From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise

UBCIn a marvellous essay of a couple of years ago on the gutting of British academia, Stefan Collini compares the British Government’s White Paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System with the celebrated Robbins Report on higher education, which was published in 1963. (He had already reviewed the Browne Report, which lay behind much of the White Paper.) As Collini points out, the 2011 White Paper cites Robbins, but

It may have been unwise for the drafting team at [the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] to remind their readers of the cadence of Robbins’s prose, since it seems bound to provoke some thinking about how far we have travelled from the assumptions expressed by that prose, how that has happened, and whether something valuable may not have been lost along the way.

Quoting at length from the 1963 Report, Collini observes that

what such passages display, and what the White Paper so lamentably lacks, is a considered understanding of the character of intellectual inquiry and of the conditions needed to sustain it successfully across a wide range of subjects and across many generations. Universities cannot be glibly said to exist ‘to serve students’: that neglects precisely ‘the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding’ which Robbins identifies. The language of these passages is well informed and accurate: teaching at this level is not simply the ‘patient recapitulation and explanation of the known’; university teachers ‘need time for reflection and personal study’ if they are to ‘keep abreast of new developments in their subjects’, and so on. Such phrases would stick out in current HiEdspeak precisely because they are modest yet confident, not all outer bluster and inner defensiveness.

It is not, Collini continues, that we should “indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago.” Rather, he concludes:

To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.

Similar conclusions can be reached, if on a smaller scale, by comparing the language and arguments employed within my own institution to describe its educational ambitions (or lack thereof) in two key documents: first, from 1963, Discipline and Discovery: A Proposal to the Faculty of Arts of the University of British Columbia; and, from 2011, A Place & Promise for Arts: UBC Faculty of ARTS Strategic Plan, Fall 2011.

The point of such comparison, however, is neither nostalgia nor critique for the sake of critique. It might, by contrast, help prepare us better for the challenge we currently face. That challenge has only become more acute over the two years since the UK White Paper and the UBC Strategic Plan were published, as the dramatic expansion of the commons promised above all by digital and online technology is met by a ferocious drive towards enclosure and “monetization” on the part of for-profit enterprises from Blackboard to Elsevier, Taylor and Francis to (most recently and most insidiously) Coursera.

More, anon.

Margaret Thatcher, Scholarship Girl

form_photo_1hI was only nine when Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but I was among the first beneficiaries of her largesse. For one of her government’s earliest acts was to create the “Assisted Places” scheme, by which public funds were used to provide private education to a privileged few. As a result, under the Tories the state paid for my attendance at one of the country’s most academically elite secondary schools, which currently charges £10,545 a year in fees. As an added bonus, it even paid for my bus pass, with which I could roam the city. So much for “rolling back the frontiers of the state.” Thatcher was happy to use public money not only to subsidize private enterprises, such as the school, but also to lavish it on individuals such as myself if they were reckoned to be suitably deserving. At the same time, the 1980 Education Act cut funds to schools (and pupils) in the public sector.

Thatcher had first made her name as Education Secretary, so her interest in the issue was unsurprising. Long before she became the “iron lady,” she was Thatcher the “milk snatcher” when, in 1971, she undid the 1946 Free Milk Act and removed the right to free school milk from children over the age of seven. Consistently, then, she was against the principles of universal provision enshrined in the Welfare State. But again, she was not against state spending per se. She was in favor of what in today’s buzzword would be called “targeted” spending: the few would benefit at the expense of the many. But note that the “few” in question here were not those who were already elite: the point is that this is a form of class engineering; the “able” or “deserving” few were to be pulled from their surroundings and given a ladder to join the elite. Better: the effect of the Assisted Places scheme was to give those who were culturally but not economically privileged (the children of teachers, single parents, or in my case the clergy) the chance to entrench or even improve their middle-class status on a working-class salary. Only 7% of those who benefitted from the scheme were children of manual laborers.

And yet (ironically for someone who, as Education Secretary, created more comprehensive schools than anyone before or since) Thatcher did effectively reintroduce the category of the “scholarship boy” (or girl). This is the person that Pierre Bourdieu would call an “oblate”: who identifies with the educational institution rather than with his or her class, because it is the institution that has enabled him or her to gain or maintain their class position. The scholarship subverts class loyalty without subverting class. It enables class mobility apparently under the guise of “merit” alone, but on terms structured by entrenched hierarchies of both economic and cultural capital. It is social mobility without social change. Or as Raymond Williams long ago put it, what he called “the ladder version of society” both “weakens the principle of common benefit, which ought to be an absolute value” and also “sweetens the poison of hierarchy, in particular by offering the hierarchy of merit as a thing different in kind from the hierarchy of money or of birth” (Culture and Society 331). And yet it is precisely this vision of so-called “meritocracy” that the Labour government that eventually succeeded that of Thatcher (and her epigones) fully embraced–even though, in another apparent irony, one of its first acts on gaining power in 1997 was to abolish the Assisted Places scheme.

But the ideology of merit cannot so easily dispel the reality of class. Thatcher, a scholarship girl herself who famously made her way from a flat above a grocer’s shop in Grantham to Oxford and then married into money, always suffered from the condescension of those whose privilege could come to seem natural precisely because it was not so obviously dependent on any one institution. In some ways this woman who was so keen on asking whether a putative ally was “one of us” was always keenly aware that she was not “one of them,” if by “them” we mean both the grandees whose control of the Conservative Party she had so surprisingly usurped and indeed the men (and women) on the Labour benches whose sense of belonging was so much more secure. Thatcher was constantly derided for her provincialism and/or suburban allegiances, whether they were expressed in her choice of clothes (Marks and Spencer blouses!) or her accent and voice (hence the elocution lessons). In short, she stood out for her lack of cultural capital, her perceived inauthenticity; for the fact that she was neither to the manor nor the miner born. And it was precisely on this basis that she could articulate her populist revolt: against the “Establishment”; against the post-war consensus that had seemed to exclude an entire class of those who no longer believed in class, who felt their dreams of social mobility frustrated by entrenched privilege.

At root, however, she no longer thought (if she ever had done) that the educational system was sufficient to make real her dream of a world in which there were merely “men and women.” She preferred council house sales and privatization, the vision of a property- and share-owing democracy, as a more efficient vehicle to change the “society” that she wouldn’t or couldn’t bring herself to believe in. No wonder that the New Left, many of whom were scholarship boys and girls themselves (from Richard Hoggart to Stuart Hall), not-so-secretly admired and envied her ability to articulate what they saw as a “hegemonic” bloc that waged war (almost) as much against the elite as against organized labor. It helped that the establishment obligingly played into her hands: by snubbing her nomination for an honorary degree, for instance, Oxford University no doubt boosted Thatcher’s credibility among the many who never had a chance to go to Oxford in the first place, if not among her own front bench who were (as always) almost exclusively Oxford and Cambridge men themselves.

So Thatcher’s class war was double-sided, as populist insurgencies have to be: she was ruthless on the poor and the working class, but she was also serious, I think, about confronting those she had come to know, but never to like, as a scholarship girl at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Somerville College, Oxford, and ultimately in the House of Commons. No wonder she was never particularly keen on the House of Lords, either as Prime Minister (when her government frequently suffered defeat in the upper house) or as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.

But in the end it was the grandees who brought her down. It was after all Geoffrey Howe (not Arthur Scargill) who, with his resignation speech, put the nail in her political coffin and forced her to resign. And perhaps here we also see her greatest political failure more generally. By the time New Labour came to power, its leaders had taken on the mantra of meritocracy but also effortlessly felt at home with the guardians of cultural capital. None more so than the Right Honourable Anthony Blair (Fettes and St Johns College, Oxford). And after a brief hiccup in the personages of John Major and William Hague, the current Tory party, stuffed with members of the Bullingdon Club, has returned to form. Which is why it’s hard to imagine another Margaret Thatcher coming along any time soon: now that the chances for scholarships have disappeared, in part because the idea of the school or university as “ladder” rather than simply requirement has effectively disappeared, an entire structure of feeling has gone with it, too. Among those who can imagine themselves rich and can read the right magazines to appear cultured, deference is the order of the day; among those who know that they have been excluded more viciously than ever, thanks largely to the legacy of Thatcherism’s attack on universal provision, the only reasonable affect left is anger.

Meanwhile, my old school claims now to offer “need-blind” admissions, boasting of a war-chest it has accumulated from constant fund-raising and appeals, often to former pupils like me. A few years ago its website used to feature a list of the postcodes from which its pupils came (and the numbers in each case), as a testament to the wide geographical swathe of Northwest Britain from which it could recruit. But I pointed out that the list was drastically skewed to the leafy suburbs of affluent South Manchester: over a hundred pupils commuted in from each of SK8, WA14, and above all (my own former postcode) WA15. I suggested then that the test of a truly need-blind admission policy would be if there were proportionately equal representation from the postcodes (and so the dilapidated council estates) that immediately surround the school itself, located in the inner suburbs: M12, M13, M14, and M15; at the time, there were no pupils at all from M12 or M15, and only a handful from M13 or M14. I said I would contribute money for their appeal when there were as many children admitted from M14 as from WA14. Strangely, that list of pupils by postcode has now disappeared from the school’s site.


The Wednesday quotation, part XVI: Stephan Collini from his excellent, if frightening, account of recent UK government policy on higher education:

The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you “want” – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from “the student experience”) are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. (“From Robbins to McKinsey.” London Review of Books 33.16 [25 August 2011])


Ha! A funny (but nice) comment on a talk I gave recently in Southampton:

Check out Jon Beasley-Murray’s talk here. Proof that you can turn up straight from the airport with too many bright yellow, text only slides and a low key presentation style and still carry an audience through lots of well grounded theorising accessible to non academics like me. If you want to explore why there is so much more to Wikipedia than meets the eye while side-stepping the cliched debates about its worth (reliability etc etc), then get a cup of tea and and enjoy this. (Paul Sweeney, “Southampton E-Learning Symposium 2011”)

I was rather pleased with the yellow background for my Powerpoint slides; as you can see from this blog, I generally like yellow as a background for text. Oh well.

It’s true that the trip was a little crazy: after a transatlantic flight we turned up at Heathrow and were met by a man with a hired car who drove us straight to the conference pretty much just in time for my talk. And then we took a lift back into London, only to be swallowed up for hours by rush-hour traffic, inching along somewhere in the environs of Barnes when we were hoping to be going to New Cross. Thirty-six hours later, we flew back.


This account of the recent protests against tuition fee increases in the UK is fascinating, especially given its source: the Economics editor of the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, Newsnight.

Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.

While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations – UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex – the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.

[. . .]

When there are speeches, the university students often defer to the working class young people from sixth forms, who they see as being the main victims of the reform. With the Coalition’s majority reduced by 3/4, as I reflected earlier, it is unprecedented to see a government teeter before a movement in whom the iconic voices are sixteen and seventeen year old women, and whose anthems are mainly dubstep.

I have no idea how accurate this account is–I’m a long way away from the protests myself–but it would be quite something it it were. The protests against the initial introduction of fees (which took place when I was at university) were nothing like this.

Meanwhile, the picture of Charles and Camilla’s shock at being caught up in the melée, and their realization that they are perhaps not so insulated from ordinary people as they may hope, is quite extraordinary:

Frankly, this may be the only good reason to have a royalty still: to provide images such as this one.


Radio On poster

Radio On is a chilling portrait of Britain in the late 1970s. As with David Peace‘s more recent novelistic portrayals of Yorkshire in the grip of Rippermania, Petit’s film suggests that violence and unsavory hidden networks underpin (but also undermine) the ennui and repetitive routines of an almost affectless daily life.

Unlike Peace, however, Petit has no great desire to prove the conspiratorial thesis that promises (as all conspiracies do) to give meaning to what is superficially odd or opaque. Rather, he prefers to surf the affectless surface itself, fascinated by the strange quirks and eddies that arise out of a life of constant (often mechanized) motion without particular end.

Hence, though the film’s plot involves a man named Robert who takes a road-trip to Bristol to find out why his brother has committed suicide, with the implication that he may have been involved in some kind of hard-core pornography ring recently busted by the police, in the end the protagonist seems hesitant to discern any kind of ultimate truth. As he comments to a German woman whom he picks up on the way, the reason for his journey turns out to be strangely unimportant.

The quirks and eddies of the trek include a brief episode with an apparently psychotic army deserter whom Robert picks up as a hitch-hiker. He’s been traumatized, it seems, by his tours of duty in Northern Ireland; but again Robert has little interest in probing much further, choosing instead to throw the man’s stuff out of the car and drive on when the ex-soldier stops to take a piss. Instead, Robert is rather more amused by the gentler figure of a petrol station attendant (played by Sting) who is too distracted by his rock and roll fantasies and idolization of Eddy Cochran to bother with manning the till or taking money from customers.

Together, Robert and Sting’s character sing a version of Cochran’s posthumous hit “Three Steps to Heaven”, which declares that “the formula for Heaven’s very simple / Just follow the rules and you will see.” There’s no greater indication of the distance between the early 1960s and the tail end of the 1970s than the fact that such simplicity, or even such aspirations, are totally out of place. But the link between then and now is that music remains central.

For this is a film almost entirely devoid of dialogue; and even when characters do converse, they speak past rather than to each other. For instance, there are a couple of long sequences of untranslated German; in Radio On, language is part of our alienation, not a means to counteract it. Music, on the other hand, while it may reflect the repetitiveness and routine of our humdrum lives (Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car”), perhaps also offers the possibility of connection and even heroic insistence on affect (Bowie again, with “Heroes/Helden,” or Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World”).


Indeed, before Robert hears about the suicide, he gets a package in the post in which his brother has sent him three Kraftwerk tapes. So it is this German band, whose constant theme is our uneasy relationship to technology and mass production, that come to dominate the film’s soundtrack. The movie ends as Robert’s car fails to start, and he is unable to crank the engine as the vehicle is poised on the edge of a disused quarry. So he puts one last track on the car tape player, Kraftwerk’s ironic anthem “Ohm Sweet Ohm,” and takes the train back to London.

As the quasi-manifesto seen in the dead brother’s flat says, “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the 20’s and the 80’s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers, and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.” Ultimately, Britain in the seventies is not quite “home,” and is by no means homely, but it may be that postindustrial (post)modernity gives rise to its own culture, and its own (electronic) reality in which we may find some uncertain facsimile of “ohm.”

YouTube Link: the film’s opening (almost entirely dialogue-free) ten minutes; the whole film can in fact be seen, in segments, on YouTube.