Behind the disciplinary turf war at HKU


The row about culling maths/physics and astronomy in the city’s oldest university exposes the unresolved issue of what counts as sacred knowledge in society.

The looking-glass logic of my alma mater, the University of Hong Kong (HKU), to drop the astronomy and mathematics/physics major in undergraduate curriculum is inconsistent with the global movement towards STEM education (namely, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The strong reaction from notable alumni is as predictable as the sun rising in the east every morning.

At first sight, one may resent this ruthless decision as a prime example of ‘new managerialism’ in higher education. Cost effectiveness is ensured at the expense of intellectual virtues. This interpretation has some grain of truth, especially in Hong Kong where capitalism reigns sovereign. However, the cry and hue over the axe conceals a greater issue about knowledge. What counts as socially acceptable knowledge? Is pure hard science such as mathematics and physics now giving way to applied fields like engineering, data science, cognitive science, or medicine?

laurentius_de_voltolina_001Perhaps a glimpse of the medieval university can teach us a lesson here. Fault lines created in the past over what counted as sacred knowledge continue to wield influence on the way academic disciplines are organised today. First, there was a distinction between ‘liberal arts’ and ‘mechanical arts’. This mapped over the contemporary ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ or ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ distinctions. In the medieval university, only the seven ‘liberal arts’ known as trivium (logic, grammar and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music) were taught, while the seven ‘mechanical arts’ (shipbuilding, navigation, cloth-making, agriculture, acting, hunting, and healing), though practically useful, were normally excluded. The university in the medieval period was conceived on the model of the monastery, and it was largely anti-utilitarian.



The second fault line was formed in the ‘liberal arts’ between trivium and quadrivium, and it morphed into the distinction between arts/humanities and sciences. Trivium, which had unquestioned precedence, was studied before the quadrivium in the Middle Ages. According to Emile Durkheim (1887-1917), the founding father of modern sociology, the precedence of the trivium over the quadrivium embodies the attempt to cultivate the inner quality of the scholar filled with the power of Christianity (i.e. the Word of God) before exploring the abstract Greek thought and material world (i.e. the World). As time went by, the trivium and quadrivium were dislocated. The unity of the Word and the World fell apart as a result of secularisation agenda of the Enlightenment. Now, sciences no longer need to be studied prior to arts and humanities. The tension between these two realms soon grew into an irrevocable rift as told in the ‘two cultures’ debate between the physical chemist Lord C. P. Snow and literary doyen F. R. Leavis at Cambridge in the 1960s. The antagonisms between sciences and humanities still live on, especially nowadays in the advent of STEM where arts and humanities are increasingly marginalised.

Despite the promise of STEM, the case of HKU tells us a bit about another line of tension, namely, the rivalry between pure and applied disciplines within the field of sciences. All three disciplines involved in this care are pure, hard sciences. These disciplines have a high level of specialisation and constitute, in Basil Bernstein’s words, the ‘singulars’. They are, on the whole, ‘narcissistic, orientated to their own development,…with its own intellectual field of texts, practices, rules of entry’. The knowledge structure of physics, mathematics and astronomy are also hierarchical, in the sense that their forms of knowledge attempt to ‘create very general propositions and theories [that] integrate knowledge at lower levels’ and ‘be motivated towards greater and greater integrating propositions, operating at more and more abstract levels.’ In between these science subjects is not the ‘language games’ of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Meanwhile, the applied fields such as medicine, pharmacy, nutritional science, engineering, cognitive science, neuroscience, food science, etc. are mostly concerned over practice and useful knowledge. Their primary aim is to produce practitioners, and their research aim is to produce useful expertise, not necessarily theoretical knowledge.

Obviously, in universities, the applied science subjects such as medicine, pharmacy, engineering and others are more popular and carry brighter job prospects. But are all applied disciplines (which Bernstein called ‘regions’) as powerful and hence relevant as the pure singulars discussed before? Here, sociologists argue that in order to make these new professional applied fields sustainable and their research robust, their relevant knowledge base coming from the ‘singulars’ and a strong social base in the organisation of the relevant profession are equally important. For example, pharmacy is a popular major in undergraduate curriculum. It establishes a firm ground in academia because its core knowledge base, that is, chemistry, has developed into a stable, generally accepted, incremental body of knowledge with rigorous methodology and epistemological principles. Pharmacists also unite together to form professional associations to protect their own interests and regulate practitioners in the sector. The case of medicine is similar. It is made up of specialised sub-disciplines such as anatomy, clinical microbiology, genetics, while its social foundation is also solid enough to safeguard doctor’s interests. To make an applied discipline socially relevant, its constituent knowledge base should never be ignored.41-ar3vtnwl

Therefore, the core debate about whether certain disciplines should be dropped in undergraduate curriculum can’t be understood only through the prism of cost control and university politics. Astronomy, physics and mathematics are theoretical disciplines which carry strong generative power in research. They may not be as immediately relevant to the society and labour market as other disciplines such as engineering, surveying and econometrics, but this doesn’t mean they lack the power for their learners and researchers to generate innovation and explore alternatives in a systematic way.

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