A couple of months ago Stefan Collini published his book ‘What are Universities for?’ to much interest. This book was reviewed in many places including here on OT by Erika Cule, although overall the reviews were pretty mixed. Peter Conrad for one, was less than enthusiastic in the Observer, concluding
What universities are emphatically not for is to subsidise the self-pity of those they employ.
I tend to get around to reading books long after they’ve faded from the best-seller lists, and it would be pointless to add belatedly another review to the myriad already out there written by a variety of distinguished scholars (I use this word advisedly, as I’ll expand on below). However I would like to chip in with my thoughts specifically on Collini’s attitude towards science and scientists, which I found rather dispiriting.
Collini is a colleague of mine, in so far as he is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature in the University of Cambridge. I have, however, never knowingly met him within the University so I have no first-hand knowledge of the man and I can only judge his attitude towards me and those of my ilk – viz, scientists – by the tone of his book. And, much though I can applaud many of the sentiments he expresses about the current assault on education as a public good, I do take grave exception to the constantly rather snide allusions and comments made about scientists in the book. For Collini it would seem that science, because it can be applicable, is also impure and in some senses almost unworthy of its place in a university. He makes a constant point of separating out ‘scholars’ from ‘scientists’ as if he is separating the sheep and the goats, or the wheat from the chaff. In which case he clearly equates me with the chaff. I find this disappointing. We are all in this together – a point he himself makes – and universities would be the weaker if either the humanities or the sciences were somehow suddenly to be seen as dispensable.
I wrote some time ago about how I feel the long-standing tension between the humanities and science originally arose in part on class grounds. I feel this sentiment lurks throughout the book, with the constant implication that humanities scholars sit on higher ground than us mere scientifically-motivated mortals. We only try to make sense of the ‘physical world’, as opposed to the aspirations of the humanities scholars who tackle the so-called ‘human world’ in Collini’s lexicon. I suspect this argument is made more convincing in Collini’s eyes because of all the current anxiety about so-called impact in the context of the REF. This is a subject which absorbs a whole chapter of the book, which is a reproduction of what he wrote on the subject in 2009. Many scientists are just as disturbed by some of the ideas underlying impact as Collini and his colleagues and, again, it does no one any favours for him to get huffy because some portion of the work in the sciences undeniably satisfies the simplest interpretation of impact, which is that there is demonstrable contribution to our economy or healthcare. Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that by the end of the 2010 Impact Pilot study, the English panel seemed much more relaxed about the agreed metrics that had been devised than the Physics panel, on which I sat and which continued to express nervousness.
Throughout the book Collini makes it clear that he feels the scientists have it easy in the current REF climate, because their research can be readily shown to have some quantifiable economic value. (although, as scientists know, this isn’t always the case). We then get rehearsed the standard arguments about how you can’t put value on Shakespeare et al and an implicit ‘so it isn’t fair’. Furthermore, that science is upon occasion useful for curing disease, or designing a better widget, is somehow conveyed to be slightly distasteful. Finally, that the sciences get more money for their research (and he makes no attempt to assess what a sensible unit cost of a science project compared with a humanities project might be) is put across as favouring them unduly. That all disciplines should in some sense get the same money, regardless of the actual cost, strikes me as bizarre.
The familiar arguments – which these points touch on – about ‘the two cultures’ of science and humanities long predates CP Snow’s Rede Lecture here in Cambridge, as I spelled out in my earlier post. But Collini has something curious to say about this apparent division, which exemplifies my fears about his attitude:
We should not, however, allow this observation about the differences in the public purchase of arguments about the sciences and the humanities to lead us to endorse or reinstate any version of the two cultures’ dichotomy. It is not simply that there is no coherent intellectual basis for this conventional distinction – not in method or subject-matter or purpose – but also, more importantly here, that scholars and scientists share more, and have a greater interest in common where the role of universities is concerned, than the hackneyed contrast tends to suggest. Indeed, as a rough rule of thumb one may say that the more distinguished the scientists are at their science, the more readily they acknowledge the shared character of intellectual enquiry and the more willing they are to make common cause with their colleagues in the humanities against various ways of talking (or measuring) that misrepresent this. ‘Two cultures’ talk has its main current home, as it had its origins, among those who find some kind of cultural insecurity about their identities as scientists or among those who administer science rather than doing it (the two groups are not mutually exclusive). ……In London, the British Academy and the Royal Society are next-door neighbours in the same handsome Regency terrace, with some sharing of their facilities – a neatly symbolic expression both of the traditional version of the divide and of their joint standing and interest.
Sitting, as it were, on the other side of the divide, there are a number of implicit assumptions and issues that trouble me in this paragraph. Here you see an explicit version of Collini’s careful distinction between scientists and scholars. I understand why Collini feels that what he and his colleagues do is not research and should more properly be described as scholarship; indeed in essence he devotes a whole chapter of his book to defending this position. But either we are collectively scholars and researchers, or else we are humanities and STEM people. His distinction seems perverse and conveys, to me at least, a sense of superiority on behalf of the humanities. But then, that’s probably just because I’m a poor undistinguished scientist suffering from cultural insecurity! That single sentence in the paragraph above, containing its veiled contempt for us, is in itself a wonderful way of putting us down, albeit I suspect he may not even be aware that that is implicitly what he is doing. I don’t think he can imagine being on the receiving end of that sentence in reverse. But by saying we have ‘a great[er] interest in common’, and are ‘willing to make common cause’ he appears to express the fact that we scientists are meant to be the ones doing the moving to join those righteously placed in the humanities. In practice, I think the science community overall is much more likely to make space in their lives for poetry, art or music than many humanities scholars would for astronomy, geology or zoology – let alone the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the familiar example that CP Snow tossed about.
So, Collini is right to ask the question what are universities for, and right to point out in just how many ways the government is asking the impossible of us, and trying to turn us collectively into something that is almost certainly undesirable for the well-being of future generations whilst simultaneously gambling with the education of the present one. But that really is no excuse for operating the implicit divide and rule between disciplines that he seems to have contrived to do, whilst claiming to do the opposite. A wasted opportunity for speaking with a collective voice.