Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Higher Education Motion

Andrew Motion’s attack on the ‘mercantile’ approach to Higher Education* by the coalition government captures the general sentiment of many academics – at least those over the age of 35. He is in large measure right and most of us feel like he does. Expansive learning has been if not sacrificed on the altar of measurables and performance management, it has been severely undermined. Audit trails, targets, ‘the student as customer’ and general ‘marketisation’ are woven into the everyday discourse of all HE institutions and have engendered an instrumentalist order that limits rather than empowers.


It isn’t just HE of course – schooling in general is so completely instrumentalist, so driven to target that the space for the individual to make mistakes, explore new avenues and develop as a whole human being, is considerably less than it was. Many students arrive at University convinced, at the deepest level, that learning is really a modern form of rote learning. They have been schooled to access bare facts quickly, rearrange them according to convention and serve them up in anticipation of transparent marking criterion. In the interests of securing the highest possible place on performance league tables, they have been tutored in a game that works by explicit and stated ends and means – all that is necessary is to get there as efficiently as possible. Debate over the nature of the goal itself is not entertained and genuine insight or work that escapes the rules, is not credited as worthwhile.

On a broader stage it is not education alone that is the problem. The culture of late modernity constantly shifts according to global drivers. Our education systems, as they are kicked from pillar to post by successive education secretaries, follow in a kind of dislocated temporal lag. Our ‘real politik’ has only a thin connection to the real reality of our situation and, sadly, the Tory coalition’s only connection is, as Motion observes, by means of mercantile values.

The dilemma for those of us who work in HE is that Motion’s depiction of the contemporary dominant order is the reality we face. We live with the dilemma of dealing with things as they are whilst knowing that there ain’t no going back and we have to make it work. There is no choice. We cannot wind back the direction of capitalism and if it hadn’t been the Tories who introduced the £9000 fees or similar, it would have been Labour. There is no return to the disinterested search for truth and the free play of the imagination – even if that really existed for anyone except the exceptionally lucky or wealthy few. There are limited opportunities for our swelling, IT savvy young people. Higher Education has been more or less privatised and is now a site in which nearly half the population move to adulthood. Painful and very demanding but real.

You have to get a Masters and then work for free.


It is also a sad irony that Higher Education used to give a small percentage of the population a higher access to well-paid employment. With its massive expansion we are in the situation where it gives a much larger percentage much less access to any employment. The continued qualification inflation means that a degree alone is not going to get you a job. You have to get a Masters and then work for free.

I share Motion’s position but I do worry about moaning. I have done my fair share of moaning about Higher Education and it really has done little good and it certainly does nothing for new lecturers seeking to provide exciting learning for enormous groups of students. When the under 35 lecturer hears the over 35 lecturer bemoaning the loss of intellectual freedom, they look glassy-eyed at you as if to say ‘so how is that helping?’

Motion and the 65 esteemed and high-profile figures who form the Council for the Defence of British Universities, argue that universities cannot be understood or valued simply in terms of market expediency and can really only be evaluated in terms of our enrichment as a species. I agree but would describe our state in a slightly different way. The processes of education have been modularised, packaged and monitored at the cost of the human endeavour to know, discover and act consciously. Contemporary discourses of learning have created a regime of truth that polices the imagination to dangerous levels. Worse still, the managerial means of learning have obtained the status as the ends.


For me, learning needs to be accepted as an intrinsic good in itself rather than as an end to management-directed economic means. Learning needs to be understood as a life-long precious and creative act and, one way or another, our universities have to find ways of nurturing it.

* http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/11/andrew-motion-government-mercantile-universities


Article originally posted on The Backbencher

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The creative act of Remembrance


MOST of us have family dead in Flanders. Like many I attended a Remembrance Sunday service at one of the thousands of monuments across the country. One by one the names were read out and we were moved to tears at the loss of a generation so monstrously wiped out. For me the purpose of the ceremony was to celebrate the lives of the dead by hearing their names spoken rather than them remaining silently etched in stone. As a trembling human voice sounds each name, the fact of their existence, their death and all the unrealised potential of their lives is made tangible. Somehow the humanity of the speaker brings something of the humanity of the dead back to life.


Humans seem to need stories

Humans seem to need stories – stories which provide us some kind of rationale for the brutal insanity of human conflict. We invent mythologies that carve sense from nonsense and justify past actions to suit current sensibilities. Provided with a story, however arbitrary and ridiculous that story might at times be, our deepest longings are calmed. Some historical episodes, perhaps the war against Hitler is the most obvious case, can be rendered rational in the sense that the cause of freedom was real, tangible and shared – the allied effort makes sense. But such rational explanation is not an option for many historical events despite humanity’s yearn for reasons. The travesty of Flanders is one such episode.

The dead were people just like us


It may seem obvious but the dead were people just like us. They hoped and loved and were fearful just like me and you. For me, it is only luck that I was born when and where I was and that it wasn’t me facing what they faced. Most of us have asked ourselves how we would have coped in those trenches – would I have gone over the top with a gulp of whiskey, an officer’s pistol behind me and a machine gun in front of me? I think that if I could have managed to fight through the sheer terror to move my limbs at all, I would have done whatever I could to survive. I am pretty sure that the language of ‘sacrifice’, ‘gallantry’ and ‘duty’, if it was used, would have seemed as meaningless then, as it seems to me now. Such language, so embedded in our services, rituals and common discourse needs to be carefully examined against the criterion of both sense and reality.

Many may disagree with me but the critical study of history and more importantly, the critical study of our readings of history, brings us to face the madness of human strife. Studying history is vital not just because we might forget the lives of our forebears but because we constantly need to find our own humanity. We need to hear the voices of the past and we need to tussle and struggle with readings of the past in order to find ourselves. In that sense remembrance is one of the most creative things we can do.


Article originally posted on The Backbencher

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Lessons from Edmund Burke and Tom Paine


It is from Burke and Paine that the opposing traditions of British left and right politics descend. One of the lesser known ironies about Burke and Paine is that they were friends. In the years immediately before the French Revolution they were political pundits seen eating, drinking and arguing about the rights and futures of humanity in the coffee houses of the Strand. Another irony about them both is that really close analysis of their works fails to locate them, their visions or their practical politics simply or easily with the traditions that take them as founding fathers.

The study of Burke and Paine challenges deep seated prejudices and forces us to think hard about the demand for equality and the status of reason as a criterion for political judgment. Brought up in the traditions of the left, the mythology I imbibed was that Burke was a reactionary Tory bigot intent on preserving the hierarchies of class ridden English society at all costs.

Growing up in the 60s and striving for fair play I naturally revered Paine and detested Burke who, I assumed, was being utterly unreasonable and self serving in his resistance to an utterly reasonable demand for equity. But when I read Burke’s 1756 A vindication of a Natural Society, I found his understanding of the mechanics of ideology anticipated the Marxist analysis (but not prescription) more or less completely. He knew that in order to preserve social order it was the first task of the aristocracy to convince the poor to accept their position as the poor. David Cameron faces precisely the same task today.

But the key to understanding Burke is to understand his fight against the abuse of power. He fought for the rights of Americans in the American War of Independence, for Indians against the abuses of the East India Company and for relief against the penal code in an Ireland that only recognised the existence of Catholics for the purposes of punishment. It was this same abuse of power that he saw as pregnant in the new French National Assembly. What is so stunning about his most famous 1790 work – Reflections on the Revolution in France was that in many respects he turned out to be right. He predicted the anarchic collapse of the new French National Assembly – we got Robespierre and exercise of the guillotine. He predicted an expansive war – we got it for twenty or so years. He predicted the rise of a dictator – we got Napoleon.


A close look at Tom Paine’s biography shows that he was no socialist. He was a republican who was very keen on free trade. As a youth he served on a privateer that engaged in state legitimated piracy – waiting in the Channel for French vessels to commandeer and sell in Bristol and Plymouth. The twists and turns of his life show high principle counterpoised with personal vanity and opportunism. One of the strangest ironies about his life was that he ended up in the Luxembourg awaiting a cart to take him to the place of execution. It was only the luckiest and fortuitous happenstance that saved him. If reason was his standard it didn’t serve him very well – he ended up pretty sad, lonely and poor.

But Paine’s demand in the Rights of Man which informed the traditions of socialism and the Labour party, was for a welfare state and a representative democracy- demands based on standards of reason that we assume today. The differences in their practical and theoretical political positions was that Burke weighted the existing order and welcomed only very very small gradual change from any quarter – in that sense he really was a true conservative. Paine on the other hand positively encouraged serious and powerful revolutionary change in the interests of equality.

Two hundred and twenty years later who can we say was right? In one very important sense surely the judgement has to go in Burke’s favour – the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions carried a very heavy human cost as have so many revolutionary movements across the world. Revolutions do seem to carry the seeds of their own self destruction.

The lessons of Burke and Paine go to the core of any serious political vision. Inequality exists but reason – the standard of right thinking – cannot accept inequality. How can the social order be reasonable when it is mere luck whether you are born rich or poor? How can it be reasonable that the poor suffer and are condemned to suffer for ever? Yet experience shows that revolutionary change on the basis of the reasoned and reasonable demand for equity flies in the face of how we live our lives. It always ends in disaster. Reason given the status of omnipotence, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, becomes a monster.

As a lifetime lefty, the hypocrisies of my position are writ large when I consider the life and legacies of Edmund Burke and Tom Paine.


Article first posted on The Backbencher