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The Public Value of Victorian Studies

2011 October 7

'Victorian Values' by Peter Davies

This September the British Association of Victorian Studies gathered for its annual conference at the University of Birmingham to explore the theme ‘Composition and Decomposition’.

In the final plenary, delegates met to debate ‘The Value of Victorian Studies’. Here, we present Shearer West’s paper on ‘The Public Value of Victorian Studies’ which opened discussion and in related posts we publish the plenary responses to Shearer’s paper by Linda Bree, Sarah Parker and Regenia Gagnier.

With the rise of university tuition fees in England and Wales of up to £9000, the ‘value’ of higher education is of wide-spread public concern. Meanwhile, scholars are under growing pressure from government and funding bodies to demonstrate the relevance of their work beyond the academic sector.

We invite you to join our discussants in debating the purpose of Victorian studies and the value of Victorian culture for students, teachers, researchers and the wider community. We are keen to receive responses and comments from beyond the UK, from across the educational sector, and from outside education.

The Public Value of Victorian Studies

Shearer West

Shearer West is Head of the Humanities Division at Oxford University. Until recently she was Director of Research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Her publications include The Victorians and Race (ed. 1996), Portraiture (2004) and she is a former Editorial Board member of the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Shearer West’s article, Laughter and the Whistler/Ruskin Trial’ Journal of Victorian Culture 12. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 42-63, can be downloaded here (free before end of 2011):

The pace and breadth of changes that have been and are being introduced to higher education in the UK in recent months (never mind recent years) are enormous.   Certainly I have seen nothing so dramatic in my academic career as the reshaping of higher education funding and regulation proposed by the Coalition government since the general election in 2010–and I have lived through successive reforms from Thatcher onwards.   No matter how many crystal balls we all peer into, it is unlikely that any of us can predict the ultimate consequences of multiple novelties such as trebling undergraduate tuition fees, introducing new regulatory functions to HEFCE and further opening the door to alternative service providers.

The reactions to these changes within the academic community tend towards extremes—alarm, disgust, horror, scorn.   Apocalyptic views of a world class university system being dismantled are rife.    Of course such anxieties may be well founded.  However, if we take a look at the ways in which universities have changed and adapted over the centuries, there is perhaps some room for optimism.  Universities are resilient institutions.  As the former Vice-Chancellor of Brighton University, Sir David Watson, so rightly put it, ‘It has been one of the real strengths of the university system, over the centuries, that is has proved capable of periodically re-inventing itself, as well as managing the necessary balance between continuity and change.’

Here I think Victorianists can gain some solace from thinking again about John Henry Newman’s lectures, ‘The Idea of a University’ (from lectures of the 1850s, published in full 1873), and recognise that where we are now is not exactly where Newman was in the mid-nineteenth century.  And yet we still survive.  It is also worth considering what we as academics at this point in the twenty-first century need to be able to achieve in order to ensure that Humanities in particular do not get marginalised in the process of change.  To ensure this, we need to be able to adapt ourselves to what is a new environment, while maintaining those academic values that served us so well in the twentieth century.

I’d like to pull some key points out of Newman’s lectures, recognising that this is not a close analysis, nor one that considers his ideas in relation to the question that particularly vexed him of whether there should be a specifically Catholic university.  There are many aspects of Newman’s concept of a university that still resonate.  First, Newman thought the purpose of a university was ‘teaching universal knowledge’, and described a university as follows:

An assemblage of learned men (sic), zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation.

Second, Newman saw knowledge as its own reward ‘even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end.’  Underpinning this was his concept of liberal education as

the process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object.

It would be difficult to disagree with these fundamental tenets of Newman’s vision, even though he may have been thinking of his own alma mater, Oxford.  But it is also instructive to ponder what Newman thought a university was not and question to what extent we may agree with this analysis wearing our twenty-first century hats.  First and foremost, Newman, unlike Humboldt, argued that universities were not places where research should be conducted.  He conceived of universities as devoted primarily to ‘the diffusion and extension of Knowledge rather than [its] advancement.’   In his thinking, learned societies and academies such as the Royal Society were the appropriate venues for research, and it is worth emphasising that Newman saw research as more or less the equivalent of scientific discovery.   To him there was a fundamental difference between the intellectual skills required to be an effective teacher and those necessary to conduct original research: ‘to discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts and are not commonly found united in the same person.’

Newman’s distinction between research and teaching is one with which many Humanities academics today may disagree.  I have often heard colleagues argue that the greatest impact of their research is on their teaching, which suggests a synergistic, even co-dependent, relationship.  However, if this valid assertion is carried to its logical extreme, one could contend that separate (and additional) research council funding in the Humanities is redundant, and although I could be wrong, I would be surprised if many would argue for that.

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

Newman also was sceptical about the value of lone scholarship in a university context.  He was, again, thinking primarily of science, but he asserted that scholarship ‘conducted in silence; discoveries made in solitude’ had no place in a university, which was a convivial community where people learned from each other.    The question of what ‘lone scholarship’ actually means may well be an argument for another place, but it is telling that the communal value of universities, involving engagement among scholars across disciplinary and generational boundaries was at the core of Newman’s conception of a university.  And while Newman would not have recognised it as such, this idea is not a million miles away from our contemporary notion of collaborative and multi-disciplinary research.

But while Newman argued strongly for the communal nature of university life, he was vociferously opposed to a utilitarian view of the university’s purpose, and here his concept departs sharply both from the nineteenth-century creation of civic universities, and our twenty-first century understanding of impact.  Newman perhaps would have baulked at recent calls for the ‘reinvention of the civic university’ (Goddard) and the desire that universities should provide a service for others outside their immediate academic community. However, this is a nettle the Humanities now need to grasp in order both to protect other values we hold dear, and to ensure that we do not become archaisms in a rapidly changing world.

It is this very idea of utilitarianism that has led to a chorus of lament from the academic community in general, and Humanities academics in particular.  It is no surprise that people feel buffeted by events.  Arguably in the UK academy, we have been through several decades in which reputational and often worldly rewards are predicated on the production of research that is accessible only to a few.   During this period, energy that was spent, for example, writing textbooks, giving lectures to the public, publishing online, working with radio or television, was considered energy dissipated or wasted.  To be what Hume referred to as  ‘ shut up in Colleges and Cells’ was exactly what we have all claimed that we required in order to produce the scholarship that yielded these rewards.

The tide has turned in the last couple of years—perhaps a little too far and too fast for some.  Now the pressures of demonstrating ‘impact’ (a much abused and misunderstood concept) have led to two extremes: vociferous resistance of some, who cling to their academic comfort zones and argue for the value of ‘useless’ research (that is, research that is not instrumental); and rather too enthusiastic embrace by others who are ambitious to demonstrate their ability to rise to new demands.

Stefan Collini speaks for many in a London Review of Books essay in which he dismantles the Coalition government’s White Paper on higher education.   Collini sees the reshaping of government attitudes towards education as utilitarian and the placement of higher education under the Department of Business Innovation and Skills as a slippery slope and a threat to the fundamental values of teaching and research.   He quotes favourably the 1963 Robbins Report which referred to ‘partnership between a teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding.’  While Newman is not mentioned in Collini’s essay, he does implicitly argue that the twenty-first century university is suffering from a steady erosion of those values promulgated by Newman.  Collini contemns economic imperatives that increasingly appear to trump intellectual ones.

While Collini’s argument has much to commend it, it is worth taking a long hard look at where we are now and ask some questions that may not be palatable to all.  For example, one might regret the fact that higher education is now looked after by the vulgar big beast of ‘business, innovation and skills’, but its placement there has led to a highly favourable research settlement at a time when fiscal constraint saw other government departments undergoing massive cuts.  And Humanities benefitted as much from this research settlement as the Sciences.

Another somewhat unpalatable truth is posed by William Cullerne Bown’s blog riposte to Collini’s essay.  Cullerne Bown points out that Collini makes a plea for the government to spend more on higher education but ‘what he lacks is any proper argument for doing so.  Why universities and not schools or nurseries?  Why education and not health or police?’  And despite cuts to the teaching budget in preparation for the introduction of higher tuition fees, spending on higher education has increased dramatically in the last decade or so.  So Cullerne Bown challenges:

When you are only spending a small amount of money on something, you only need a small justification.  When you are spending a lot on it, you need a big justification.  If higher education lacks an economic rationale and is merely a cultural good, then it will end up being funded at the same scale as opera.

The question here is: why shouldn’t we be willing and able to justify ourselves when we are in receipt of public money?

But another possibly unpalatable truth lies in the nature of our responsibilities as academics working in public institutions.  We are certainly responsible to our students and to our colleagues, but we also have a broader public role to play.  When academics worry about the instrumentalisation of their research, they often refer to the introduction of impact assessment in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF).  However, it would be difficult to argue that any decent citizen, never mind any academic, should object to having an impact in the areas specified by the Humanities panel D.  These include contributions to civil society, cultural life, economic prosperity, education, policy making, public discourse and public services.  Many already make such contributions anyway, as ‘Hidden connections’, a recent report on knowledge exchange in Arts and Humanities, so rightly notes.   One could argue that, after years of such activities being undervalued in favour of individual research, we are now liberated to fulfil a role in which Humanities academics have both capability and track record.

Looking down the panel D list of impacts though, there is one area in which I think Humanities have a long way to go, and that is contributing to policy making and public services.  As the REF documentation defines it, impact on policy making comprises ‘influencing policy debate and practice through informed interventions relating to any aspect of human or animal well-being or the environment’; whereas public services involves ‘contributing to the development and delivery of public services or legislation to support the welfare, education, understanding or empowerment of diverse individuals and groups in society, including the disadvantaged or marginalised’.

While there are no doubt good examples of this in the Humanities, they are few and far between, and it is worth asking why this might be.  Simply put, it could be that there is no demand for Humanities research by central or local government or by other sorts of voluntary and charitable sector bodies.  On the other hand, perhaps the supply of our knowledge and experience is not being offered where it might make a difference.

There are some good reasons why academics in Humanities (and indeed in Social Sciences where such things may seem more intuitive) avoid involving themselves in public policy issues.  There is a suspicion of anything that looks political or ideological.  It is well known that much of government thinking relies on a limited evidence base, often hastily compiled by non-specialists.  However, it is one thing to condemn government short-termism and policy-based evidence, and another to turn our backs on being involved or engaging with it.  As both academics and citizens, there are good reasons for us to become involved.

And why?  If we don’t like what we see, it doesn’t help us much to stand back and carp about it.  So little of government policy looks closely at fundamental questions where matters of history, responsibility, trust, ethics, values and all those other things that we research, teach and write about could play a prominent role.   None of the Chief Scientific Advisors, who provide ‘arm’s length’ advice on policy, have Humanities backgrounds.  In the Humanities, we have two key intellectual skills that should be in more demand than they are.  We are very good at problematising, at seeing the complexity of situations, at probing those situations critically.  We are also adept at creativity and innovation—finding new approaches to old problems.  We apply these skills to our research, but not enough I think to the so-called ‘wicked problems’ of contemporary society.

A cynical response to this is: no one will listen anyway.  That may well be true, but I would ask whether that means we should not make the effort at all.

A more common objection to becoming involved in policy matters is that this is somehow antithetical to academic freedom, as we are veering into the ‘instrumental’ side of things again.  There is a remarkable amount of unanimity among Humanities academics on this score, but I often see many things nestling underneath the mantra of ‘academic freedom’ that are not about academic freedom at all.  For example in a recent controversy about David Starkey’s ill-judged comments on the summer riots in the UK, historians vilified the fact that Starkey labelled himself as one of them.   Frank Furedi, writing in Times Higher Education, challenged this approach on the basis of what academic freedom really should stand for:  ‘Both intellectual and academic freedom face a particularly grave threat when the demand for limiting speech comes from within the academy…As intellectuals, we have a responsibility to engage with the issues that concern society.’

I want to conclude by returning to another argument of Newman’s that is embedded in the foundations of the Robbins report as discussed by Collini.  Despite Newman’s advocacy of ‘liberal education’, he strongly believed in the importance of universities in preparing individuals for both the wider world and public life:

I say that a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number….Training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself, best enables him to discharge his duties to society.

John Henry Newman

Collini’s citations of Robbins reinforce Newman’s idea, but here the emphasis is on the academics themselves, rather than their students:

The influence and authority of those who have become acknowledged experts in their own fields of study radiate out far beyond the walls of the university in which they teach.  Such persons are rightly required to undertake many duties in the cause of learning and in the interest of the country and indeed of the world.

Collini says very little about the implications of Robbins’ remark, which seems to me to be an argument for academics getting out of the ivory tower from time to time and engaging with the issues of the day.  So I would end with the question of whether David Cameron and the Coalition government would have been able to make more sensible, informed and measured comments about the August 2011 riots if they had had Victorian specialists to advise them on how communities have behaved in the past, what lay behind some of the failures of Victorian liberalism and why aspirations for the ‘big society’ are mere pipe dreams.


Collini, Stefan, ‘From Roberts to McKinsey’, London Review of Books, vol. 33, no. 16 (25 August 2011) (

Cullerne Bown, Willliam, ‘How to read Stefan Collini on the higher education white paper’, Research Blogs, (

Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, White Paper (

Furedi, Frank, ‘A professional masquerade’, Times Higher Education, 1 September 2011 (

Goddard, John, ‘Reinventing the civic university’,  NESTA, 12 Sept 2009 (

Higher Education Funding Council for England, Research Excellence Framework, draft statement of main panel D (

Hughes, Alan, Michael Kitson and Jocelyn Probert et. al., ‘Hidden connections: knowledge exchange between the arts and humanities and the private, public and third sectors’, Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2011 (

Hume, David, ‘Of essay writing’, in Essays, moral, political and literary (1742) (

Newman, John Henry (Cardinal), ‘The idea of a university: defined and illustrated’ (1907 edition) ( )

Robbins Report (1963) (

Watson, David, ‘What is university for?’ Guardian, 15 Jan 2002 ( )

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