No time for culture
Hywel D. Lewis
One of the increasing anxieties of university teachers today is the growing amount of administrative work, some trivial and some of great importance, which falls to their lot. This was well on the way even in what may now seem the palmy days when Redbrick University burst on the scene with the same concern, but it is much worse now.
The temptation, more insidious than at any time today, is of course to say: -But why nOt then leave it to the professional administrators or to those of your colleagues who are prepared to take it on without a fuss? Is not this what the professional is for, to make things easy for the teacher and scholar to get on unhindered with their own tasks? It is the scholar who matters, but the administrator eases the path. Why not let him?" This would be splendid, if such a neat division were possible, and one is much inclined to dream, in those terms, of an academic existence in which one had never to attend a committee or a board or read a mass of buff paper or conduct interviews and write testimonials. But if such a line is taken, make no mistake about it, by active members of the university, or if they are allowed or encouraged extensively to take it, that will be a very ill day for our schools and colleges. The administrator must not become a law to himself, in appearance or reality, and there is no strict demarcation between the sphere of his work and that of the teacher and researcher.
There seems to be therefore no way in which the academic teacher can altogether avoid the burden of administration, not only in the routine forms that relate directly to his own work but also in the more general form of consultation about further decision and policies, much though he might wish to do so. But how then may this be made possible without an unreasonable strain on the time and energy of the teacher? This is not a new problem, and the main terms of it are easy to state. But it has been very much sharpened in recent times. There may be many different answers to it, and it will be gratifying if, by presenting it again, new ideas are forthcoming. But it is certainly important to have the main issue before us ail the time. On our treatment of it, more perhaps than on anything else, will depend the
future of higher education.
There is one point at least which may be made in regard to the bafflement we feel about the ordering of our work, namely that much of it could be streamlined. This will no doubt cause misgivings, and that is understandable. No concentration of power and responsibility can be regarded with ease by freedom-loving people. But in some form it can hardly be avoided in any democratic community; devolution is unavoidable, and, in the complexities of modern academic existence it may well appear that greater power of decision may need to be left to persons of experience and proved capacity. This will involve the perpetuation of the sort of hierarchy which is understandably suspect. But there is no perfect system, and we can never wholly guard against errors and abuses. It is a question of where the greater risk lies. Nor does experience and capacity mean merely length of days. I do not at all advocate leaving the main matters to the elderly and those who are set in their ways. Initiative and resourcefulness are at least equally important. But these could be safeguarded within a system which leaves more to the judgement of small groups or individuals, though not to function wholly without restraint or criticism.
If it be felt that this paves the way for unfairness and suppression I must confess to much sympathy with that view. But the devolution of responsibility could be related as closely as possible to professional expertise and the proper control autonomy of the teacher safeguarded. In any case, while sharing the present misgiving to the full, we have to ask what alternative have we if we are to avoid interminable discussions, delays and the almost total lack of clear policy. Of one thing I at least am altogether certain. If the choice is between augmenting the power of professional administrators, including the almost full-time academic politician, on the one hand, and, on the other, leaving more in the hands of the properly selected individuals normally concerned with study and teaching, then there is no doubt at all that the latter is the lesser risk and much the lesser evil.
It is hard to see how we can defer a proper choice between such evils. The complexities of our situation cannot be denied. When I was first
appointed to a Chair in London, I was told that it took about ten years to get anything of importance through the University. I thought this was a joke and did not believe it. I believe it now.
A distressing feature of the business side of academic life, if I may so describe it, is the confusion of aim and outlook and an element of deviousness which makes its sinister entrance, and the line may not always be easy to draw between astute manoeuvre and sheer dishonesty. This can do incalculable harm. If there is no integrity in the pursuit of truth where will you find it, and what is the point of culture without integrity? I will not enlarge on this theme. But it may be well for us to recall the warnings given from time to time by noble minds who have thought about the same things in the past. Let me refer to a famous passage in Plato's Theaetetus in which he contrasts the philosopher with the man of affairs and those who have "knocked about from their youth up in law courts and such places." _ The latter "is always talking against time, hurried on by the clock.. . . Hence he acquires a tense and bitter shrewdness; he knows how to flatter his master and earn his good graces, but his mind is narrow and crooked." By contrast the philosopher when placed in the same situation "walks blindly anci stumbles into every pitfall.... He cannot engage in an exchange of abuse, for, never having made a study of anyone's particular weaknesses, he has no personal scandals to bring up: so in his helplessness he looks a fool.... On the other hand, my friend, when the philosopher drags the other upwards to a height at which he may consent to drop the question 'what injustice have I done to you or you to me?' and to think about justice and injustice in themselves, what each is, and how they differ from one another from anything else ... — in all this field when that small, shrewd, legal mind has to render an account, then the situation is reversed. Now it is he who is dizzy from hanging at such an unaccustomed height and looking down from mid-air. Lost and dismayed and stammering, he will be laughed at, not by maidservants or the uneducated — they will not see what is happening — but by everyone whose breeding has been the antithesis of a slave's."
Let me close with the words of another notable thinker, than whom hardly anyone has shown a profound concern for freedom. John Locke, writing about "the true end of government," warns us not "to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischief may be done them by polecats or foxes, but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions." In our concern to avoid petty irritations and time-consuming nuisances in the universities, are we not in danger of being devoured by lions? In some respects the voice of academic opinion in academic matters has rarely been so weak.
Hywel D. Lewis is Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion at the University of London