Academia’s spirit an­i­mal

On the trail of the hedge­fox

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Matthew Flin­ders is pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and found­ing di­rec­tor of the Sir Bernard Crick Cen­tre for the Pub­lic Un­der­stand­ing of Pol­i­tics at the Uni­ver­sity of Sh­effield.

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.

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