Ivory Towers?

In this week’s THE — which, by the way, should be required reading for all academics, everywhere; the fact that it’s published by a subsidiary of Nasties International, yet remains a source of compelling, ethically and politically important news on the subject of higher education, is a sad paradox — there’s a short piece on a scheme set up last year by the AHRC, called ‘New Generation Thinkers’. Launched, not un-coincidentally, in the weeks following the Browne Report last year, ‘NGT 2010’ was a collaboration between unlikely political bedfellows the AHRC and the BBC, as an ‘attempt to develop a new wave of public intellectuals’ (THE).

This story took me back 8 months or so: I remember reading an advertisement for the programme last October. I considered applying, mainly to satisfy the (fairly small) part of me that still has aspirations in a dramatic direction, but decided pretty quickly not to: I have difficulty making my work interesting to those close to me, let alone to an inquisitive, highbrow Radio 3 audience…

But that’s not for here. (Remember when Little Britain was good? You know, for the first 15 minutes of the first series?) What I really want to talk about is the second half of the THE article, which it’s probably worth quoting in full:

In The Daily Telegraph on 29 June, Rowan Pelling writes that it has shown academia to be so rife with ‘rivalry and backbiting’ that it ‘makes politicians look like fawning puppies’. ‘I emailed one lecturer to gauge his reaction and he fired back: “Note the complete absence of mathematicians, chemists, physicists. It trivialises research and, I suppose, is the logical conclusion of allowing cultural studies to be an academic subject”,’ she writes.

Now I can take those outside academia suggesting that the work of those who practise ‘cultural studies’ — and I’d probably put myself in that bracket — is not really valuable; to be honest, I basically expect it. And I have enough friends in the sciences to know that those in the arts and humanities are sometimes seen as slightly less than ‘proper’ academics.

But the soundbite from this nameless science academic worries me: there’s a vindictive element to the suggestion that the output of non-scientists is ‘trivial’. If those within academia think like this, doesn’t this mean that everyone’s free to? This, I think, is the damaging side to the Browne Report: there’s a ‘divide and rule’ aspect to the distinctions it makes between subjects that make a measurable, immediate contribution to the economy, and those — like cultural studies, literary criticism, art history, or whatever — that don’t.

I’ve always been fiercely against the idea of ‘ivory tower’ academia, with all its innate privileges. But what this article shows is that, even where there is still such a thing, there isn’t just a single ivory tower — there’s an increasing number of them. And if these ivory spires now see each other as ‘trivialising’, what chance do we have for true interdisciplinarity? Or, perish the thought, ‘impact’?

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One thought on “Ivory Towers?

  1. Right on. What a shame that you have use horrors like ‘interdisciplinarity’ when that notion is (or at least should be) implied by the word ‘university’ – I remember from November 1970 the words I used in my Cambridge entrance: ‘a university worth the name’. (I despair of the inbred – if not innate – philistinism of the holders of education’s purse strings).

    b

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