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The Value of Victorian Studies and the Future of the University

2011 October 7

Regenia Gagnier is Professor of English at the University of Exeter and  President of the British Association of Victorian Studies (BAVS). Her most recent book is Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: on the Relationship of Part to Whole 1859-1920  (Palgrave 2010)  She is Editor in Chief of Literature Compass and its Global Circulation Project

This post is one part of a four-part discussion on the value of Victorian studies. To read the other posts, visit

Before turning to the value of Victorian Studies and the future of the university, I want to invite the audience to BAVS annual meeting next year at Sheffield, where our theme will be precisely ‘Victorian Values: Ethics, Aesthetics, Economics’.

In response to Shearer West, I first want to register agreement that both collaboration and impact are good. I won’t need to say to this audience that most of us are increasingly involved with collaborative work. As we develop large interdisciplinary projects, often with teams of researchers and digital technicians, the expectation is for collaboration, and the generation of young Victorianists will find that it is becoming the norm.

Impact is also good, and if the Government’s emphasis on impact has had one good effect it is to make us more self-conscious about what we do as academic researchers.  When I was teaching in the Silicon Valley in California, Deans used to introduce me to potential donors as Stanford’s Applied Humanist, an academic who employed the methods of the humanities on real world problems, such as racial tension, or beauty in the built environment, or homelessness during economic downturns.  Since then, I have impressed on my students the “so what?” question: so you have done a clever reading of a Victorian novel or poem: so what? Why does it matter? Why should anyone else care about it? Why should internalist debates of academics matter to those who fund us and our students? The most important thing that the Impact Agenda has forced upon us may be our own reflexivity and critical self-consciousness.

The problem with the Impact Agenda is not that we resist having impact but rather how the Government intends to measure it. I will say more about this below, but before I do we should not lose sight of who we are as academic researchers: we are not just critics and historians, we are educators, and the impact of educators is and has always been on future generations. The impact of an engineer is on the built environment; the impact of a medic is on health and well-being. The impact of educators is on pupils and students. It is a category mistake to think that the impact of educators on things, like the economy of goods and services, is more important than that on our students.

John Stuart Mill caricatured in Vanity Fair, 29 March 1873

In her remarks on the future of the university, Shearer began with Newman. I begin with J. S. Mill in his Inaugural Address to the University of St. Andrews (1867) in which he defined the content and purposes of a university education. He proposed ethics, science, and aesthetics, or the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and defined aesthetics as the education of the feelings through the culture of poetry and art. An aesthetic education was needed that would inspire exalted feelings and the kind of idealism that would lift the British toward richer lives and a more harmonious whole than “the business of getting on” had to that point allowed. The training of the emotions entailed bringing untrained appetites and desires in harmony with the larger, social, good. We are not just buffed about by selfish whims but consider our lives in a larger context of a good society. Since we are inevitably dependent on others, we are educated to live harmoniously with them.

Now, what do students, when they are asked, say that they want from a university education? They have been much polled lately in the name of student choice, and their views are consistent. They want employment to satisfy the needs of physical comfort; they want friends, to meet new people and enlarge their society with meaningful relationships; and they want life skills, by which they mean the kinds of skills that will stand them in good stead through future vicissitudes.

So what do our universities offer? Economists say that they offer credentialing. More important than any specific content, universities bestow status, or a means by which students can be accorded recognition and distinction.  My main concern about the Government’s proposal to give special funding status to AAB students is that since AABs are likely to come from more affluent schools, we are likely to reify status according to background rather than fulfil the more inclusive education agenda that have been goals since the Victorians.

As for life skills, the kinds of life skills that a degree in my discipline of English provides—beyond the practical powers of verbal and written expression and performance—tend to be focussed on the individual, the particular, development, and processes. They are the skills of sense, understanding, emotions and feeling as well as reason in relationship: how the one comes to see herself in relation to the many.  When I hear the kinds of papers you have given over the last few days, I can reconfirm that humanities scholars really do have something to offer to society. But the problem is that the language of the humanities does not easily map onto the current language of management.

While the humanities focus on the individual, particular, developmental, and processes, present management structures focus on the general, statistical, results, and products, with a heavy dose of short-termism. What humanist educators typically want is not the Big Society, but the good society, the society that enables the good life for its citizens and not at the expense of other societies. The question is whether the current methods of management, whose goals are economic efficiency and productivity typically in the short term, can produce, or are even compatible with, the good life and the good society.

I conclude with three examples of Victorian values, the scope and limits of which we explore in humanities courses. They each have both scope and limits; I use them merely as examples of the kind of thinking that focuses on what it means to educate people in a good society, one that critiques individual desires and wants in relation to larger, social wholes, that focuses on the processes of sociality and relationship rather than products and results.

  1. To each according to need, from each according to ability. Some of you will recognize this as Marx’s definition of the good society in   “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (1875). It recognizes that need—not simply in the sense of necessities but in the sense of the needs of developing humankind—varies with abilities that are both innate (“universal” like the need for warmth, water, and food) and socially conditioned, and that the capacity to contribute also varies with innate and social conditions. It takes judgment and tact—and freedom from self-defensiveness and resentment—to discern when one is in the presence of real need and real ability. Much of Victorian fiction is about the possibility of such discernment.
  2. A definition of virility that comes from the codes of Victorian chivalry, but which interested me initially because it was also that of the Black Panthers in California in the 1960s. It is, to put your body in the service of protecting and nurturing others. It also applies to women, hence “virago.”
  3. This is an ancient maxim, but one which resonated with the utopians and aesthetes of the late Victorian period. It is Confucius’s definition of the good life in the good society: “To ease the pain of the aged; enjoy friends and family; love and protect the young” (Lun Yu, The Analects, 5:26). I expect that despite neoliberal mantras of choice and individualism to the contrary, this is what most people in most societies value: good health, good education, good company.

Regenia Gagnier, University of Exeter

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