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.
Great review Athene and I agree entirely with you as a humanities person who relished working with scientists such as yourself on education policy issues. High level thinking has many facets to it and it is arguably on the verge of negatiive discrimination to praise implicitly one group for being better at this than another. A recipe for divide and rule? Yes.
Goodness me, Collini does come across a a bit unreconstructed.
This sounds all too familiar to me, I’m afraid. The arrogance of ‘scientists and scholars’ is breathtaking but not at all suprising to me.. I know several scientists who are very interested in and knowledgeable about the humanities, but although I know far more humanities scholars than scientists, I can think of almost none with even a passing interest in science unles they are in digital humanities. This kind of assumption of superiority amongst humanists is extremely unattractive and does nobody any good. Why do we try to imply fields are better than others? What is wrong simply with different and equally valuable? Very sad indeed.
I haven’t read the book, but from what I know of Collini, his campaigns and his previous work, I suspect this is a *little* unfair. His anxiety comes out of issues of funding and, by and large, it is the arts and humanities who feel they have a harder time convincing people and governments that they deserve funding – note the ringfencing that science funding received recently, something not extended to other areas. It is also very noticeable how much funding in arts & humanities seems to be trying to push us into nonsensical science-inspired models, such as large group research projects.
So perhaps there is some fear or envy there, and some unfortunate ways of expressing his point, but a fight for scholarship in all areas does need to be had.
Actually, the entire research budget was ringfenced – not just science funding, This includes ESRC and AHRC and HEFCE QR.
The AHRC’s budget is being reduced – not by a huge amount, but in real terms – to 2015: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News/Latest/Pages/AHRCfouryearfinancialallocation.aspx
I have not read Collini’s book and only have your account to go by but I think it is possible to put a more charitable interpretation of the duality ‘scientists and scholars’ than the one you have chosen. Scientist is a collective name for all those actively involved in one or other of the sciences. There is no equivalent collective name for philologists, historians, and all the other academics actively involved in the humanities. I could imagine Collini is using scholar in this sense. Whether he should be talking about the two groups separately or not is another issue and one could perhaps wish that he would just refer to academics.
Becky and Thony
I agree if he just referred to us all as academics, the problem would be resolved. And I understand why scholars in the humanities do feel anxious about their funding. But I stand by what I said on three grounds:
Dividing us into scholars and researchers would have been all that was needed to reinforce his message that humanities people don’t ‘do research’. But he chose to distinguish scholars from scientists in a way that did come across as, well, unfortunate.
Secondly, his comments on CP Snow seemed gratuitous. He appeared to bring him in, which really wasn’t necessary to his arguments, so that he could put in this unfortunate remark about insecure scientists.
Thirdly, science is also not some monolithic structure. There are many areas of science where people also feel very threatened about their funding. The need to demonstrate relevance is distorting the agenda there too, and hence all the more reason for everyone to stick together. By pointing out the distinction at every point Collini just makes things harder in ways that I feel are unnecessary.
As I say, I don’t know Collini, and I have no idea whether the way I read his book is the way he feels about science and scientists. But I did not start reading the book wanting to find fault, and slowly found myself getting increasingly irritated by the way he kept referring to the two communities as so separate. It seemed gratuitous and unfortunately, and hardly likely to forward the process of presenting a united front to put the arguments to preserve education as a public good. Hence I just felt frustrated by the end of it. I would be delighted to be convinced I was wrong about his attitudes and it just happened to be a stylistic issue.
Is it possible it was just a turn of phrase, a story-telling device? Scientists and scholars has a nice ring to it. Haven’t read the book either though…
Collini is obviously writing polemic, and generally starting from the premise that by and large science is considered worth funding. I’m sure he is aware of the shades of grey across all disciplines (for a start, research is essential to humanities too) but his purpose is to make a case for something that he feels is most threatened. I am sure that Collini does not feel that practical, utilitarian research is distasteful – you read it this way, but I don’t see any evidence beyond the basic scientists/scholars division. Certainly, I don’t read the quote you have provided quite as you do. For a start, the point about ‘insecurity’ and administrators is a direct dig at the insecure administrator CP Snow – and by extension those who have trumpeted his argument – and by no means scientists generally.
I haven’t read the book, but the review is very interesting.
I have never before heard of this perceived superiority of the humanities disciplines.
If anything, when people show an academic-discipline bias, in my experience it is the opposite — humanities are viewed as dispensable: academic scientists and engineers may in fact look down on the humanities faculty for not teaching students anything that would make them directly employable and not bringing in grant funding, so on both accounts humanities faculty would be of lower value to academia (and therefore first on the chopping block when budgetary crisis becomes dire) than the hands-on job-training, revenue-producing STEM faculty.
Of course, this negative and divisive attitude stems from the overall negative public attitude towards universities in the US and the anxiety that all faculty feel over constantly having to justify their existence and usefulness. Maybe these points did come across in the book, which I didn’t read. Or maybe the perception of different disciplines among academics differs by country (I am a professor in the US)…
As others have said, I’d like to think most scientists are enlightened about the need for Universities to educate students in all kind of things, and of Univs to be a community of scholars (who, like most academics I know, I would see as encompassing a variety of kinds of scholarship).
See e.g. (distinguished US scientist) Greg Petsko’s celebrated evisceration of his own University’s President over cutting Arts Depts, which Sylvia Mclain and I discussed a bit over here.
I agree with GMP – when I was studying Classics and Contemporary Studies (in Canada), it was the humanities who suffered from insecurity in the face of scientists, and from what I remember of when we studied Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’, we discussed the separation as coming from a division of abilities and interest. The sciences are more rigorous and demanding than the humanities, and scientists were seen as less likely than philosophers to be interested in the other’s studies. I’m studying physics in the UK now, and I can definitely say that I have never encountered the kind of arrogance Collini seems to portray on behalf of philosophers – in my experience, humanities students are mostly likely to cowed by science students, not superior to them!
I’ve had the great privilege of working with Helga Nowotny, who is the President of the European Research Council and has a background in the humanities. It’s my impression from working with Helga and other colleagues across the Channel that they certainly would have a different stance from Collini on this issue, ie they believe humanities and science are much more integrated and both are firmly based on research. There would be much puzzlement about Collini’s thinking that humanities people don’t do research, I’m sure.
Although I haven’t read the book and would probably agree with much of what you’ve said here, I do have some sympathy with what might be driving Collini’s views. It always seemed to me that there were two fundamental ways to deal with the impact agenda that began a few years ago. Go along with it and convince those in power that what we do (as scientist) does have impact. It might not be why we do it, but if we play the game we can protect ourselves and possibly come out ahead. Alternatively, essentially align ourselves with the humanities and make the case that we do research because we’re curious and want to solve puzzles and understand the world around us. As scientists, we then also have the added benefit that some of what we do will almost certainly have some kind of short to medium term impact, but this isn’t what drives us. My preference would have been the latter, but the scientific community (or at least those that represent us) chose the former. In doing this we were essentially making the case that somehow what we did was more valuable than what is done by researchers (scholars) in the humanities. We may not have made this comparison explicitly, but it was a natural consequence of the direction that was taken. In fact, whenever I discussed this with colleagues, the response was typically “we have to go along with the impact agenda or else we’ll could end up with the same level of funding as the humanities”. I’ve always found this rather unfortunate and a little disingenuous.
The reason Collini mentioned CP Snow is perhaps because it is a familiar topic to him, and one on which he has written at length elsewhere. His introduction to Snow’s lecture is the best account of the story behind those events and he has a long record of public statements criticising any such ‘two cultures’ view.
Yes I have read the Collini introduction to the CP Snow Lecture, and I agree there he is much more integrated in his views – perhaps that is why I was surprised by the tone of the present volume. Even in that introduction (published in 1998) he says ‘There is surely less snobbish disdain for the sciences as something meanly utilitarian and grubby than Snow thought he detected….’, so it is still somewhat muted enthusiasm for the sciences rather than wholeheartedly embracing them as being of equal value. Furthermore, within the context of this book it still seems to me perverse so uniformly to divide off the scholars from the scientists and to stick in the unnecessary paragraph about the two cultures with its inherent dig at scientists. He may publicly criticise the 2 cultures stance, he may believe he intrinsically disagrees with it, but his language is at best ambivalent once you start analysing it.
It is rather a pity that Collini restricted himself to C P Snow’s original “Two Cultures” lecture and his “Second look” and did not also include his 1970 essay “The case of Leavis and the serious case”, which can be found in Snow’s “Public Affairs” (Macmillan 1971). One characteristic of Snow’s writings on this issue was that he did refine his arguments over time. For example:
That is an interesting point. Scientists do of course very much see science as iterating towards a progressively better understanding. My own favoured analogy for this is to characterise science as a kind of ‘giant self-correcting and gradually-improving Wiki of knowledge’.
More interesting, I guess, is Snow’s contention that there is no corresponding ‘intrinsic progression’ in the humanities. I wonder if that is really true? I’d imagine you could argue that our progressively better understanding of human behaviour might in turn influence our critical understanding of (for instance) what we might think had influenced an author to write the works they did.
It is typical, but unhelpful, of Snow to suggest the humanities can be symbolised by works of art. Of course all fields build on their own past, and through asking new questions and carrying out further research (in my own field, history, it is usually, though not only, about being in the archive).
‘Progress’ is more tricky in arts, humanities and science, than this notion of building on the past work of the field, as it implies a direction, a defined goal and something better. Since much if what we think of as standard in science now will probably be radically different in the future, it’s certainly not a straightforward process. On the individual researcher level I don’t think so much separates the researcher in any field – they want to know more and understand better the workings of the particular object/process/events/people they are studying.
It is worth reading the whole of Snow’s essay, because he certainly does not just suggest that the humanities can be symbolised by works of art as you infer. I only chose this example originally because it is fairly short.
Incidentally, when talking about history (page 96) he does say much of it is incorporative and cumulative in the sense that science is and that this is found in all scholarship. The distinction though is that while a scholar may write an essay containing new insights into, for example, the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, (s)he does not recreate the sonnet in a new form, which contains within it all the allusions of the orginal, while extending it. Yet this is just what happens in science.
A Shakespeare sonnet is also a work of art. We could, however, find out more about Shakespeare’s life and context in ways that would add to or even entirely change our understanding of – say – 16th-century London.
My point was that it is typical of Snow to make his case with a headline example, even while he qualifies it elsewhere. Similarly, he acknowledges that his Two Cultures are really two ends of a continuum, before then discussing the whole as if they were a dichotomy.
I don’t want this debate to get too hung up on the rather cursory reference Collini makes to CP Snow, but to focus more clearly on the implicit divisions Collini makes throughout the text. It seems to me that none of the commenters have read the book, so that it is difficult for them to appreciate the negative undertow about science/scientists that I felt was peppered throughout . it isn’t even just the impact agenda that is the focus of his ire, although that is part of it.
I understand that Collini is being polemic, and at times I have appreciated this more generally (in some of the stuff he wrote in newspapers about the introduction of fees in particular) and he can have a wonderful turn of phrase. But his book was entitled ‘What are Universities for’ and I feel very strongly that we (academics) are all in this together, regardless of discipline. I am perfectly content that some humanities people feel they go in for scholarship (not research) although clearly not all – Gail’s point is noted – but if his distinction of ‘scholarship and science’ is meant simply as a story-telling device, as Sarah suggests, he should have thought about how it could be read and used as a ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Maybe he didn’t mean it, but he used it throughout. It is not as if he is unfamiliar with the phrase ‘scholarship and research’ – it is the bedrock of our university’s promotion criteria. Put like that, a totally different message would have been conveyed.
Finally, perhaps it is a UK-centred view that the humanities people look down on the scientists. Perhaps it is now outmoded, but I am not convinced. Since my belief is that it stemmed from Victorian ‘ideals’ (and class structure), and debated as such by Huxley and Arnold back then, maybe North America is indeed immune as GMP implies. So much the better. I should say I am in effect putting my money where my mouth is. In a few months time I have agreed to be the guest on Radio 3’s Essential Classics, talking about my music choices. So I am, in some senses although this is hardly my motivation, trying to ‘prove’ I am able to appreciate an arts subject, and make sensible remarks about something way outside my field of endeavour. As a scientist I think it is important I can demonstrate I am a well-rounded individual, not some alien being in a white coat lurking in the corner of the university. I would like to believe my humanities colleagues feel the same in reverse.
Can you let us know beforehand when the programme will be broadcast. I’m not a regular Radio 3 listener, more usually Classic FM when I’m driving, but I have had a season ticket to the Proms most years since 1976 and I would be interested to know your choice of the classics.
It won’t be till November, so I’ve plenty of time to write a post beforehand on ‘Panic’ (and then it’s spread over the weekday week). if you want to hear some of my classical tastes, you can hear me on Desert Island Discs here – now I feel I must choose a distinctly different selection for the Essential Classics
Athene says she comes to books after they have faded from the best-seller lists, and I have come to her blog a few days after the discussion seems to have abated. However, as someone whose own discipline of linguistics sits neatly across the traditional science/humanities border — in his book Stefan calls it ‘a particular problem for tidy-minded classifiers’ — I very much agree with her statement that we are all in this together. And we are so for two reasons. The first is practical: in the face of current assaults on universities, we need to maintain a united front. The second is intrinsic to the nature of knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge, aka research. I have always resisted the attempt to say that what people in humanities do is scholarship and what scientists do is research. Scholarship, it seems to me, involves being knowledgeable about and responsible towards the work of one’s predecessors; research is about advancing that work on whatever front is relevant. In that sense, they go hand in hand and are to be found in all fields. No one field can have a prior claim to either.
Nigel, thanks for that. It is particularly encouraging to find that an FBA doesn’t find what I wrote too one-sided!
For someone else’s take on this problem of sitting at the science/humanities border, you may be interested in Claire Warwick’s recent post on this. She writes as a digital humanities specialist, who finds very different atmospheres depending on whether she attends humanities or computing/engineering conferences. By and large the latter seem more congenial for her, conveying less a sense of ‘exclusivity’.
This is a really interesting discussion. I found Collini’s book to be a good exploration of how to talk about what universities are ‘for’ across a range of disciplines. I take one of his key questions to be: What value do Universities contribute to society, across their many fields of study? And the book explores contributions made by universities and academics that go beyond those which can be quantified in financial terms.
In a characterization of universities’ key aspects, he refers to graduates having received an education which is more than a course of training for a particular profession. And he refers to ‘advanced scholarship or research whose character is not wholly dictated by the need to solve immediate practical problems’. When I was reading the book, I found myself asking myself whether descriptions and arguments he was using applied to the sciences as well as arts and humanities and often thought that they could.
I don’t think he belittles the achievement of the sciences in helping to cure diseases, but if anyone has the relevant passage at hand, I may have that wrong. I think one of the many reasons why people fortunate enough to be able to explore all sorts of aspects of culture value that exploration is because we don’t want to live to what we hope will be a ripe old age without the chance to learn about and appreciate a wide range of arts, sciences and other manifestations of human activity and discovery.
He brings in ‘widgets’ when noting that he has a higher estimate of the intelligence of leading industrialists than to use a suggested argument to tell an imagined industrialist that medieval history graduates ‘have spent three years honing the skills necessary to arrive at sound conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence’. The industrialist might choose to employ an arts graduate who can demonstrate they are ‘clever, lively, creative’ but is unlikely to draw a close parallel between analysing medieval records and deciding on potential demand for a new or better widget. I think ‘new widgets’ is one of those phrases a number of people use which demonstrates uncertainties about there being inherent value in the production of a new product or technology per se. That’s why it sounds a bit derogatory. Those of us living in highly-developed societies are highly dependent on and constantly making use of new technologies, but it is difficult to judge whether new technologies, gizmos, toys and whatever are contributing to social and environmental outcomes we might also desire.
I thought Collini’s description of what ‘scholarship’ is like as an activity in the humanities helped to develop my understanding of how that term could be used. The reason he seems to use ‘scholar’ quite a bit in the book is that he uses it to describe humanities academics who may not make an ‘obvious and readily identifiable distinction between discovering new knowledge and communicating old knowledge’. He writes well about why humanities academics keep returning to texts and so on. For a working scientist, he thinks this distinction between discovering new knowledge and communicating old knowledge is more meaningful, with research being the former and teaching or writing for a lay public being essentially the latter.
His description of what a humanities academic might do from reading primary texts, to lecturing to public audiences, to writing for news-stand review publications, to teaching is a good one I think. When he reflects on how his thinking and writing have been influenced by brilliant review-essays as well as ‘research publications’, I think he makes a good case for the ‘importance of the whole spectrum of our scholarly or intellectual activities’ beyond the more ‘limited form of writing which is now taken as the exclusive index of ‘research”.
In the passage using the Royal Society / British Academy image, it might have been clearer for the word ‘humanities’ to be inserted before ‘scholars’, or write ‘all scholars share more . . .’ although I haven’t heard a scientist self-describe themselves as a ‘scholar’ recently, perhaps it should be encouraged!
At this point in the book I think Collini is trying to make the case for the great potential for shared interests across academic disciplines rather than being snide. He is arguing that the state of affairs Snow described over 50 years ago is not generally the same today. I think he’s arguing that only ‘culturally insecure’ scientists would now invoke the ‘Two Cultures’ description from the 1950s to say that their subject is insufficiently valued by society at large and humanities specialists in particular.
These days I think many people who have had the benefits of a range of educational experiences range in their interests across appreciation of arts and sciences. I don’t know if there’s evidence to support the idea that humanities scholars are less likely to make space in their lives for astronomy, geology or zoology (perhaps we can quiz entrants to the university museums of the latter two subjects in Cambridge about their backgrounds, and survey the visitors at the Institute of Astronomy’s weekly open evenings in winter, or viewers of Brian Cox programmes).
There is his parody in the book of an official document removing public funding for STEM subjects, but I thought that was thought-provoking as well as blackly humorous.
In passing – I manage a public engagement team and it’s been a pleasure to have Professor Collini speak at our university’s public Festival of Ideas, and Professor Donald at our Science Festival. Sometimes academics ask if we can’t have just one Festival of Knowledge, and I don’t think so as it would load too much into limited fortnight periods, so we prefer to have two focal points for these public festivals. We encourage events in both festivals which cross disciplinary boundaries, and it’s only the difficulty of finding snappy names that means one is a Festival of Ideas, and one a Science Festival, it’s not to suggest scientists don’t have ideas! We make the point that scientists are welcome to offer events in that Festival too, and several do. I’m also looking forward to fascinating talks and debates by speakers across a range of disciplines in the Cambridge series at the Hay Festival starting later in the month. I think in public engagement there’s great work to be done in higher education across disciplinary boundaries to inspire, involve and collaborate with public audiences.