the value of higher education.

To some extent, Collini’s careful specification of his genre is expedient and conceals the work’s poor structure. The first half, which contains chapters on the global multiversity, John Henry Newman, and the history of universities in Britain, is quite different from the second, which contains selections from Collini’s journalism. But the first half, far from counterbalancing the eclecticism of the second, is itself disorganised and eclectic. The reader can be forgiven for wondering, by page 52, why Collini is still reflecting on the nature of Newman’s rhetoric rather than engaging in some rhetoric himself.

One might also question Collini’s decision to write about universities in general terms. If his intention was to write a polemic, he might have done better to focus on the humanities in Britain, a subject which is dear to his heart and which he knows a great deal about. As it is, his eagerness to avoid writing yet another defence of the humanities leads him to larger issues than he can easily handle and makes his gravitation toward the humanities in Britain seem like an abandonment of his titular question. His attempts to address larger questions are similarly dissatisfying, as he waltzes uncertainly through the key issues—globalisation, institutional complexity, universities, and businesses—without commenting very originally on any of them.

Yet despite all this, Collini’s polemic has much to recommend it. His literary and historical expertise makes him a shrewd critic of the assumptions, misconceptions, and muddles which make thinking about higher education so difficult. Among these, he identifies the media’s and government’s obsession with funding, access, and impact, the danger of placing too much faith in league-tables, and the reliance of journalists on caricaturish images of port-swilling dons and on hopelessly under-analysed notions of elitism. Even a term like “research”, he points out, has a veiled bias in favour of activities which involve discovery and investigation, rather than activities like literary criticism and philosophy which may depend largely on reflection. In all these matters, Collini is a reliable guide.

Collini’s attack on jargon is aimed particularly at government policy. He worries that the humanities’ defenders have been too willing to adopt the language supplied to them by government. Rather than redescribing their activities in terms of impact, service provision, or what the guidelines to the Research Excellence Framework notoriously described as “other quality of life benefits”, humanities academics should try to make politicians see higher education in richer and more nuanced ways. They should also reject bullet points, mission statements, and other insidious devices which stifle reasoned discussion and impose a culture of corporate anonymity. Most of all, Collini argues, they should get better at holding their nerve.

Collini’s reflections on the language in which higher education is debated are connected with his broader thoughts about universities’ independence. One of universities’ most distinctive characteristics, he argues, is that they are funded by governments and yet independent from them. Brave governments will grant universities this independence whilst more controlling ones, and those which wish to smother opposition to their policies, will seek to curb it. In recent years, this kind of control has been achieved through funding cuts and the construal of universities as providers of professional training. These are timely observations. As Raymond Geuss argued at a conference on the value of the humanities, held in Cambridge in February 2011, universities (and, again, the humanities in particular) play a vital role in moderating the coercive power of governments and business. At a time when relatively few non-governmental and non-business institutions hold much sway, this aspect of universities’ function is important.

Above all, Collini is insistent that universities are a public good. Most of us, he argues, have views about how society should be run which extend far beyond our immediate self-interest. If we reflect on the matter, we will see that these hopes for a flourishing society must allot a significant role to universities and one which involves far more than technological research and professional training. This means that universities should be funded by students who attend them and by people who do not. It also means that we should not conceive of universities solely as vehicles for economic growth. As Collini reminds us, there are many things which we do not value because they make money, but which we spend money on because they are valuable. Universities fall squarely in this category.

Throughout the book, there is a reassuring feeling that Collini has thought about the really deep issues. He is keenly aware of the difficulties of moral argument and of how debates about the value of the humanities are frustrated by the individualistic and instrumentalist tone of public political discourse. Our inability to discuss complex notions of value leads to the dominance of wealth and economic growth in political argument, as if these things alone were incontestably good. Collini’s awareness of the different degrees of objectivity which are obtainable in different intellectual activities is similarly nuanced, and leads to his identifying judgement, rather than demonstration or proof, as a key concept in humanistic activity. Perhaps most impressively, he offers a sustained critique of the use of quantitative techniques in the evaluation of academic work without endorsing any intellectually extravagant theses about what can and what cannot be measured.

Collini’s step falters, however, when he considers the humanities’ relation to other subjects. He sees the humanities and the sciences as involved in the effort to “understand” and sees this as inherently worthwhile. There are no “two cultures” for Collini as there once were for C.P. Snow. Yet Collini’s recourse to “understanding” to explain what the humanities and the sciences have in common masks the more specific ways in which research in the humanities can be valuable and the incognizance of many scientists about why the humanities exist. Collini’s silence on these issues is matched by his silence about the rise of the “digital humanities” and the increasing invocation in humanities research of neuroscience, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. Although Collini’s emphasis on the importance of judgement shows an awareness of these issues, they demand much greater attention. Many questions about the value of the humanities, and whether they can continue in a recognisable form, have their foundations in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science, and yet these are questions which neither Collini nor many other commentators on the humanities have been willing to explore.

Collini’s book is difficult to take on its own terms: as an attempt to establish what universities are for, it lacks answers; and as a polemic, it lacks directness and force. Its apparently hasty construction is also frustrating and prevents it from being the concise and provocative book which Collini may have intended. But it still serves a valuable function. It provides an intelligent guide to debates about higher education and shows how literary and historical understanding can be used to critique the language in which those debates are conducted.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a DPhil in English at Worcester College, Oxford.

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