The lost Eden of academia

‘It wasn’t difficult to persuade my son that academic life had lost its attractions’

Open Season

When he was in his early twenties one of my sons said something to me that must count among the stranger things a son has ever said. 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 wrote books and articles about subjects I chose. I did an astonishing amount of travelling round the world, or “gallivanting” as it was called in the family, 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 that region. 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 giving lectures and seminars on courses of my devising. Surely there was no more pleasant 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, my advice was not to do it because that life was no longer available. For a start, my son would have had to do a PhD. That would mean five miserable and impoverished years during what should be some of the best times of your life. I did not do a PhD; I briefly registered for one but concluded that I didn’t want to study anything in particular, but life in general. (This is still the case.) Fortunately, at 21 I got a temporary university teaching job, and at 22 I upgraded to a permanent one. Very fortunately, because studying for a PhD, effectively writing a book that nobody will read, has to be one of the most cruel and futile of human activities. 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 PhD teaches you your professional skills. My view is that it teaches narrowmindedness, conformity and deceit.

If my son had 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 was thoroughly exploited and  desperately looked for a permanent post. But let’s suppose he did 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. Serious assessment of the students would be out of the question: they must all be given good grades or you will suffer. Many of them would be “second language” and difficult to communicate with. In my last seminar group as a salaried employee there were 25 students, among whom the Kazakhs (oil money) outnumbered the English by three to two. 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. 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 wouldn’t have caught him out: 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 attraction. None of the bright students I taught latterly went into academic careers. 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. There was the option of being a gulag commandant, swapping teaching and writing for “leadership” and “management” and becoming a vice-chancellor paid ten times the salary of one’s contemporaries, but he was no more interested in that than I was. In any case there was the question of subject-matter. My son was — is — a philosopher and philosophy departments were contracting and closing everywhere. There are around 20,000 philosophy students in the UK, one-sixth the number of overseas students doing business studies. This is a disgrace: in my opinion, business studies has no place in a university and should not be subsidised from the public purse.

Anyway, who needs conceited, arrogant, dilettante academics like me? Actually, I think universities need people to be able to lead the life I led in order to attract real talent. Students should be taught with much more enthusiasm and conviction by people who really want to teach. Debate at every level needs to get back to the the honest and liberal condition it was in during my youth, when everyone was allowed a “platform”.

This article commemorates an anniversary: it is 50 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 17 in 1964. I was starstruck: academic life became what football had seemed to be as I was 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 Warwick 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, scholastically narrow-minded and hierarchical, and in my lifetime they have reverted to type. My golden age was pretty short; only ten years before 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 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. I am inclined to think that in investing so much in what is now a bloated and corrupted university system governments have been as foolishly starstruck as I was as a teenager.