Monday, February 11, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall?

On the urging of Liam Stanley, I've just started reading Patrick Dunleavy's Authoring a PhD. I'll probably have much more to say about this in the coming weeks; there are many aspect to explore. This morning I want to begin with the first two pages of the preface. Here Dunleavy quotes Michael Oakeshott's description of a university.

A university is an association of persons, locally situated, engaged in caring for and attending to the whole intellectual capital which composes a civilisation. It is concerned not merely to keep an intellectual inheritance intact, but to be continuously recovering what has been lost, restoring what has been neglect, collecting together what has been dissipated, repairing what has been corrupted, reconsidering, reshaping, reorganising, making more intelligible, reissuing and reinventing.

Dunleavy sets up his book in opposition to the spirit of this description, and this puzzles me a little. He discerns an "antiquarian bias against any genuine or substantive innovation" in this passage. My view is that the university, and the discourse it situates, is primarily and inherently and importantly "conservative". It should, indeed, function as a "conservatory", both of what we know about the world and the ability to learn about it. And it is precisely this preservation of the past that provides the background against which real innovation is possible.

Dunleavy's aim in the book is to make explicit the "craft skills" of scholarship. These skills, too, must be conserved by tradition. And I'm not sure that traditionalists (I count myself among them) would reject Dunleavy's project as "just another brick in the wall", an example of the onward march of Weberian bureaucracy. I've worried about my own work in similar terms, though in a distinctly post-Weberian world of "New Public Management". Paul du Gay, in his In Praise of Bureaucracy, tries to defend the traditional values of bureaucracies against the increasingly "entrepreneurial" attitude of public administration. I've worried that I'm just another brick in that wall. But in the end I've decided that what I'm talking about is precisely the activity of "caring for and attending to the whole intellectual capital which composes a civilisation". Dunleavy and I are on the same team here, I believe. We are trying to help students and scholars become good at something our civilization needs some people to be good at.

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