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In Conversation with Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams’ resignation as Archbishop of Canterbury in March last year may have come as a shock to some; but his return to academic life, as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, surprised nobody.  Even as Archbishop, Williams maintained a steady intellectual output that kept him firmly in the eye of the academic theology community as well as the general public.  Recent publications include A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton (April 2013), Faith in the Public Square (September 2012: VL review here), The Lion’s World: a Journey into the Heart of Narnia (August 2012) and Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (December 2010).  And yet this new role in academia does mark a departure in one respect: as his first University position since his consecration as Bishop of Monmouth in 1992.  I met with him in Cambridge to ask about his first impressions.

Kirsty Jane McCluskey: Coming back to academia now after twenty-one years in Church leadership, how has it changed?  What have you seen happen in your time?

Rowan Williams: One of the things that strikes me coming back, and strikes me rather unhappily, is the functionalising of so much of academic life. It is now almost impossible to get public funding for research in the humanities; it is pretty difficult to fund research in some bits of the pure sciences. The assumption is that higher education is essentially about improving the GNP and making us an economically competitive nation, and it seems to be almost unthinkable for people to discuss this in public in terms of what kind of humanity we’re cultivating. Now, that was already underway when I was teaching in universities before, but I think it has got rather more marked. One of the defences that I like to mount of the college system here is that the college system makes us talk to each other as human beings, and displays something about human interest, from very diverse backgrounds.  A college does remind you, to use a favourite phrase of mine, that the questions I ask are not the only ones to ask. I think there’s also a suspicion of the small scale in higher education; everything has to be very, very large, and very bureaucratically organised. No-one again seems to have stopped to ask: What are the particular virtues of small-scale, face-to-face interaction? It’s the same at every level of education, and the more we divorce what we say and think about education from that sense of inducting people in to a whole social practice, not just into being economic units, the more I think we miss out on something central.

I think it has something to do with what we think the intellect really is. Is the intellect basically a problem-solving capacity, or is it something that goes on generating questions rather than just solving problems?  I think if you believe the latter—if you believe intellect generates questions, pushes envelopes, changes horizons—then you do have to think very carefully about policies that narrow the range, that always ask: “What’s the payoff?” As is often said, that imposes a certain kind of patience on the intellectual life: maybe it will take ten years to get this straight, and maybe, therefore, the fact that I haven’t published a paper for the latest research exercise doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things, because there’s something better coming.

KJM: About the REF [Research Excellence Framework: see here]: do you think the emphasis on immediate results has changed how free academics feel, what they can explore and what they can do?

RW: I think it has. I think the introduction of impact criteria is—well, I won’t mince my words—I think it’s a bit of barbarism, the way it’s set out. Back to the timescale thing, it does seem to be perfectly proper that an academic might say: “I’m not ready yet to say what I think about this.” We can laugh at the older style of academic work, where somebody’s entire output over forty years would be one perfectly crafted paper—small but perfectly formed—all right, there were abuses, but I think the pendulum has well and truly swung to the other side now.

KJM: And there’s something else that strikes me as very necessary, which may no longer be the case these days: the freedom to try something and discover that it doesn’t work.

RW: Yes, yes, to make mistakes. Lest I sound too negative, I’d want to offset all that a little bit by saying that there’s a rather more collaborative environment in lots of areas, not least in the humanities. The number and the quality of small-scale seminars, of work together at that level and indeed a measure of interdisciplinary work here has impressed me; I’ve seen it at other universities as well. While, again, the rhetoric about team teaching and so forth may be a little bit stale, the truth is that people do work together in ways I don’t quite remember when I was teaching before.

KJM: Of course, you yourself have done a great deal of what would be called interdisciplinary work—crossing boundaries, languages—it’s a buzzword now, but it also strikes me as very characteristic of a certain generation of academics who had the job security and the funding to explore freely. This is counterhistory, but if you were entering the system now, do you think you could do what you’ve done?

RW: I think it would be a great deal more difficult. I think it was extremely valuable for me when I was first beginning research not quite to know what I was going to be working on for a bit, and so to make forays and, as you say, to make mistakes and false starts. When I was interviewed for a research fellowship in Oxford back in the seventies, and I was asked what work I’d been doing, I remember describing a piece of work I’d done on a particular Greek text, looking for evidence of something, and I didn’t find any. Now, I didn’t get the job then, and that may be partly right, but I certainly wouldn’t get it now. It was an admission that I’d done what I thought academics did, which was to look hard and, if there wasn’t any evidence, go somewhere else.

KJM: A negative result is a result.

RW: Yes. So I think it would be a bit harder. To be fair, I also had the privilege of teaching for a good bit of my career not just in the university, but in affiliated institutions, theological colleges and so on, which has left me a little bit more free anyway to spread wings, to explore new areas. But I do think of people I’ve known in the academic life, who, in mid career, have said, “I really need to acquire a whole new discipline if I’m going to go into questions like this.” People who’ve taken time out to read for a degree in law, who’ve learned a new language to a seriously professional level, who’ve gone off for a year or so to familiarise themselves with developments in another area. We’d be a lot poorer if that were impossible.


Five book recommendations from Rowan Williams

Dickens: Bleak House

The collected poems of W. H. Auden

Dostoevsky: The Devils

The collected poems of George Herbert

And, if I were going to a desert island, I would take — for my own spiritual reading — the letters of Abbot John Chapman.  It’s not the same sort of book as the others, but it’s a book I re-read constantly.

The photo of Dr. Williams at the Conference on Christians in the Holy Land, Lambeth Palace, was posted by Catholic Church England and Wales on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

6 comments on “In Conversation with Rowan Williams

  1. Pingback: In Conversation with Rowan Williams |

  2. Jackie
    June 26, 2013

    This was very interesting, I would’ve liked it to go on longer. I think the mindset described has wider implications beyond the university setting. It would seem too narrow, too unconnected to other things, leaving students unaware of certain ideas or practices could be applied in other areas besides their own field. It would seem to hamper the thoughts of the great themes of Life, too.
    I also heartily applaud his 5 recommended books, it’s great to see poetry turning up.
    Thanks to both of you for the intriguing interview!

  3. melrose
    June 26, 2013

    It seems to be that economics comes above everything these days, and we lose a lot of what actually constitutes humanity, and its wonderful creativity, in pursuit of financial gain these days. Rowan Williams has put this far more eloquently than I can, and I thank him for his contribution to this debate.

  4. Kate
    June 27, 2013

    Very interesting, and so good to read opinions that sounds like those so many academics aren’t able to voice for fear of getting trampled. Hope he can be more outspoken and shove the pendulum back a bit. But I would have liked to have known more about what research he’s beginning himself, now he’s back in academe.

  5. Pingback: The far too occasional update | Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  6. Pingback: Rowan Williams on Jesuit education | Project SJ

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2013 by in Entries by Kirsty, Interviews: authors and tagged , , , , , .



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