So do we need the historians here?

Yesterday I was engaged in a discussion with a number of colleagues from various universities, and the conversation turned to the disciplinary mix needed in a higher education institution to ensure that it can be a credible university. We agreed that it was possible to be a perfectly respectable university, and successful, while not having, say, a range of minority languages in the portfolio. But then someone suggested that any institution that wanted to be recognised as a bona fide member of the academy would have to have some subjects or disciplines; and the example given was history.

Well, DCU does not have a history department. We have had one or two trained historians at certain points, but they have worked in other areas. And to be perfectly frank, we are not about to establish a history school. Not that I have anything against history or historians; on the contrary, I read a lot of history myself, and as they say, some of my best friends are historians. But still, we won’t have history here as a discipline any time soon. So then, are we not a university? What is more, we don’t have theology or philosophy either. That means in fact that we don’t have two of the three disciplines that, in medieval times and for a long time afterwards, were considered the basis of all knowledge.

Once again, we are up against the problem that there is no consensus any more as to what constitutes a university. Almost nothing that defined universities in the past – from the required core disciplines to the teaching methods – are universally accepted now. But then again, probably all those in the room with me yesterday would have agreed that ‘Warnborough College‘ is not a university. And I suspect we would have had views about some currently non-university institutions seeking to make the transition to university status.

Over the coming months the university sector will be subjected to increasing analysis and pressure, and rationalisation and reform will feature large on the agenda. If we are to take part in this discussion in an effective and intelligent manner – as we must – then we need to get a fix on what actually constitutes a university at this point in time. It is no longer enough – maybe it never was – to say that you cannot define a university, but that you’ll know it when you see it.  We need to have an agreed view of the concept of a university that respects intellectual integrity while also allowing for diversity.

The questions we shall need to ask, and in some measure to answer, will include: what methodology of teaching and research marks out a university? What organisation structures are acceptable, and to what extent should they be based on disciplines? What kind of links are desirable or acceptable between universities and other organisations, including government agencies, business organisations and community groups? What is the meaning and significance of academic freedom in all this?

Unless we have a shared understanding of these matters, we will find it impossible to navigate the very choppy waters we are now entering.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, history, university

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2 Comments on “So do we need the historians here?”

  1. ultan Says:

    If a history department is a sine quo non for this title, then there goes the University of Neasden ( Actually, it can be quite amazing to see which organisations lay claim to the title of “university.” Especially in the United States….

  2. Cian Says:

    I think, part of the problem is the amount of prestige attached to the word university. I have yet to see any kind of evidence that a university is in any way more valuable than an IT, or any other third level institution, whatever it may be called. The separation of the university and IT sector within Ireland seems something which has caused far more harm than it has done good, and I’m loath to believe that a graduate of a university is any more likely to be knowledgeable about their subject than a graduate of a good IT.

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