The More Things Change…?

The More Things Change…?

You see, Brother William,” the abbot said, “to achieve the immense and holy task that enriches those walls” – and he nodded toward the bulk of the Aedificium; which could be glimpsed from the cell’s windows, towering above the abbatial church itself – “devout men have toiled for centuries, observing iron rules. The library was laid out on a plan which has remained obscure to all over the centuries, and which none of the monks is called upon to know. Only the librarian has received the secret, from the librarian who preceded him, and he communicates it, while still alive, to the assistant librarian, so that death will not take him by surprise and rob the community of that knowledge. And the secret seals the lips of both men. Only the librarian has, in addition to that knowledge, the right to move through the labyrinth of the books, he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them, he alone is responsible for their safekeeping. The other monks work in the scriptorium and may know the list of the volumes that the library houses. But a list of titles often tells very little; only the librarian knows, from the collocation of the volume, from its degree of inaccessibility, what secrets, what truths or falsehoods, the volume contains. Only he decides how, when, and whether to give it to the monk who requests it…”

This 14th Century monastic world – as described by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose – is, of course, centuries adrift from Australian universities of today – and no doubt more so from Australian universities of 2040.

Yet this passage has always rung like a gong in my understanding of what universities are.

You see, we hold in our collective heads the idea that universities are bastions of innovation, revolution and radical thinking: that the job of the university is to change the world.

We in the university community hope that the rest of the world sees us as bringing great new ideas, solutions and insights to life. Even if we’re more humble, we’ll at least believe that many in the rest of the world see our ideas as… different.

Perhaps this is true. Perhaps universities are fountains of the new. I don’t really seek to argue against such a position here. But it is also true that universities are, like the monasteries from which they emerged, fundamentally conservative institutions.

When I first read the passage above, I was completing my PhD in political science: spending days on end touring archives and rare book libraries, reading obscure 300 year old tomes. To get access, I’d book a seat at a dedicated desk, and then submit my student card and a form detailing the requested volume to the librarian. While the librarian scurried off into the labyrinth behind the desk (this library too was at the top of a tower), I’d put on white gloves in anticipation. Sitting there waiting, I’d daydream about the scholarly wonders contained in that labyrinth behind the altar. Ten minutes later the librarian would return and reverently place the book in front of me, intoning, with a grave look, the worth of the volume.

Like the library in The Name of the Rose, universities are, despite what many people think about them, inherently conservative. Their job – perhaps even more than creating new knowledge – has been to preserve the knowledge that does exist.

There’s a good reason for this.

Good, trustworthy knowledge is hard to produce. It doesn’t just take one study, or even one career to produce knowledge – in each field it takes hundreds of highly intelligent people around the world working day in, day out, to learn what is already known and then spot minor problems: to think up solutions to these problems, test them with the most rigorous method they can find, peer review each other’s work, and then think some more. New knowledge is hard to produce, and it can’t really be trusted until it’s old knowledge.

And so, when we consider what might change in Australian universities over the next two decades, I would first of all wager that they will look more similar to the universities of today than they will look different.

Universities will, for instance, continue to preserve the hard fought knowledge that has been produced, and teach that to new generations of students. Some fields will have seen small changes, some will have seen large. Yet for most fields the knowledge taught will largely be the same as today. But will things be identical? No – it is likely that today’s growing suspicion of hard and fast disciplinary boundaries will increase.

Interdisciplinary knowledge will prove ever more useful in solving the key challenges of the world, and universities will move, however shakily and slowly, to embrace this.

When we turn to students, I very much believe (and hope) that universities will continue to play transformative roles in young people’s lives – expanding their horizons as much as is possible in the short time they’ll spend with us. Will things differ? Here I hope (and expect) that universities will expand this transformative role to wider groups of people who haven’t been able to go to university in the past, and to expand their engagement to communities of people not enrolled.

And finally, I believe universities will continue to push back against those who would raise simplistic, dogmatic, dangerous descriptions of the world. We live in times of epistemic strife, and that’s sadly not likely to get better soon. But I can guarantee it will get worse if universities shrink from the challenge we are facing in this post truth world.

Whatever else divides us in universities, we know that seeking the truth is a worthy calling, but claiming you have it is bullshit. I hope – but won’t go so far as to expect – that universities will rise to this challenge.


Will Grant is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University.

Most of his work has focused on the interaction of science, politics and climate change, and how such interactions are changing with new technology. Awarded for his public policy and outreach work, he tweets at @willozap, and podcasts at @WholesomeShow.

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