Academia’s spirit animal
On the trail of the hedgefox
My Christmas reading will focus on Sir Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 book The Hedgehog and the Fox. The parable establishes an intellectual divide based on a fragment of text by the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
This dichotomy became an entertaining lens through which Berlin could playfully explore distinctions that exist between those who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things (foxes) and those who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system (hedgehogs).
This little book – just over 100 pages – offers little in Christmas cheer but has attracted my focus because of its value in understanding the changing intellectual emphasis within higher education.
Put very simply, the research funding landscape now demands the skills of both the fox and the hedgehog. Funding is increasingly channelled towards projects that are large and ambitious. The challenge (and the opportunity) this presents for the social sciences, arts and humanities is adapting to this increasing emphasis on “team science”.
The problem, however, is that the emphasis of higher education reforms has served to produce generations of hedgehogs. The research excellence framework in the UK represents the acme of this position.
Attempts to assess the non-academic value of publicly funded scholarship in many parts of the world represent efforts to shift the balance.
The twist in this Christmas tale, however, is that Berlin was mistaken in adopting a binary lens, and so too will be any institution that thinks the solution involves little more than cultivating intellectual foxes. If only it
were that simple.
The challenge facing higher education requires the merits of a different species of scholar. That is, a mammalian hybrid understood in academic terms as the “hedgefox”.
While the hedgehog sniffs and scuffles and the fox leaps and bounds, the hedgefox offers the rare ability to understand and synthesise, to connect islands of research. They are creative and entrepreneurial, but differ from both their parent species in two critical ways.
First, hedgefoxes are not purely academic animals. They may have held roles beyond academe, and because of this they can draw upon a wider set of skills.
Second, hedgefoxes possess a strong herding instinct. They seek to build teams that offer far more than the sum of their parts – not for survival or mutual protection, but simply because they believe that a vibrant intellectual ecosystem demands diversity.
And yet hunting for hedgefoxes is, if we are honest, a rather painful pastime. Although not quite in the same league as unicorns or the Jabberwocky, they are a special breed that has been allowed to almost die out for the simple reason that hedgefoxism has not been nurtured in recent years.
The result is the risk of a great chasm emerging between the skill sets and culture of academe and the expectations of society as mediated through funding bodies. This is why I’m going to spend Christmas hunting for hedgefoxes in the hope that just a little of their magic might rub off on me.