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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: The Idea of a University, Part II

Thursday, January 11, 2007

(This topic continues the theme of a post earlier this year)

Around this time of year, as the Christmas holidays draw to a close and after they have had a chance to reflect on their first term at university, I receive a trickle of emails from first year students asking advice about changing course. The majority of these involve students who have started doing joint honours (such as English and Philosophy) deciding that they wish to convert to single honours in one of the subjects. Little do they realise it, but my students are touching the fringes of a large and key debate about what a university is, and what sort of education it should provide.

For the fact that students are encouraged to pick and choose courses from the vast range offered by universities is the key complaint of Peter Berkowitz, who writes in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review that "at universities and colleges throughout the [United States], parents and students pay large sums of money for — and federal and state governments contribute sizeable tax exemptions to support — liberal education, despite administrators and faculty lacking a coherent idea about what constitutes an educated human being." The essay is slightly stilted, in that it attacks the liberal education system in America - in which students can choose from a large range of courses and "major" in one branch in their final year - whilst comparing it unfavourably with the principles Mill set out in the British context in the mid-nineteenth century. Had he looked over here in the United Kingdom, he would have found less evidence of the "compassless curriculum": in this country, rather than "majoring" in one discipline only in their final year, students generally do a single honours degree for the full three years, or a joint honours split 50-50 between two related subjects.

However, whilst I think (and Berkowitz's complaint confirms) that specialisation is preferable to spreading study across an eclectic mix of subjects, one of the limitations of the British system is that it deceptively compartmentalises us into different areas of interest, when in fact there is a great deal of overlap: several of my peers doing an English PhD started off in philosophy, and I'm sure the reciprocal is true over in the philosophy department; conferences tend to be organised by faculties rather than individual departments, and over coffee you encounter scholars from all backgrounds, not just those in your prosaic field.

If cultural theory has done one thing successfully, it has been to spread itself seductively across every discipline, so a student doing history or archaeology or literature may well encounter the same broad scheme of ideas - from postmodernism to postcolonialism - in each discipline. What shifts is the subject matter, whilst the approaches to them run through parallel perspectives. It is this fact which means that in response to my students' emails I almost invariably advise them to go with their hearts, since their heads are probably more than capable of absorbing the switch. However, is it really the case that all disciplines are of equal value in sending students into the world equipped with a philosophical and scientific guidebook? F.R. Leavis certainly didn't think so, when he placed the English department as the spider at the centre of the entire academic web, which could interpret any branch of intellectual life since it critiqued the language which structures thought, whether in particle physics or historical research.

Even if English departments are no longer seen as the most important generators of liberal wisdom, a residue of the Leavisite approach can be seen in the buzzword of modern academia, literary criticism especially: interdisciplinarity. Almost every call for papers that lands in my inbox on a Friday stresses that papers that straddle traditional disciplines are most welcome; I myself am not so much reading English, as philosophy, history, fiction, film, novels and computer games. The critical arts now possess a proud sense of the range and scope they are permitted to cover, and so I would suggest that academia is starting to find a middle way between variety and speciality.

Of course, one risk of this is relativism: if it is not what you say or study which matters, but how you say or write your study which matters, do we not end up with an aimless mess of disciplines shouting ever louder but actually doing very little by way of good and lasting research. This is a danger Berkowitz analyses, when he notes that professors tend to teach the fields which coincides with their interests, rather than teaching those texts, in those ways, which will most permanently benefit the student entering the "real" world.

The second problem with the spreading range of Arts study is that it sets itself up to compete with the sciences (both theoretically and in the battle for funding), rather than seeing both Arts and Science as necessary elements of a student's education. Leavis's elastic approach has become stretched by some brands of postmodern criticism, which, as the Sokal hoax showed, absurdly recruits empirical principles to scrutinise texts or narratives.
Obviously, it is not possible for the arts student to use particle physics to analyse Silas Marner; equally particle physics is not simply a narrative in numbers that expresses ideology and meaning in the same way that a George Eliot novel does. (I critique this in my essay "Science as Writing, Writing as Science: Addressing the Boundaries of Literary Criticism and Fiction"). What participation, then, should science make in informing the student of the liberal arts? Here, Mill also strikes a chord with my views, arguing along utilitarian lines: "While it is not to be expected that many will achieve mastery of the laws to which the physical world is subject, students should acquire the basics that will enable them to distinguish those who are competent to provide the public advice on scientific and technological matters." Certainly, with Bush's withdrawal of funds for embryological research (leading to a bizarre jumble of red table and stickers in science labs) and Blair's hysterical reaction to supposed hybrid cow-men, one can see the value of ensuring that leaders educated in business (in Bush's case) or law (in Blair's) are encouraged also to appreciate, if not to deploy, the dispassionate scientific method.

In this coincidental way, the opposition between Arts and Sciences in the university context can be seen to affect the political split between conservatism and progressivism. Berkowitz notes that Mill was open to the positive aspects of both wings of the political spectrum, and argued that the cultivation of a liberal "third way" means accepting that each side, for all that its general outlook may be erroneous, may nevertheless have something of value to contribute to the detail of moral debate. Berkowitz argues that:
universities that purport to provide a liberal education will be failing in their mission unless their graduates, progressives and conservatives alike, prove capable of sympathetically understanding the positions of the political party to which they do not belong and discerning what is true and enduring in the beliefs of their partisan opponents.
But the comparison between Bush and Blair highlights that the liberal education systems of Harvard and Oxford have, in actuality, very much succeeded in providing perspectives on both parties. So much so that this Republican right-winger is now the best of friends with the Labour prime minister, one who marched for CND in the 1960s. Blair's brilliance has been his ability precisely to understand the position of the right, and to simultaneously occupy that ground whilst pulling both progressives and conservatives closer to the centre - the rise of fellow blogger (oh, yes, and Conservative leader) David Cameron indicates his success. Unfortunately, rather than promoting toleration (as Mill hoped) the accommodation of those on both left and right who are close to the centre has further marginalised anyone who breaks from the new majority centre. As Bush said two months after September 11, "you're either with us, or against us": if I am against Bush, detest Guantanamo, and think the war on terror utterly misguided in its approach, I am, by inference, a terrorist.

If the risk of interdisciplinarity in the Arts has been a relativistic "anything goes so long as you can talk the talk," the risk of representing and treating both political outlooks as equals is to imply that it does not matter whether you are left or right wing, so long as you fall into line under whoever happens to rule. This is where study of the classics might come in, since they (as Paul Cartledge reminds us on Radio 4's recent: "The Greeks: For Better or for Worse") form the philosophical foundations for modern culture. As Berkowitz says:
Accordingly, liberal education should concentrate on the languages and literature of the ancients, of the Greeks and Romans, because of both their farness and their nearness. On the one hand, the circumstances and sensibility of classical authors differ the most profoundly from ours (without being, Mill stipulates, like those of Asia, “so totally dissimilar, that the labor of a life is required to enable us to understand them”). On the other hand, their writings are rich in the wisdom of the common life of humanity. The classics both challenge our moral and political assumptions and provide models of human excellence. Particularly the writings of Plato and Aristotle represent “the perfection of good sense.”
Happily, having plummeted down the ranks of academic esteem, classics seems to be starting to come back into favour. The new, controversial, Cambridge Latin Course is helping us to see that Latin is far from a dead language. Study of the Ancients might help us to accept that human thought and morality is always variable and that, above all, a good democratic system needs to accommodate difference, rather than eliding it as Neo-Conservatism or New Labour have done.

All this has wandered very far from my original impulse for this post, and the idea that the form of liberal education can inform the war on terror is probably quite far from the minds of the students who contact me wishing to change course. Nevertheless, besides being an excuse to have another political dig, the sheer range of Berkowitz's essay, and my criticism, leads me to realise that, specialist though universities may be, they and their courses really do form the foundations for society. My thinking about the "Idea of a University" started with my justifying being funded to study an English PhD; the ends of that concept, however, are tangled and deep. I rather liked Mill's comment that "Whatever helps to shape the human being; to make the individual what he is, or hinder him from being what he is not, is part of his education." However, not only is whatever shapes the human being part of his education, education is clearly the principal means by which modern societies seek to shape the individual. The study of the idea of the university is the study of our modern selves.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:49 am


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