That higher education is in the grip of profound forces reshaping its role and meaning is a truism. The university as a cloistered centre “is a physical reminder of times past” writes Tom P Ables, but its function is no longer the same:
“Not only is the model unstable and changing but the world in which the university is embedded is changing. This is problematic for an enterprise that has its foundational knowledge resting on the past.”
Universities everywhere are adapting and responding to these forces in a variety of innovative ways. Among the many challenges they face is one of great importance, which may be expressed as “not throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.
How do they judge which subjects are important? How do they know which ones to discard or to retain? How do they teach them in the digital age?
Some disciplines appear monumentally archaic, apparently irrelevant to a world speeding onwards to who knows what. Appearances, however, can be deceptive.
What do the following have in common?
They have the rare gift of making the unbelievable believable. They have set the benchmarks for High and Epic Fantasy.
Literary snobs may (will) bridle, but in the end the numbers do not lie. Combined sales of their books and viewers of spin-off movies and TV series accumulate into the fabulously stratospheric millions.
Obviously both are superb story-tellers and gifted writers. But there is much more to it than that.
Their work is grounded in deep knowledge of academic disciplines such as philology and history.
Tolkien was the very model of the dusty Oxford professor, an expert in the arcana of ancient languages and linguistics, of Old and Middle English and Old Norse, of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
All this knowledge fed into the creation of Middle Earth, and The Lord of the Rings could never have been imagined into print had he not been a scholar of the highest order. Very likely there would be no Game of Thrones and countless other fantasy works had Tolkien not written TLOTR.
George RR Martin, a university graduate in journalism, is a wonderful writer and, although not a “scholar” in the traditional Tolkien mould, he brings to his craft the legacy of wide and deep reading and research across many areas, including historical fiction and history, especially of the English Medieval period. The very real Wars of the Roses are a particular influence (this very clever Ted-Ed video shows how).
No doubt his research skills (and the understanding of the importance of research) were honed during his university days. However, had it had not been for the labours of academic scholars in documenting such histories, there would have been nothing for him to research.
None of this is to say that a university education makes a great writer – nothing could be further from the truth (note, for example, the extraordinary success of fellow fantasy writer Tad Williams among many, many others).
Rather, it is to put the onus on universities to think differently about how they deliver their courses – to demonstrate that history, literature, languages, linguistics, philology and the like, actually serve a real-world purpose alongside their intrinsic worth.
This is not crude instrumentalism, but a necessary condition of our age.
An example of how this might be done is David Christian’s Big History Project, in league with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Scholarly, accessible, innovative and compelling, Big History breaks all the old rules when it comes to delivery, content and format.
Imagine medieval history being taught via an exploration of Game of Thrones. It may very well be R-rated history, but you’d certainly grab the attention of the average university undergrad.