SOCIOLOGY: Conversation across boundaries

My experiences during a visit to St Norbert College in Wisconsin have provoked continuing reflections on their relevance to British universities.

Ideas matter

St Norbert is small liberal arts college just a few miles down the road from Green Bay. What struck me most about this institution was the seriousness with which colleagues regarded their role as scholars and teachers. Although St Norbert is a teaching institution and the academic staff are expected to devote most of their time to teaching, everyone I encountered was buzzing with ideas. People took their role as teacher-scholars seriously and successfully constructed a lively academic environment.

In contrast to my visits to UK institutions, where talking ‘shop’ tends to focus on departmental gossip and administrative issues, colleagues at St Norbert appeared to be principally interested in discussing ideas. My strongest immediate impression indeed was that ideas really mattered to my hosts.

I have become so used to living in a world divided by sharp disciplinary boundaries that I had almost forgotten the pleasure of sitting down and having a conversation with a sociologist, a philosopher and a theologian about problems that preoccupy us all. Such conversations are very different from discipline-based discussions, that often confine the imagination to the demands of professional specialisms. After a few days at this college, even the most one-sided social scientist would realise the importance of the humanities for university life.

What is a college for?

What I remember most is encountering academics who were involved in a genuine conversation about what is the purpose of the university. Some where concerned about becoming engulfed by the growing tide of what they called the Disneyfication of higher education. Others were searching for ways of successfully transmitting academic values to their students, many of whom had signed up for vocationally oriented degrees.

What became evident was that the issue was not academic versus vocational education but how you give meaning to both.  ‘Should we attempt to launch an introductory course for all the first-year students?’ was one of the questions debated.
Other professors were interested in discussing the question of institutional values. Was it possible or desirable to promote liberal values that are traditionally associated with the humanities?

 I was also puzzled and delighted to note that my teaching colleagues at St Norbert did not regard administrators as their deadly enemies. The silent civil war between the two sides that permeates many UK campuses was noticeably absent. One possible reason for this unusual state of affairs was that the academics there have the view that their institution takes their opinion seriously about issues that affect their community.

Of course St Norbert College also has its share of problems but, despite all the pressures that it faces, it still manages to conduct a conversation that is relevant to all its staff and students.

Maybe it is easier to acquire the habits integral to an academic community on a relatively small campus. Yet confusion about role of the university in the United Kingdom cannot be blamed on the size of our institutions. What’s more likely to be important than our size is our lack of institutional independence. Universities that operate according to an externally imposed and centrally driven higher education agenda are often distracted from the challenge of nurturing the intellectual life of their own community. Centralisation tends to promote formulaic procedures and conventions. Such conventions inhibit the development of dialogue between disciplines and conversations that embrace everyone in the academic community.

Crossing the boundaries here

When I reflect on my experience in this small Mid-Western liberal arts college, I feel inspired and optimistic.
There is no reason why British academics need to perform to the prevailing technocratic script. We can begin by taking initiatives that allow us to have a common conversation. We can engage in more boundary crossing.

Why not get all of our first-year students to read the same book?  Better still, why don’t we get all the academic staff to discuss it too?

Brief Biography:
Frank Furedi is Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of ‘Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?’, ‘Therapy Culture’, ‘Paranoid Parenting’ and ‘Culture of Fear.’