Friday, June 10, 2011

On free education and the ideal university

A reaction to today's People's Panel in the Guardian, questions of excellence in education and this whole ridiculous NCH fiasco.

At 19, I stayed in London doing bum jobs for low pay while my friends left for the exciting new challenge of University. This I envisioned as a wonderful free space where wild, uninhibited thinking took the place of manual labour (I was a chambermaid). I imagined my contemporaries sitting in with their lecturers in dark smoky cafés, discussing Sartre and drinking espressos.

Small wonder then that when I went to visit my best pal in Oxford, I was horrified. These people talked rugby incessantly, and had their rooms cleaned for them by middle-aged women! The parties were just like London parties, only with crisper accents and smarter clothes. And coming home from the pub, we met a trio of battered, bloodied, white-tied young men. They had got into a fight, it seemed, with some ‘townies’. These ‘chavs’ had set upon them for ‘no reason’. One of the men was still clutching a champagne bottle.

Why, I wondered, was Oxford (and it’s not the only one) ridden with this animosity between students and townsfolk? Shouldn’t local people be happy that the university was there to do their thinking for them? Now, after five years of study, I know. ‘Townies’ need to think for themselves, and probably do (hence the fight). And students need to change their own sheets and clean their own toilets. Education needs to round people, not force them into a limited, prejudiced academic circle of upper class intellectual masturbation.

This is not to say that we need to force people who are gifted at philosophy into plumbing, or vice versa. But my ideal university would be open to everyone, for evening classes, public lectures, discussion groups. The division between cleaning and teaching staff would be blurred as much as possible. Students would be encouraged to produce original thought, but thought itself would not be idealised or used to sort the wheat from the chaff. Free and accessible education at every age is an essential part of this, as is ensuring that universities remain fully accountable and under public control.

Universities must work to integrate themselves into the communities that host them, and outreach into schools, adult education, workplaces, must be multiplied. Maybe then, a culture of discussing philosophy could be cherished rather than mocked by outsiders, as it would no longer be the symptom of a cheap class distinction.
Maybe, as well, those posh kids could avoid having their eyes blacked.

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