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Universities: a Return to the Dark Side?

A few years ago I was involved in a silly controversy about Shakespeare. I was asked to review a book which claimed that the plays attributed to him could not have been written by him, but were actually written by Sir Henry Neville. An explicit premise of the argument was that the author of the plays must have attended a university. This assumption rendered the book worthless so far as I was concerned and I would award it the Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“Man is born free . . . “) award for absurd assumptions taken to the level of an art form. In fact hardly any of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a golden age of theatre graduated from a university, Kit Marlowe (Cambridge) being a notable exception. John Fletcher was registered at Cambridge at the age of eleven, but there’s no evidence he ever attended. I think Shakespeare would have been more likely to have acquired his facility with words and ideas, let alone his sense of theatre, in a pub than in the rigid, theocratic, scholastic milieu of the university.

The observation about universities and theatre does not just hold true for the Shakespearean period. However you construct a list of great playwrights – and there are many versions online – it is unlikely to contain many graduates. The famously self-educated Bernard Shaw did not go to university, of course, but nor did Noel Coward nor Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn nor Tom Stoppard in our own time. In fact, apart from Marlowe Oscar Wilde (Magdalen College, Oxford) is the only graduate who regularly appears in lists of the greatest playwrights So, far from dismissing the claims of the glovemaker’s son from Stratford we should be discussing the anomaly that what might be seen as the most intellectual of art forms has been dominated by non-graduates. Interesting trivia or significant fact? Perhaps we should put it in the context that some historians now argue that a crucial factor in the flowering of the Florentine Renaissance was the absence of a university in the city. There had been one, founded in 1321, but Lorenzo Di Medici got rid of it (it decamped to Pisa) and the artists and writers flocked to Florence. The current (main) University of Florence was founded in 1859.

On a similar theme I must note that when I was recently in Newcastle with an hour to kill I wandered into the premises of the Literary and Philosophical Society (there is no restriction on access). It was full of people: they were reading (choosing books from the largest private library outside London), informally teaching children, arguing about politics and playing chess, among other things. It reminded me of the universities of my youth, but it also reminded me that societies like this in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made far larger contributions to intellectual development than universities did. The “Lit. & Phil.” was founded in 1793 and it was here that Harriet Martineau made her contributions to the idea of a social science at a time that she wouldn’t have got near a university and Sir Joseph Swan demonstrated the first electric light bulb. (People still believe it was Edison even though Swan successfully sued him!). The Society still feels like a hive of genuinely intellectual activity, unlike most contemporary universities, prompting the thought that the more universities feel like clubs the better they are.

These reflections do not come easily to me. I am a child of the sixties, a decade which took me from the under-14 rugby team to a full-time academic post. I was a career academic and universities for me were the embodiment of Millian liberalism, of a world where vigorous and uninhibited debate led to intellectual clarity. I vigorously debated all the way from the seminar room to the changing room and back to the bar. In retrospect far too much of this debate consisted of attacking marxism, but, as we sportsmen say, you can only play what’s put in front of you. (I can’t remember whether, in my short time teaching political theory I ever managed to get my Marx exam question onto an actual paper: “Third rate philosopher, second rate economist, first rate bore.” Discuss this view of Karl Marx.) I assumed that free debate was the very essence of university life. I should have known better from the start because in my first year as an undergraduate I could not get from my room to the outside world without passing the Shelley Memorial, a grotesque prone white marble statue of the poet’s drowned and naked body washed up on the Ligurian shore. He may have been of sufficient status by 1893, when the monument was unveiled, to warrant such reverence, but in 1811 University College expelled him for his atheistical opinions.

The characteristic I believed defined university life can be called the Millian tendency: you put mainly young, clever people together and you will get intellectual enthusiasm, open-mindedness, a willingness to listen and learn and a prima facie assumption of equality. This is what the Oxford and Warwick of my first ten years were like and I was generally innocent of knowledge of universities in other times and places and did not realise that I was living through a rather fortunate anomaly. I now realise that universities by their nature contain much more sinister and repressive natural tendencies. They develop hierarchies which, given the nature of power, tend to become more extreme: a university in which “leaders” or “managers” are paid salaries ten times those of their followers must be one which is repressive and encourages conformity. They require narrow specialisation. They tend to embody and develop prevailing ideologies. They look for paymasters whose interests they must then support. These tendencies constitute the dark side of the idea of a university; they were growing in force during my time and have accelerated in the fifteen years since I retired.

To summarise what everybody knows about contemporary universities: a minority of people working in them now have anything which might qualify as “tenure”, an institution invented in the United States to protect academic freedom from the vagaries and idiocies of fashion and local opinion. Many, if not most, are subject to what I will call “Toynbee syndrome”; that is, they have paymasters with vested interests – the reference is to Arnold Toynbee (grandfather of my undergraduate contemporary, Polly Toynbee) who was forced to resign his position at King’s College, London in 1924 because his increasingly pro-Turkish sympathies displeased the Greek shipping magnates who were his beneficiaries. Varieties of European funding have been the commonest dangers in this respect. I don’t know what I’d have done faced with three year contracts and a daily task whose success was defined by pleasing somebody else, but I think I’d have sought a different career. Over the years fewer and fewer of the cleverest students I met chose academic life.

But the worst feature of contemporary university life is the unstated, but real, requirement of ideological conformity; it amounts to a kind of crude humanist theology, the equivalent of the old scholasticism and religious orthodoxy. A necessary condition of a serious intellectual life should be a willingness to entertain all propositions. If you are allowed to say that “all history is the history of class struggles” and that the wafer biscuit really does turn into the body of Jesus Christ – and,of course, those propositions should be considered – then you should also consider the idea that the holocaust didn’t really happen and that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. All opinions without exception should be allowed a platform and I remember with some nostalgia the South African ambassador (South Africa being a non-member of the Commonwealth at the time) coming to speak to the Politics Society at Warwick in the early days about the necessity of apartheid. The audience was predominantly black and they addressed the ambassador vehemently, but they argued with him. Have we lost that spirit?

The idea that this is about “political correctness” trivialises the problem. It is really about a kind of pseudo-objectivity, the denial of fundamental intellectual diversity. It’s most obvious symptom is research assessment, the (preposterous) notion that the value of intellectual activity can be measured in the short term by a committee of the creator’s rivals and/or allies, but as I have been banging on about that for half a lifetime I will not dwell on it. I find the smaller symptoms more disturbing than the dramatised issue of platforms. In my last ever examiners’ meeting, while on a “buy-back”, I was reprimanded by the chairman of the examining board for trying to inititiate a discussion of a candidate’s merits, the sort of discussion we had had for decades. We didn’t do that anymore I was told; we calculated degree classifications according to determinate arithmetical formulae. (Privately, everybody always said this was because of the fear of litigation, but I don’t remember any litigation.) So a whole room full of intelligent people sit there, pretending that the number “68”, probably written down at midnight while marking fifty scripts has some kind of unchallengeable value whereas an open discussion and the acceptance that there is ultimately no right answer had been the sensible predecessor of this assumption.

Where is Lorenzo Di Medici when you need him? Half a millenium on we need someone to put a bomb under a university system which is increasingly bloated, bureaucratic and blinkered. I find it interesting to note that the current state of universities vividly exemplifies an argument that the late Brian Barry used to make about equality. He said that the most common function of the concept of human equality was to justify inequalities. Thus people in universities have never believed more unquestioningly in the theoretical equality of the human beings in their institutions regardless of gender, ethnicity and so on. Yet there has never been greater inequality of tenure, status and financial reward.

The new Lorenzo should reduce the size of the university sector, decimate its “management” and hive off all vocational education to pay for itself. Above all he or she should acknowledge the potential of self-education which has always been underestimated and which is now limitless because of the internet. As a lifelong quizzer I have met postmen and plumbers who have more general knowledge and a better grasp on the world than most professors. And as an habitual traveler I have met people all over the world whose linguistic skills, acquired from their computers, would put those of many language graduates to shame. Qualifications should be awarded regardless of attendance by “competitive public examination” to use that grand Victorian phrase. (I always thought that institutions – let alone individuals – grading the people they teach could only lead to grade inflation and corruption and I was right.) All this should do something to revive the almost defunct process of social mobility.

Of course, you’re assuming that none of this will ever happen. But you assumed that Brexit and Trump would never happen, didn’t you?

Lincoln Allison November 2018

(An edited version of this article was published in Times Higher Education in January 2019.)