Fees Discussion in Oxford

I was pleased to hear David Norbrook, a Professor of English I know, speak out at an Oxford Congregation meeting earlier this week (he speaks at 35.40 in this recording). Professor Norbrook speaks about how the university needs to ‘stop apologizing’ for what it does, and stand up for its core values of promoting ‘truth, honesty and independent-mindedness’. Against political and market pressures exerted on universities, he reminded those present that universities are vital cultural institutions (like the BBC or the British Museum), regardless of how their existence suits the current political agenda.

This argument does not entail that univerisities should ignore what’s happening in the outside world. Far from it. Universities are institutions that nurture and cherish important democratic ideals, such as critical judgment, disinterested inquiry and pluralism. They do this by establishing a supportive scholarly community in which individuals pursue their own course of learning and research that has purpose and relevance initially within that community. Neuroscientists write papers that neuroscientists will read, and art historians write papers for other art historians. And by circulating ideas, methods and discoveries, universities become a beacon for these values.

There is no need to apologize, then, that research in English studies won’t immediately create jobs, and won’t be something that secondary school students or broadsheet readers will always want to hear about first-hand. Doctoral students in English at Oxford–all two hundred of them–pursue diverse and highly specific topics: see here and here for research topics. At some point these will become available online at the Oxford Research Archive, but many won’t be widely read, and certainly not by those outside universities.

This is just as it should be. English studies, just like every other discipline, is becoming more specialized as people learn more and employ new research methods to understand literature. There aren’t many scholars today who could hold forth professionally on a wide historical range of topics, as older and still active critics like John Carey and Christopher Ricks can. Today the usual way to promote the values Prof. Norbrook talks about is to have advanced students research small areas with great rigour, discipline and careful analysis. Established scholars can branch out, but not as much (it seems to me) as they once could. This research can become ‘useful’ to others later down the line: it’s good for scholars to communicate their ideas to a general audience, but this is not the primary purpose of scholarship. Research projects the high standards that went into its creation, as well as its discoveries about nature and culture.

* Note: the discussion is now available to read on the Oxford website.

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