Problems with “The Guardian View on Higher Education”

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“The Guardian View on Higher Education” sounds like the title of a particularly biting satire on a certain sort of bien-pensant dinner-party discussion of how the guests’ children are getting on at various Russell Group institutions.[1]  It is, in fact, the title of an editorial, being passed around academic social media with some approval.  Its subtitle is “beyond the bean-counters”, and it runs with the lede “The noble idea that a university is a place where one learns to think is increasingly painted as indulgent and old-fashioned”, which are heartening declarations for a lot of people in an era when the sector is feeling all sorts of financial and ideological squeezes.

I don’t disagree with it thus far, and I’m certainly not criticising the colleagues from various institutions who’ve been retweeting and sharing it.  But I think it falls very short as a defence of the value of higher education, in ways which are representative of wider problems.  At best it doesn’t prove what it sets out to prove, and at worst it cedes large areas of the discussion to the very forces it is trying to resist.  I apologise in advance in there is a certain amount of nit-picking in this post, or a slight echo of a lecturer marking a piece of sloppy and hastily-produced coursework (though, of course, I have no idea what such coursework would look like.)  But this piece praised clear thinking and academic rigour, and in order to accept that compliment we’ll have to apply those standards to the source of the praise.

First, the quibbles.  These may sound more or less damaging depending on how much you care about this sort of accuracy, and how far you think it undermines the general argument.  But stick with me here, because I think it does make a difference.  The piece cites Newman’s epochal The Idea of a University, as an “1885 essay” on the subject.  Fair enough, I’ve been a bit freestyle about the precise version of Newman’s book I was citing in the past, but it’s worth noting that he published versions in 1852 and 1858 (with further editions coming later), because it calls attention to the context of that book.

Newman went to Dublin in 1854 to be the first Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, and it is that project which he outlines in 1852, to persuade his readers to support the university and send their sons there, and in 1858, just before sailing back to England after a failed four years in the post.  Newman argues for a specifically Catholic education, one which holds secular and theological knowledge together, and which regards the latter as just as solid as the former.  The Idea of a University, often cited as the founding text of the debate on the value of higher education, was the manifesto of a church-controlled system of higher education, which would not suit most Guardian readers in theory, and which slumped in practice.

Next, the article rightly identifies a common criticism levelled against university life, particularly within the humanities: “Swanning around with a copy of Keats in one’s back pocket, apparently picking up the civilising influence of learning as if by osmosis, is something one cannot reasonably expect the taxpayer to subsidise.”  This is a pretty fair summing up of a lot of the flak which a School of English catches, and the editorial answers it thus: “Fair enough, but that hasn’t been an accurate characterisation of university life since Brideshead Revisited”.  Brideshead Revisited, the Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder was published by Evelyn Waugh in 1945, and is an equally striking document of English Catholicism, this time a fictional meditation on the operations of Grace.

Leaving aside the fact that Brideshead Revisited is fictional, and was published in one decade about the world of a previous decade, I don’t remember there being much about university life in the novel.  It certainly doesn’t depict people “swanning around with a copy of Keats in one’s back pocket”: I seem to recall there are two groups of young people at university vividly described in the early chapters.  One group spend their time drinking heavily, disappearing up to London and avoiding lectures, the other group hold earnest and gruelling meeting about technical points of theology and ethics.  Any “picking up” of civilization “as if by osmosis” depends on being around dangerously charming young men, expensive art and etiolated Catholic dynasties, none of which happens at university or has much involvement with academic learning.

The next great mind to enter the discussion is Aristotle: “To the bean-counters, this process was easily misrepresented as lying around in bed a lot and having too much fun. But thinking takes the time it takes. And Aristotle never billed by the hour.”  He certainly didn’t, but neither did he undertake much which would be recognised by a modern university.  He certainly taught pupils, but he was also maintained as the tutor of one young man by a royal family.  The piece doesn’t explain how Aristotle relates to the larger argument about the need for time and thinking.  It’s far from self-evident what the significance of Aristotle is here, beyond someone famously clever and leisured.

These quibbles are relevant, I think, not simply because clear thinking is valorised by the piece, but because they point to a basic problem with the argument being constructed.  It is historical in form, organised around the phrases “There was a time”, “since Brideshead Revisited”, “old-fashioned”, “now dominated”, “long-overdue”.  But it’s unclear what history this maps onto.  I absolutely agree that universities should be places where time is allowed for thinking, rethinking, development and creativity.  I also agree that these processes take time.  But time is one thing this piece is remarkably vague about.  Aristotle, Cardinal Newman, and Evelyn Waugh are rather jumbled up: Newman was battling the instrumental educators in the 1850s, yet Waugh depicted a university of leisure and thought in the 1940s, and Aristotle provides a paradigm from thousands of years ago.

As Rowan Williams notes in Why Study the Past, historiographies which take the form “there was a time…” are notoriously attractive and unreliable.  “Once…” it was all fine, until feminism, or legalism, or Greek metaphysics, or Roman imperialism, or Benthamite utility, or agrarian patriarchy, came in and broke history.  This is the historiography of mythical explanations, and whether it comes from Aquinas or Starhawk, it strives after a different sort of sense than history.  Time is not broken into complete epochs, which is possibly why this editorial is so very vague on when the Golden Age happened, whether it was real (the use of Waugh suggests not) and how it related to historical time.

There is a coherent theoretical position one could just about construct from the use of Waugh, Newman, and Aristotle, incidentally.  Picking those three, if the editorial had seriously intended readers to consider what they wrote and draw connections between them, would surely imply that the British tertiary education sector should be essentially Catholic in character.  The philosophy of Aristotle, as canonized in the works of Aquinas, the literary meditations of Waugh and the theology of Newman, all point towards a distinctively English brand of Catholic higher education.  But I’m fairly sure that’s not what The Guardian intended.  One of the prerequisites of all that lying about thinking which the article commends is that you should have read the books you’re going to think about.

This relates to the final problem with the editorial’s line on the purposes of higher education.  It praises a “noble” old idea that university should teach us to think.  But think about what?  Despite its scorn for instrumental attitudes and the cash value of transferrable skills, it advances an entirely abstract and transferrable ability as the end of higher education.  The ability “to think”, if it does not mean courses in logic or philosophy, can quickly be divorced from those paperbacks of Keats and the intellectual rigour which goes along with them.  It is itself an instrumentalised product of training, which the Guardian view claims to reject.

“Teaching students to think” is riskily close to the kind of hyper-flexible attitude which Richard Sennett identifies as eroding people’s sense of self under capitalism.  It’s concerned with form, not content, not skill, not craft, with the abstract, not the particular.  It denies its responsibility to the material, and to the people, it works with.  As this editorial shows, it is a value which can hurry past the concrete, the historical and the difficult in favour of broad abstract declarations with which no-one can disagree.  Who’d deny that we want students to learn to think?  But it’s only if you read the books, and worry about what they mean, that you get stuck in having to think about them.

[1] Possibly even a satire published by The Guardian and written by people who went to Oxbridge institutions.

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