What questions are worth asking?

By Richard Black|September 8, 2016|Research|2 comments

Universities are all about asking (and answering!) the world’s most burning questions – it is core to what our staff, our students, and our academic programmes should be doing. For many, the most important questions for universities to ask are seeminly obvious. They should have value for society, for example asking how we can reduce suffering, cure diseases, or invent new materials or build machines that are lighter, faster, smarter. As a London university recently put it (and I paraphrase), ‘The world asks, we answer’. The assumption is that what the world is asking is not in doubt.

The SOAS equivalent to these questions can also seem obvious. In a striking campaign video launched today as part of our Centenary celebrations, we focus on important questions that are clearly worth asking, and to which we believe we can help find answers – answers that are not obvious. For example, our researchers are helping to identify ways of dealing with migration and displacement that place such movement in its regional and historical context. Asking about context should deliver solutions that are more likely to work because they are grounded in local and political realities. We ask too about ‘what happens after war?’, not just as an abstract notion, but because, despite the horror of war and conflict, there are some actions that can help reduce suffering and promote a sense of justice and reconciliation rather than perpetuate a cycle of violence and retribution.

But in focusing our campaign on ‘Questions Worth Asking’, we are going much further than this. Indeed, ‘Questions Worth Asking’ is an idea that goes to the heart of what a modern university could and should be. Because not all of the questions that are worth asking are obvious, let alone the answers. Many are apparently obscure, esoteric, unsettling or potentially dangerous. Yet they are crucial for a functioning democracy, a liberal education, and a thriving and dynamic society.

So how do we know what are the questions worth asking? If non-obvious questions are still worth asking, does this mean that all questions are of equivalent worth? And what does this have to do with the meaning of a university, higher education, or with the state of our democracy?

Over the summer vacation I had the pleasure of reading Michael Roth’s recent book Beyond the University, given to me by a SOAS alum who like me is concerned about the threats currently mounting up against ‘liberal education’. Liberal education has a much more specific meaning in the US context, and Roth, who is President of Wesleyan University, traces its origins back to Benjamin Franklin and his founding of the University of Virginia in 1819, soon after American independence.

Franklin was concerned that the universities of the time – what are now known as the ‘Ivy League’ and all created as colonial institutions – were focused narrowly on orthodoxies – whether religious, philosophical or commercial. Students had to master the ‘canon’ of accumulated knowledge. Yet the result was deeply conservative – students trained to accept the status quo.

In contrast, Franklin wanted a university in which students were free to explore questions for themselves, so they could be active citizens of the new republic. In time, and subsequently informed by the German model of research universities, an idea of a liberal education emerged in which students are free to explore, and take themselves to the frontiers of knowledge and innovation. This has become the core of a US system that is in many respects world leading, and deeply influential in the UK too. For example, at SOAS we encourage our students to challenge, to think outside the box and look at alternative perspectives. We want our students to think global, to be global citizens.

Yet the challenges to this idea of education are multiple. From outside the academy, there are many who criticise the idea of pursuing knowledge for knowledge sake. Why should we teach or research ‘dead’ languages, for example? If public money is to be spent on higher education, surely there should be a demonstrable benefit for society? Surely we should train students to do useful jobs, not just to sit and think? Roth shows how long such a critique has been around, but also how rife it is today. And such a critique is prevalent not only in the US, but in the UK too – it has long been a dominant narrative in the Labour party, and is likely to increasingly inform opinion in the Conservative cabinet of Theresa May. How do we place a value on what our young people learn?

From inside the academy there is plenty of critique of the liberal model too. Many in the professions and disciplines maintain that there is a corpus of literature that must be mastered in order for a degree or a research project to count. Can you have an English degree without Shakespeare? (the answer is maybe not, although at SOAS the Bard is only one part of a global approach to literature that starts in year 1). Or, can you have a research project that does not take as its starting point the existing literature and seeks to critique it?

At SOAS we teach and research at least seven ancient and classical languages – not Latin or Greek, but Sanskrit and Prakrit, Avestan, Babylonian and Assyrian, as well as classical Arabic and Chinese. How are the questions in this field ‘worth asking’, when these languages are not spoken any more? And if there are questions about Babylonian that are worth asking, who decides what they are?

Let me take an example of SOAS research on ancient Babylonian to illustrate the point. SOAS researcher Andrew George has been deciphering cuneiform tablets in the Schøyen Collection in Norway, which houses probably the finest unpublished collection of Old Babylonian letters in the world. In engaging with these letters, he asks what life was actually like around 1,800 years before Christ. Is this a question worth asking? It seems to me it is – as the answers allow us to populate history with real personalities, not idealised stereotypes. Surely such understanding is a worthy goal, with resonance for moving beyond stereotypes today?

Another challenging example is Drew Gerstle’s work on the Shunga art of Japan, recently shortlisted for by the THE for Research Project of the Year. Shunga has traditionally been seen in Japan as a form of low-grade pornography, definitely not worthy of academic study. But by asking questions about what is art, and what is obscenity, the project has led to a re-appreciation of this work, and unprecedented public discussion of art and sexuality in contemporary Japan.

Or take new work being developed by Jieyu Liu on Chinese families. China’s ‘One Child’ policy is much studied, including its demographic, social, political and economic ramifications. But what does it, and the many other profound changes in Chinese society mean for intimacy within Chinese families? This project is still at its early stages, but it is already opening up a new world of understanding of how people live in this fast changing region of the world, with fewer children. It should go on to shed further light on global questions around family, development and modernity.

One view on what makes questions like these worth asking is that the key is academic freedom. We must be free, in universities, to set whatever questions we want, as only by doing so can we be free to find the unexpected, reveal the concealed, or challenge the orthodox. Indeed, I’m a staunch defender of academic freedom – in particular the right for all views on a given subject to be heard on campus (and there are plenty of threats to this for example in the implementation of the UK government’s PREVENT agenda). Yet this position is perhaps at its core rather arrogant; or at best relativist. Are academics really more qualified than politicians or indeed the general public to have a view on what is worth studying?

An alternative view is that test of a worthwhile question is whether it advances knowledge. Clearly nobody – government or philanthropic donor – wants to pay for work to tell us what we already know. But we need to do more than this. Surely the knowledge we are generating through asking questions needs to open up further areas of enquiry, diversify the tools we have to hand in thinking about and understanding the world, and allow us to challenge assumptions and prejudice? These are the things that are key to a healthy democracy.

As it turns out, that is what SOAS has been doing throughout its first 100 years. As Ian Brown’s new book on the School’s history tells it, though set up as a place to train colonial officials, right from the start we could not resist the expansion of learning as a loftier goal. Long may that continue.

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  1. Is the study of human biology movement and can it present syncretic answers to the condition of human life, such as – are colonies democratic – can cell research provide insight towards automatism and rehabilitation – and should genes substitute for a database of affect, feeling, inclination and event that act as a foundation for life or prosecution? These are the more simply put problems of modern technology that can deter or safeguard markets in South America or China. Is it therefore that there subsists a median proof that pre-university mimesis and collective behavior assume the “core” of our life genes and neurological responses to danger and recognition, and that the assumptions then of the liberal state are cohesive rather than vernacular. Is it still true that the definition of an organism is the first step towards recognising justice for human groups rather than a scientific label for the homonid.

  2. Thanks Professor Richard, nice article, indeed. However, you could perhaps mention that sometimes asking a question might put a student at risk of being unpopular. There are lecturers who are not comfortable with this and it might reflect in grading 😉 I think any questions are worth asking as long as you don’t care the grade.

    Another thing is many people didn’t like Galileo or Socrates’s questions in that time, now those are valued more than anything else.

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