Childeish Questions

Article excerpt

The criteria used in the British universities' current assessment of research quality prompt the question: how would Gordon Childe have fared, if assessed that way?

Two recent books about Gordon Childe (Harris 1995; Gathercole et al. 1995), and Peter Gathercole's recent lecture (1994), have provided some sombre and thought-provoking reading. Not so much about Childe the man (though what mythologist could have invented a more evocative symmetry than his Australian entry to the British stage, his life as the Prince of European Prehistory whilst remaining essentially an Outsider there, and his return to Australia and dramatic resorption into the landscape that bred him?); not so much about the personality. as about the political circumstances that on several occasions surrounded his work. Certainly Britain and its Empire were at war when he arrived in Oxford in 1914, and still sensitive long after he returned to Australia in 1917: but it is still a shock to read the military censor's gloating reports on his mail, and of the machinations of reactionary university politicians to get rid of a socialist and pacifist, and to have him dismissed even from a school-teaching post (Mulvaney in Harris 1994). The unease revives, after the security of a chair at Edinburgh and recognition in London, with the reminder that Childe was declared persona non grata in the United States in 1945 (Peace in Gathercole et al. 1995), and that McCarthyite distrust of all 'big ideas' led to a general suspicion in that country of historians and anthropologists who raised their eyes from technicalities to generalizations. It is fashionable now to parody ideas of social evolution as an ideology of conservatism; it is salutary to be reminded that once they were subversive and dangerous, and that what are now familiar names in undergraduate textbooks came during that era under political suspicion. It has the same capacity to cause incredulous disquiet as the kindly letter (reproduced in Bernal 1987: 388) from a group of faculty members in a US university in 1919, telling a colleague that he had no hope of a tenured position in a classics department because he was Jewish, and that it would be best to stop trying to find one.

It hits one unexpectedly because universities aren't supposed to be like that. Of course there have been departments where mediocrity rules and talent is seen as a threat, or whole disciplines that seem at times in the not-so-distant past to have been seized by a collective delusion (say) that one city in the 5th century BC was the touchstone of civilization, and its pots were worth their weight in gold; but that is not the same thing as outright proscription of a challenging point of view by nameless censors within the system. (Certain funding bodies seem to get quite close to this model, however.) Perhaps, for a short time, British universities did come near to espousing a system - public funding, with academic autonomy - best calculated to achieve the ideal. Not any more. Abolition of the difference between polytechnics and universities has eroded the concept that universities are not just about teaching but about the critical scrutiny of received knowledge. Now they are assumed simply to be concerned with imparting an agreed set of facts. A few of them may be privileged to conduct 'research' - specifically designed on the engineering/applied scientific model, with a measurable output and preferably with industrial application' goal-rational, value-free, commoditized learning. …