In the continuing accretion of dolor following the Brexit Referendum, I’ve been reminded of something I read in the weeks leading up that might shed some light on the result. The result of both the referendum, and the shaping of society that has gotten us to this point, that is. Of all things, it was a puff piece on the actor Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout, for you Potterites). A short, Q&A style article, it spent the majority of its length ribbing received wisdom and PC shibboleths, but never to a truly threatening degree, which has become Margolyes’ trademark of late.
Amongst the various questions about her youth, her co-stars, her views on Western cultural practices and Middle-Eastern geo-politics, she referred to her class roots, saying ‘…my mother was uneducated and felt inferior. She was determined that I would go to university. She’d say, “I want you to be able to talk to anybody about anything” – and I can.’ Because I’ve a wide masochistic streak, I proceeded, upon completion, to read the first few comments “below the line.” Amidst the swathes of drek and sprinklings of misogyny, one commenter stated (well couched in sexist piffle) that ‘…the notion that only those who attend uni can debate and discuss any subject is not only inaccurate, but patronising to the vast number of working-class men who win any kind of argument with these individuals, even though they think they have an advantage over us because we’re not “educated”. Being vociferous and having the temerity to never back down or capitulate is a sign of a good orator, and Miriam hasn’t displayed these attributes, merely that she believes in social cleansing.’
I’m willing to give Margolyes the benefit of the doubt on this one, not in small degree because I would tend to agree with her, and assume that that is not what she meant, but our andro-centric commenter does have a bit of a point. At the very least, his invective taps into the sea of feeling that has driven us to these dark times, the frustrations of a large section of society made to feel lesser.
Earlier this week, I attended a pro-EU rally here in Cambridge. Weather was miserable, and the audio equipment was suffering, but the assembled local grandees were able to struggle through and pass along their message of condolence, of renewed effort, and all the rest. Everyone to speak was quite emphatic in saying that not all Brexiters were racists, not all were xenophobes. All the more jarring, then, the echo-chamber affirmation of disdain following the denunciation of prime-ministerial hopeful Michael Gove’s now-notorious line – “people have had enough of Experts!” Oh, yes, silly Gove and his distrust of experts, and silly Brexiters for being so gullible as to follow him. Because, of course, there is only ever one proper way to read things, statements only ever mean what they say on the surface, and Michael Gove and his ilk invariably deny the facticity of reality. That’s definitely what’s going on here. Let’s all have a good, self-congratulatory chuckle for knowing better than those clods, that facts are facts and that there are people who know them. Quite right.
Wait. What’s that you say? It’s not the facts people may have been tired of, but the hectoring, dismissive way they are so often delivered? Preposterous! People that know best know best after all! Leave everything to the professional professionals, and don’t worry your head about things you can’t understand anyways!
More seriously, you can see the overlap between the two issues without an overwhelming amount of effort, I think. The tacit assumption that those who haven’t been through the ivory-bound gates of the academy are precluded all knowledge, whether it be conversational or economic, is likely a bit overdone, but, as is often the case, it’s the way in which these subjects are presented that is at issue. The locking-out of people from the conversation, and the tone-deafness of the infrequent missives to these penned herds, have long been a problem, and it’s no surprise that it’s started to rankle.
As I said a moment ago, I would tend to agree with Margolyes – education is one of the few goods-in-itself, and I hope I’d be one of the last people one the list of anti-intellectuals. However (and I recognise that an off-the-cuff remark in a >500 word article isn’t likely to show nuance), I fear that the spirit of what she was saying about Universities, the ideal of them, doesn’t match the reality. Probably never has, unless for a very small slice. The blithe assumption that it does and that this is an effective way of cutting up society is, understandably, offensive. The idea, though, that University education ought to provide one with a richer, more vibrant life, a tool-set to explore deep interests and an exposure to the broader world, coupled with the universal access to these boons, now, there is something to strive for.
In his closing comments to the Oxford Student Union a year or so ago, Stephen Fry (another embattled anti-PC’er) quoted from Wilde’s De Profundis, the letter the poet wrote to his sometime paramour (and downfall) Lord Alfred Douglas, saying ‘That you failed to get a degree at Oxford is perfectly understandable. Many great minds have failed to get a degree. What is not forgivable is that you failed to acquire what is sometimes called the Oxford Manner, which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.’ So, we see that this conception of what Universities are for is not a new one, or rather, not one of the last half-century. While there are plenty of worthwhile careers built out of it, this is what a proper education in the Humanities is meant, or should be meant, to instill, the zest for life. The technical sciences, the professional courses, while they might have more obvious and immediate economic benefits, can only be augmented by the addition of this. Too much of the modern University, with its bloated bureaucracy and its efficiencies schemes and its slashed budgets, is aimed only at producing something quantifiable, and it is diminished by this in a fundamental manner.
Many of the people I’ve known who best exemplify the Oxford Manner, the ‘ability to play gracefully with ideas,’ the possession of a boundless curiosity about the world, have never had a lick of post-secondary. Conversely, I am acquainted with many people who have attended top-tier universities and are dumb as a stump, doubly uninterested and uninteresting. So, clearly a University education is not always necessary for these gains, nor does it always work. That said, it takes a very particular type of person to seek out such knowledge, to take on that mode, for themselves. Much more likely is it that, given the opportunity and the skillset to make good on it, people will take this on once shown how. While you may not be able to make a horse drink having brought it to water, it’ll certainly do better there than in the desert. We must expand education in our society, obviously for the concomitant economic benefits, but also to make of our society a collection of better humans, more involved with the world, more engaged with their lives and better able to take part in their communities. We cannot continue to shut the door on these opportunities and laugh at those locked out. We cannot continue to fob off on the economically disenfranchised the barest of educations, ‘streamlining’ them into becoming living tools for business’ gain and little else. We are beginning to see the unrest that this causes, the deserved distrust and anger that generations of this foolhardiness brings about.
Perhaps Brexit shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but hopefully it will provide the wake-up we so clearly need.