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The masses demand an education: Barbarians inside the ivory tower

By Gary Day - posted Wednesday, 8 December 2004

Those of us concerned about the university being swamped by working-class people who seek counselling when they are asked to write an essay need to speak out against social inclusion. When I asked a colleague for her opinion, she retorted that she would "love to be included in anything social that was going".

I was not amused. I endeavoured to impress on her the seriousness of the situation, but she interrupted with the frankly astonishing remark that she would "rather rewrite all her module templates than listen to such nonsense". There seems little hope of getting the message through to such people. Others try to score cheap points by asking: "If you're against social inclusion, does that mean you are for social exclusion?" They are rather taken aback when I answer yes.

Three-quarters of the universities in Britain have been created since 1945, that dreadful year when the Labour government established the National Health Service and declared that it would take care of the British people, "from the cradle to the grave". The commitment to "lifelong learning" stems from that pernicious philosophy that prevented individuals from taking responsibility for their lives. Where before they were quite happy to saw off their own gangrenous limbs, they now expected a surgeon to do it for them, with the aid of an anaesthetic, too.


It is the same in education. When I was an undergraduate, I was given a reading list and instructed to show up for the examination three years later. Now, the burger-munching multitude pester one constantly about the difficulties they're having with The Critique of Pure Reason and could I please explain what is meant by "synthetic a priori knowledge"? Perhaps if they didn't subsist on a diet of infected cow, they might work it out, though in truth I doubt it.

I am not a Christian, but if you care to consult the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter VII, verse 6, you will find there an exhortation not to give what is holy to dogs or to cast pearls before swine "lest they trample them under their feet and turn again and rend you". I think of that every time I am called an old fart.

If you will permit me a little word play, you could say that by giving degrees we undo degree. And then, as the Bard said: "Hark what discord follows." Marvellous stuff. Shakespeare, I mean. Not me. His immortal words are a reminder that the widening-participation agenda is a form of social engineering. This is contrary to the historic function of the university, which is to perpetuate an elite whose members have served Britain well, some since the Norman Conquest. It is a sad state of affairs when, instead of passing on culture to those who can appreciate it, we have to teach the distracted multitude what skills will fit them for the new knowledge economy.

What happened to the idea that knowledge should be valued for its own sake? It is hard to imagine a greater pleasure than to sit in one's study, fingertips pressed together, contemplating the Greek optative or Alexander's Sum of Theology. The instrumental view of knowledge has created a society in which the masses worship consumer goods instead of their betters. Indeed, they imagine they are our equals. The only people they admire are so-called celebrities who have, unfortunately, eclipsed intellectuals in public esteem. When the yahoos knew nothing, they deferred to people such as us.

Of course, they still know nothing. If, after years of literacy, they still can't spell whatever words they tattoo on themselves, then what on earth do they hope to achieve at university? Indeed, many who come to my classes often say they haven't learned a thing. The point is not that they are ignorant but that they don't know they are ignorant. Consequently, they fail to recognise us as their superiors.

Friends tell me that I may be exaggerating the problem. They reassure me that those who have most benefited from university expansion are from the middle class - its philistine wing, admittedly, but something may yet be done for them.


The really good news, they say, is that the class divide in higher education has widened under new Labour. And I should take heart, they continue, that those of low estate who do entertain the idea of going to university do not do so for long. They feel excluded from the best places by the cost and by the intimidating air of culture. It is a relief to know we are doing something right. And if all else fails, they tell me, there are top-up fees. Now that is one "Keep out" sign that really does work.

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First published in The Times Higher Education Supplement  and The Australian on December 1, 2004

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About the Author

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University in England.

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