Slow food and fast, University style
Time was when many American humanists envied our colleagues who taught at British universities. We had offices with linoleum; they had rooms with carpets. We worked at desks; they sat with their students on comfy chairs and gave them glasses of sherry. Above all, we felt under constant pressure to do the newest new thing, and show the world that we were doing it: to be endlessly innovative and interdisciplinary and industrious.
British humanists innovated too, but they didn’t brag about it. And they always admitted, as we sometimes did not, that we had to preserve and update our traditional disciplines and forms of knowledge — in the humanities, that means languages, interpretation of texts and images and objects, and philosophy — or the sexy interdisciplinary work would end up both shallow and brittle. There was a Slow Food feel to British university life, based on a consensus that people should take the time to make an article or a book as dense and rich as it could be. Princeton was never exactly Fast Food Nation, but we certainly felt the pressure to produce, regularly and rapidly.
But from the accession of Margaret Thatcher onwards, the pressure has risen. Universities have had to prove that they matter. They have pushed faculty to win grants and to publish and rewarded those who do that most successfully with periods of leave and other privileges that American professors can only dream of. Production is high, but the social compact among teachers is frayed.
In the last couple of years, the squeeze has become tighter than ever. Budgets have shrunk, and universities have already tightened their belts to fit. Now they are facing massive further cuts for three years to come — unless, as is likely, the Conservatives take over the government, in which case the knife may go even deeper.
Administrators have responded by trying to show that they can cut expenses and improve their institutions at the same time. To explain how they can square this circle, they issue statements in the Orwellian language of “strategic planning.” They must, one administration explained, “create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level with no realistic prospect of extra investment.”
The realities that this cloud of ink imperfectly conceals are every bit as ugly as you would expect. Oddly enough, humanists who work on ancient manuscripts and languages or on pre-modern history or on hard issues in cognition don’t always make an immediate impact or collect the big bucks — even when other scholars around the world depend on their studies. If you don’t see the point of these studies, why not eliminate them? Then you have room for things that pay off immediately.
At King’s College London, the dean of arts and humanities has already informed world-famous professors — one in paleography, the study of ancient scripts, and two in philosophy — that they will lose their jobs. All three are remarkable scholars who have had remarkable students. Two former pupils of David Ganz, the paleographer, recently pieced together 17 parchment scraps to reconstruct what remains of the Gregorian Code — a collection of Roman laws, referred to in many sources but lost as a whole, which served as a source and a model for the Code of Justinian. Paleography, in other words, has help transform our understanding of the origins of European Law. No room any more for that sort of thing.
The cuts won’t stop with the first victims. All other members of the arts and humanities faculty at King’s will have to reapply for their jobs. Around 22 will have been voted off the island when the evaluation is finished. Even the official statements make clear that these faculty members will be let go not because they have ceased to do basic research or teach effectively, but because their fields aren’t trendy and don’t spin money. Similar measures are under way at another once-excellent institution, Sussex University, imperfectly masked by administrative spin about efficiency and investment.
Universities become great by investing for the long term. You choose the best scholars and teachers you can and give them the resources and the time to think problems through. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes, though, they and their students make the great discoveries that no one ever anticipated.
Accept the short term as your standard — fund only what students want to study right not and outside agencies want to fund right now — and you lose the future. The subjects and methods that will matter most 20 years from now are very often the ones that nobody values very much right now. Slow scholarship — like Slow Food — is deeper and richer and more nourishing than the fast stuff. But it takes longer to make, and, to do it properly, you have to employ eccentric people who insist on doing things their way. The British used to know that, but now they’ve streaked by us on the way to the other, burger-flipping extreme.
At this point, American universities are more invested than British in the old ways — and few of us now envy our British colleagues. But straws show how the wind blows. Here, too, the language of “impact” and “investment” is heard in the land (and in central New Jersey). Here, too, there’s less commitment than there used to be to studies that are both unpopular and fundamental. If you start hearing newspeak about “sustainable excellence clusters,” watch out. We’ll be following the British down the short road to McDonald’s.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.