Posted tagged ‘F.M. Cornford’

And again: what is higher education actually for?

February 28, 2019

There is a wonderful caricature of higher education, Microcosmographia Academica, which was written in 1908 by the Cambridge classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford. In this, with his tongue somewhat in cheek, he offered advice to the aspiring young academic. Much of it will not seem dated to contemporary readers. Amongst the nuggets of advice is this:

‘The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and ‘sound scholar’ is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called ‘brilliant’ and forfeit all respect.’

Cornford is said to have inspired some of the dialogue in the BBC series Yes Minister, which indeed also offered some analysis of the academy in some of its episodes. Not that we need to look outside the universities to find a cocked eyebrow at what goes on inside – there novels of David Lodge are but one example. But are we really all so cynical about higher education, and does this matter?

It does matter, because all joking aside, higher education matters. And the moment you say that, everyone goes off in search of the one true purpose, meaning and objective of the university system, something that can be boiled down enough to satisfy both Cornford’s Cambridge and Laurie Taylor’s Poppleton University.

There are many reasons why universities struggle so much to get proper public and official support (not excluding the preference of policymakers for anecdotal rather than empirical evidence when they go forth to bash institutions), but one of them is that all of higher education cannot work to the same vision and strategy, nor should it. But if we pretend that it does, or manoeuvre excessively to make it seem that way, we open up all sorts of chasms of incredulity that separate universities from their hinterland of natural support. We also slide into increasing discontent by members of the academy itself, as the very compelling article recently in the Irish Times by my former DCU colleague Greg Foley sets out.

Universities, individually even more than in higher education sectors as a whole, need to discover or re-discover a sense of mission that works specifically for them and is shorn of the cynicism that often accompanies such exercises, and to remember that this mission, whatever exact form it takes, is all about the educational, social, scientific, cultural and scientific empowerment of societies; which is what unites all of higher education.

In his advice to the young academic, Cornford offered the following insight:

‘There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.’

That’s a good place to start.

Decision time? Or would that set a precedent?

July 7, 2011

Some weeks ago at a dinner I was sitting next to a management consultant who specialised in organisational behaviour. He told me that he had only once, ever, done a project for a university, and he had sworn he would never do that again: university decision-making, he concluded, was simply too bizarre to be open to rational advice. Furthermore, he had felt that 70 per cent of those he had involved in his review were clearly focused on one thing only: to stop whatever it was he was likely to propose and, in order to ensure that outcome, to discredit him early on ‘as a precaution’. The remaining 30 per cent didn’t care much one way or another.

But he also observed that for any suggestion he made there were, always, two responses. Administrators would object that the proposed step would ‘set a precedent’, and would say this as if it were an absolutely conclusive objection; while academics would say that the suggestion was ‘the thin edge of the wedge’.

The moment my dinner companion said these things I was immediately reminded of the wonderful bookMicrocosmographia Academica, published in 1908 by Cambridge Professor F.M. Cornford. It was written as a series of satirical observations about university decision-making, and the last century has been kind to it: it is as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century. The main theme of the book is that university processes are all focused on stopping decision-making, particularly where a decision is likely to produce change. Therefore a number of standard objections can be predicted whenever a decision is proposed. Chief amongst these are:

  • The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
  • The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
  • Another argument is that ‘the Time is not Ripe’. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.

I suspect we have all been at meetings at which one or more of these arguments have been employed. But when my consultant dinner companion concluded that universities were ‘impossible places’ because they were ‘full of people driven by cynicism wanting to stop change’, was he right? No, I don’t think he was. Yes, these arguments do get aired and people wanting to introduce innovative change can have a hard time; but the real reason is that too often university decision-making is too obscure, too slow, and not transparent enough, and these arguments are a defence mechanism used in organisations where communication is not what it should be. Clearly we need to be better than that; but I also think that many universities have stepped beyond this state, and while Cornford’s book should be compulsory reading, I don’t believe that what it describes is how our universities inevitably must be.

Perhaps we should all review how we do our decision-making. I intend to.

Taking decisions…

July 12, 2008

Whenever I take part in a discussion about how (and how efficiently) decisions are taken in the world of higher education, I tend to refer people to what I think is the very best book on the subject: Microcosmographia Academica, published in 1908 by Cambridge Professor F.M. Cornford. It was written as a series of satirical observations about university decision-making – and while it was intended to describe the University of Cambridge around the beginning of the last century, it is remarkably accurate today. Cornford, in a sub-title- dedicated it to the ‘young academic politician’.

The main premise of the book is that academic institutions have elaborate systems for stopping all sensible decision-making – because there is only one argument for taking a decision (that it is the right thing to do), but dozens that can be employed against even the most wonderful proposal. He then lists (largely tongue in cheek) some of these arguments, and they are all easily recognised today.

Here are some:

  • The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
  • The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
  • Another argument is that ‘the Time is not Ripe’. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.

However, for all that we can recognise many committee debates here, it is worth saying that universities have become much better at streamlining their procedures and acting rationally, and have become much more capable of sensible reform. And it is also fair to recognise that many academics fear that reform really means removing the capacity of faculty and staff to have a genuine input in decision-making processes; and so it is important that such inputs are encouraged and facilitated. But we also need to ensure that our stakeholders are able to recognise that we behave in an efficient manner and that decisions are taken in a timely way. Reading Cornford’s book may help us to achieve that aim.