Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Killing Paleography

The proposal to shut down paleography at KCL has created a bit of a stoush, especially when seen in the context of all the other cuts to universities in the UK. While universities have always closed courses and departments because they're not cost effective - for example the closure of chemistry at a number of prominent universities - it always does seem that it's the Arts and Humanities that unfairly take the majority of the cuts - something that always put me in mind of Pinochet and his generals, fired up on monetarist theory and economic realism, ordering the universities in post-coup Chile to purge themselves of 'useless' subjects.

Universities are businesses. However universities are about teaching people to think, and challenge people, to stretch the best and brightest, and to do that you need to pique people's interest. Universities are not about vocational education - though there is a temptation to see them as factories for producing doctors, lawyers or accountants - but about getting people to the point where they can master complex material, draw conclusions and argue from it - which is an incredibly valuable skill for the public service, running a bank, or planning a project.

Just because there seems to be an endless supply of fusionless drippy English graduates is no more a reason for closing English faculties than the plethora of boring stay-press trousered accountants is for closing business schools, And this leads me on to the other arguement - things like paleography contribute immensely to our intellectual capital - like say character recognition and automatic handwriting recognition - as well as contributing in other ways. For example, one might think that the study of Tudor court history was for the chop, but no one can doubt that David Starkey is both and entertaining and erudite exponent of it, and that scholars of that calibre are an ornament to our society, even if some (most ?) of them lack David Starkey's pizzaz and presentation.

My other point is that when people ask what is the use of a particular subject, the real answer is that one never knows. One might guess but anything more than five years out is wild speculation.

Look for example at the closing of Russian departments in the 1990's. Well, we'd won the cold war, Russia was no longer a political or military threat, so stuff it. Looks rather different now when Russia is an economic power possessed of vast gas and oil supplies, minerals and the rest, and soon to be the only nation with a demonstrated capability to send crews for the ISS into space.

On indeed, look at the Honorable Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, who has a degree in Chinese literature. He's roughly the same age as me, which means when he was struggling through the Chinese classics, China was emerging from the throes of the cultural revolution and notable only for producing very robust bicycles. His choice of study must have looked incredibly geeky at the time. Now it looks shrewd, especially given his undoubted language skills and the importance of China as an export market for Australian minerals - of which by the way, at least one major nickel mine is part owned by a Russian consortium ...

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