Who’s missing in modern academia: solitary geniuses or something much more significant?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 10 December 2013.

1974 portrait of Isaac Newton as solitary genius.

When Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, was quoted in the Guardian on Friday as saying “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job” because he would not “be regarded as productive enough”, it prompted much nodding and retweeting from academics.

Coming as it did on the tail of British academics’ rush to complete submissions to the REF (Research Excellence Framework), in a term that has seen two strikes over fair pay in Higher and Further Education and at a time when there are reports of long working hours and other pressure on academics affecting wellbeing , it is hardly surprising that there was sympathy toward Higgs’s negative judgement of today’s focus on “productivity” and publication.

When Higgs was quoted as saying “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964”, many academics undoubtedly heaved a sigh and got back to the marking, teaching preparation, grant application, or whatever other non-research-related activity they were currently engaged in.

It seems, though, that Higgs’s comments struck a wider chord, perhaps because of the extent to which they conform to the stereotype of the solitary scientific genius. His “peace and quiet” of 1964 (aged 35) brings to mind Newton’s escape to his Lincolnshire family home in 1666 (aged 24), and it is contrasted in the article with “expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers”. This is the kind of thing we want to hear our science Nobel winners saying.

Teaching, which takes up a huge proportion of most academics’ time, is not mentioned in this piece. I have no idea what kind of a teacher Higgs was, but Isaac “lecture to the walls” Newton clearly would have been a flop on Rate my Professor and a liability for a university anxious about its position in the National Student Survey. He would probably have been just as problematic for REF. Although he was to go on to have a staggering impact (or Impact), Newton was famously, for much of his life, reluctant to publish.

In many ways Newton and his mythology became a model for how we think of genius, particularly in the physical sciences. Stories of his youthful moment of inspiration, his forgetfulness, his oddness, his solitariness and his immersion in his work abound. Yet he was also someone who learned not just from books but also from his Cambridge tutors and colleagues and wide correspondence, who made his approaches to the Royal Society with scientific papers and the gift of his reflecting telescope, and who went on to become an MP and to lead the Royal Mint and Royal Society.

Science is profoundly collaborative, relying on communication to peers and students, and collaboration with colleagues and a whole range of other “stakeholders”. It goes without saying that there have, always, been many people doing scientific work who not only put up with but also thrived on all those other activities. Science would not have developed without them.

While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.

Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.

Science and academia today remain embarrassingly homogeneous. However, the fear is not so much that we might be failing to find or support working class, black or female geniuses, but that we are more broadly missing out on other perspectives and experiences that would help frame different questions and solutions. It is for this – as well as the good health and useful productivity of academics – that we need to fight not just for better investment in Higher Education, supporting excellent outreach and teaching as well as research, but for a fairer society.

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3 thoughts on “Who’s missing in modern academia: solitary geniuses or something much more significant?

  1. I agree with Higgs on this. Too much time is spent churning out papers. Too much data is held secret until papers have been produced. Too many people worrying about money for grants and projects.

    Reduce the undergraduate student population to 1960s levels. That would release enough money. Increase the post-grad and post-doc positions. Get rid of the concept of commercial benefit research,

    The only way to help the working class is to bring back Grammar Schools, Technical Schools and Secondary Schools. The Comprehensive Schools concept is a failure.

    You ask about Higg’s teaching skills. I remember being told at school that when we left we would never have a teacher again, because school was about learning to learn and once we had learnt how to learn there was no need for a teacher on access to knowledge, whether through books, lectures and discussion.

    • Come now, grammar schools were only good for the minority who were in them; in fact modern schools are better for all, overall. Not to mention that there’s been so many changes in schooling since grammar schools that a fixation on them kind of misses what we know about education today. Also reducing the student population to the 60’s levels completely misses the necessity for a more highly trained workforce which is required in these more technical days.
      About the only thing I agree with you on is the obsession with commercially beneficial research.

  2. - thanks for posting this; and as yet another example of how variable your readership is (and also how unpredictable a “reader” “ship” might be, even in a small pond, as you huddled the float of readers together and pushed off from shore; ADVENTUROUS WRITER: (shouts) Okay everybody — listen up! Paddle really fast, and in the same direction!!!), is this

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