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A Lament for Academic Life

When he was in his early twenties one of my sons said something to me that must count among the stranger things that sons ever say to fathers. Asked what he wanted to do with his life he replied, “I want to be exactly like you, Dad”, putting some vehemence into the adverb.

And why not? I had no debts or financial problems. I played a lot of tennis and cricket – he was one of my teammates in the latter sport. I wrote books and articles about subjects I chose. I did an astonishing amount of traveling round the world or “gallivanting” as it was generally called in the family. There was not just the normal academic traveling, with conferences and visiting posts in California, Melbourne, Bangkok, Tbilisi and so on. I also rejoiced in the title of South Asia Academic Liaison Officer which enabled many visits to the eponymous region. There were editors who kindly classified me as a “travel writer” and it was often possible to combine liaising with travel writing. But all this was trivial compared with my enthusiasm for what I regarded as my core activity which was teaching lectures and small seminars (maximum nine people) on courses of my devising. Surely there was no more pleasant and satisfying way of earning a living? One understood those friends and relatives who alleged that I was not living my own life, but the stolen life of a man called Riley.

Nevertheless, the advice was not to do it because the life in its proper form was no longer available. For a start, literally, my son would have had to do a Ph.D. That would mean in practice five miserable and impoverished years replacing what should be some of the best years of your life. I did not do a Ph.D; I briefly registered for one but came to the conclusion that my supervisor was a bit of a moron and that I didn’t want to study anything in particular, but life in general. (This is still the case.) Fortunately, at twenty one I got a temporary university teaching job and at twenty two I upgraded to a permanent one. Very fortunately because studying for a Ph.D, effectively writing a book that nobody will read, has to be one of the most cruel and futile activities in human life; I thought that then and I think it now, despite (or, perhaps, because of) having supervised two dozen to a successful conclusion. The orthodox view is that the Ph.D teaches you your professional skills. My view is that it teaches narrow-mindedness, conformity and deceit. And if you don’t believe the last claim pick up any doctoral thesis in the humanities or social studies and look for the “literature review”. It is normally the second chapter and its purpose is quite clearly to give the impression that the candidate has read books and articles which he or she has not actually read. In any case there is a mass of research showing that Ph.D students are the true miserables of the modern world, impoverished, frightened and lonely.

If he’d made it through that ordeal there would have been a further half dozen or so years as a “post-doctoral research fellow” or “teaching assistant” while he he was thoroughly exploited and desperately looked for a permanent post. Having said this there’s no longer any reason in some systems why one would necessarily advance beyond this stage: the known record in the USA is of someone working at this level to the age of eighty four, there being no pension rights attached to casual academic employment. But let’s suppose he does get a “proper” job in his thirties: he would be under constant pressure to produce “research” (in the form of articles nobody reads) and, unless he was very lucky, he would have to teach students in very large numbers who are grinding their way through “Uni” not because they really want to, but because they believe they cannot afford not to. In this system serious assessment of the students would be out of the question: they must all be given good grades or you will suffer in numerous ways. Many of them would be “second language” and quite difficult to communicate with. In my last seminar group as a salaried employee there were twenty five students among whom the Kazakhs (oil money) outnumbered the English by three to two. Also in that year I “taught” a student from South Korea who did not understand any English at all. This is not so surprising given the dependence on language accreditations from corrupt countries, but I didn’t teach him until his second term. He was thrown out, but I never discovered what combination of carelessness, embarrassment and political correctness on the part of my colleagues had allowed him to survive so long. The examination process would never have caught him out because he would simply have submitted essays written by other people.

Thus it wasn’t very difficult to persuade my son that contemporary academic life had lost its attractions. For that matter none of the bright students I taught in the latter years went into academic careers. He/they wouldn’t be able to afford as nice a house as ours and it would feel more like a corrupt Gulag than the life of Riley. Of course, there was the option of being a Gulag commandant and swapping teaching and writing for “leadership” and “management”, becoming a vice-chancellor paid ten times the salary of one’s contemporaries, but he was no more interested in that than I was. (Incidentally, the first time I heard a campus referred to as a Gulag was when I was external examiner in the humanities at the University of Ulster and the vice-chancellor wanted to move all the social studies staff out to the Coleraine campus, some fifty miles west of the Belfast area where most of them lived. Coleraine was referred to as “the Gulag”.)

In any case there was the question of subject-matter. My son was/is a philosopher and philosophy departments were contracting and closing everywhere. At the moment there are a total of around 20,000 philosophy students in the UK which is one sixth of the overseas students doing business studies. I hardly need point out that this is a disgrace and that, in my opinion, business studies has no place in a university and should not be subsidised from the public purse.

In the words of a distinguished sheep shearer addressed to my wife in the Sheep Shearing Hall of Fame (in Hay, New South Wales), “They don’t make them like me any more”. You may well be tempted to think that is a very good thing. Who needs conceited, arrogant, dilettante academics like me? Actually, I think there is a great need: universities need people to be able to lead the life I led in order to attract real talent. Students need to be taught with much more enthusiasm and conviction by people who really want to teach and debate at every level needs to get back to the the honest and liberal condition it was in in my youth when everyone was allowed a “platform”.

In an important sense this essay commemorates an anniversary because it is fifty years since I began a permanent academic job, at the University of Warwick in 1969. It is both a celebration of the life that once I led and a lament that nobody can lead that life now. I cannot avoid comparing the bloated, stressed, mediocre world of the modern university with what I experienced going up to Oxford at the age of seventeen in 1964. Frankly, I was starstruck: academic life became what football had seemed to be growing up in the Burnley area, the most exciting, rewarding and significant of activities. My tutors and lecturers were men who had written globally important books, but were devoted to teaching and always available for conversation with the likes of me. They included (Sir) Peter Strawson, (Sir) Freddy Ayer, Herbert Hart, Rom Harré and Alasdair MacIntyre. When I moved to be a lecturer at Warwick five years later it was to a campus humming with life, with all kinds of opinion represented and some fascinating eccentrics for colleagues.

As it happens I was starstruck in a particular golden age of the university: the conditions I experienced were neither “normal” nor part of a secular trend. It has taken me a long time to recognise this, but historically universities have been repressive, orthodox, scholastically narrow-minded and hierarchical and in my lifetime they have steadily reverted to type. My golden age was pretty short; only ten years earlier than I went to Oxford Kingsley Amis was portraying university life in Lucky Jim as tedious and illiberal. The contribution of the university to our culture has been far less than I, for one, assumed. The Renaissance was centred on a city, Florence, where the ruling Medici family had got rid of the university and the city was all the more lively for that. The ideas and achievements of the industrial revolution owed nothing to universities, though something to the great urban philosophical societies which long preceded them in most English cities. Most of our literary tradition, including the entire contribution of women up to the twentieth century, also owes nothing to universities. I am inclined to think that governments in investing so much in what is now a bloated and corrupted university system have been as foolishly starstruck as I was as a teenager.

Lincoln Allison