Don and dusted: is the age of the scholar over?

Wednesday 7 October, 7.00pm until 8.30pm, British Library, London

Venue: Conference Centre, British Library, St Pancras, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

‘The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges.’
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’

What does scholarship mean today? The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is often viewed as outmoded. A recent education minister infamously dismissed ‘the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth’ as a ‘bit dodgy’. The scholar ensconced in a library, surrounded by dusty books, has given way to the a results-focused researcher, contributing to the economic and social well-being of the nation. This goes beyond the traditional two cultures divide: ‘curiosity-driven’ arts and humanities research and pure science are both belittled as self-indulgent, trumped by ‘impact’ projects. Some fear now universities are just part of Lord Peter Mandelson’s super-ministry, whose title contains neither the word education nor universities, every academic will be beholden to business. Already intellectual inquiry is justified in terms of outcomes and consequences. Scholars must prove themselves as social-includers, skills-brokers, community coherers and contributors to UK Plc, and demonstrate how their subjects make students employable.

But are these trends as philistine as critics imply? Perhaps it is mere romanticism to yearn for the days of bumbling boffins. The modern world faces urgent problems that cannot be resolved in musty archives. As the competition for public funding intensifies, surely publicly-funded scholars have an obligation to make their work relevant. And the fact that all political parties share an enthusiasm for evidence-based policy surely shows at last they value academics’ contribution to society.

Is evidence-based research in the humanities and social science inching out theoretical work? Is output-driven research in the sciences limiting experimentation and serendipitous discovery? Or will the ‘new’ targeted research mean less waste and more public support for academics’ work? Is scholarship still essential to ‘an university of knowledges’, where ideas about what it means to be human are developed and contested? What – if any – is the distinction between the old-fashioned scholar and the 21st century researcher? And how do scholars and researchers preserve the contributions of the past, inspire the hopes of the future and unearth new knowledge in the present?

The session will be introduced by Dr Joanna Newman, head, higher education, British Library.

Professor Mary Beard
professor of classics, University of Cambridge; fellow, Newnham College; classics editor, The Times Literary Supplement; author, A Don's Life

Professor Colin Blakemore
professor of neuroscience at the universities of Oxford and Warwick; chair, Neuroscience Research Partnership, Singapore; chair, general advisory committee on science, Food Standards Agency

Professor Colin Lawson
director, Royal College of Music; period clarinettist; author, Mozart: Clarinet Concerto and Brahms: Clarinet Quintet

Professor Gloria Laycock
professor of crime science and director, UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science

David Sweeney
director, research, innovation and skills, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Dr Shirley Dent communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
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Session partners