(File pix) The university as an economic engine, harnessing so-called human capital for a so-called “high performance” culture, is no different from an F1 pit stop.
Nobody talks about universities as preservers of cultures and traditions. Universities talk about tomorrow — necessarily so — but at the expense of yesterday. Discourse on the past is subdued, suppressed, perhaps forgotten. The analogy between universities and museums is unheard of on national campuses. We fear making universities seem too conservative, or too complacent, or too “backward-looking”— a damning phrase from the lexicon of contemporary right-mindedness, though we might, on reflection, have to acknowledge that most of what we reflect on and try to understand is necessarily in the past.
Universities are sustained by the wider world of scholarship and science. The museum is home to all sorts of knowledge advancement—moving beyond what we are conscious of in the country. The museum “gives people their place in things”. Like history, it is to “give the past its place in us”, asahistorian put it.
Universities should enable us to place ourselves in relation to the world. Challenging the idea that universities must show their contribution to economic growth, and pleading for the recognition of the inherent worth of intellectual inquiry is Cambridge University Intellectual History and English Literature Professor Stefan Collini. We do not have to draw from the Cambridge don on the need for universities — we have sufficient voices from the national academic community echoing similar arguments. But these do not get the press they deserve.
In his book, What are Universities for? (2012), Collini presents a spirited, compelling argument for rethinking the way we see universities, and why we need them. He puts a particular case for the humanities, which can seem the most difficult subjects to justify but may be among the most valuable. He provides a debate on the useful and the useless — deriving from the humanities and the larger human sciences itself.
Universities can be likened to museums and galleries. But museums are not fashionable. People and university spokespersons are less likely to offer that comparison. But what lies at the heart of the university is closer to the nature of a museum or gallery. We seem to forget the campus. Instead, students and academics are urged to “look at the real world” out there. Most of what we reflect on and try to understand is necessarily the past.
Collini makes a comparison between the research laboratory and the museum in respect of their relation to time, where the former is seen as oriented towards the future and to discover while the latter is concerned with the past and with preservation. The familiar contrast obscures not just the ways in which a museum expresses constantly changing relations to human understanding and is the home to all kinds of advances in knowledge, but, more importantly, the ways in which any scientific community is embedded in, indeed partly constituted by, the practices and observations of its predecessors.
Both universities and museums do not exist in a vacuum. They require a very extensive cultural infrastructure, including not only the education needed for curators and conservers and researchers, but also the wider world of scholarship and science which sustains them. And by science, it means the production of knowledge in its philosophical, sociological and historical ramifications. It has been argued that precisely why the question “What are museums/galleries for?” can be helpful in thinking about universities is because it reminds us that the answers do not depend just on the interests of the current generation. All conservation, all transmission (of knowledge) and all enquiry are implicitly governed by their relation to the future.
Finding one’s place in time and space, in the scheme of things, is not only confined to the humanities, but to the whole set of enquiries in physics, astronomy, sociology, anthropology, even architecture and history, and literature and philosophy. In this sense, universities and museums have something in common — it has to do with ourselves and our relations to the world.
by A Murad Merican .