Inequality, power and privilege in the struggle for the humanities

Much ink has already been spilled to condemn and defend the establishment of the New College of the Humanities (NCH), announced earlier this month by its founder A.C. Grayling. On the whole, position-taking has formed along predictable fault lines between the aptly-named ‘idiocies’ of state bureaucracy and the inequities of private ‘freedom’, the virtues and evils of public and private universities, and the politics of elite and mass education. Beyond this, debate seems to be focusing on exposing the gory details of how NCH would actually work – its physical home and use of existing public resources, its for-profit or charitable status, its fiscal links with conservative interests, how often famous academics are likely to be teaching, whether £18,000 accurately reflects the cost of educating a person, whether individualised tuition is really synonymous with intellectual rigour, and so on. No doubt these debates will continue.

To avoid redundancies (with no sick pun intended), however, I would like to use this space to consider the NCH from a slightly different angle: that of the role of education in reproducing, producing and undoing social inequalities. In a rejoinder to the condemnation of his venture from former colleagues at Birkbeck, Grayling protested that their critique appealed to emotive universalisms rather than addressing itself to the strongest points of his argument. Whilst this seems a narrow reading of the letter written, I will nevertheless try to answer what seems to be the NCH’s most powerful challenge: that it is a politically, morally and pedagogically responsible alternative to the ‘chronic underfunding of universities by successive governments’.

In a milieu of crisis and faith in no alternatives, the capability of creating anything new and attaching it to people’s anxieties, prejudices and desires is a political trump card. This is perhaps why William Cullerne Browne admires the ‘chutzpah’ of up and starting a college, or why Mary Beard can ‘confess some sympathy’ – for ‘if there is to be a sustained assault on the humanities, then maybe someone has to get off their ass and take the teaching into their own hands’. The power to promise possibility to a privileged few under the auspices of potential justice for all is massive. If we believe sociologists of education, it is part of what usually makes the reproduction of inequalities in education, society and culture seem either inevitable or desirable. And in our present circumstances, it also renders unthinkable the possibility of materialising radically democratic alternatives to the current educational system, and weakens and invisibilises the many projects and struggles now striving towards this goal.

What are the points that we must concede? Grayling is correct that the present government aims to finish off the project of educational privatisation, which is one part of a broader consolidation of neoliberalism that has been pursued by all previous Labour and Conservative governments since the late 1970s. He is correct that the forms of power developed to impose this project in universities through the de-democratisation, bureaucratisation and audit of cultural work have crippled education and creative knowledge production, particularly in the humanities and critical social sciences – albeit incredibly unequally across the university sector. He is correct that British universities have long been only quasi-public institutions that often pull extortionate revenue from international postgraduate students. He is correct that it is possible for some people to create alternative spaces within this dysfunctional system in which traditional philosophies, practices and relations of elite liberal education can be protected from the distortions of business-state powers that are straining at the leash to subordinate them to market rationalities and purposes.

However, it does not follow from these points that the NCH can be accepted as a benign and progressive response to the situation, that it is a politically neutral attempt ‘to promote quality in education’ through alternative forms of finance, or that it should not be labelled as elitist because it is ‘committed to accessibility’ through offering a third of its students financial support. If Grayling really does not understand ‘why there is a prejudice against private universities’ amongst those who defend the importance of public higher education for any democratic society, it is not because we assume all non-state funded education to be ‘suspect’, as he hypothesises. That, frankly, seems a cheap shot aimed at associating critics of the NCH with the repressive state power that many have long been opposing, and tarring them as thoughtless enemies of the sort of individualised freedom ‘the market’ promises to provide. Anyone interested in the history of the New School in New York or Ruskin College closer to home could not be so categorical. Grayling’s dichotomy also implies that all non-state funding is privatised funding, which is also incorrect. No, the judgement on the NCH has to do with the fact that the initiative reflects and legitimises an ideology of liberal education that is either not conscious of its own work in the reproduction of social inequalities, or that more worryingly regards this work as unfortunate but necessary for ensuring conditions of intellectual rigour. The facts that it has been funded and staffed by conservatives and was floated with David Willetts even before the publication of the Browne Review and Comprehensive Spending Review do not lend confidence on either count.

Perhaps it is true that none of those involved in the initiative want to see themselves as part of a ‘vanguard to the coalition’s assault on public education’. But neither are they part of the collective resistance against the decades of corrosion of education and knowledge that they claim to despise. Theirs is a ‘non-mainstream’ project by and for, as Pierre Bourdieu once defined it, an academic nobility who ‘feel different and feel justified in being different, and are seen and recognised as such, and are therefore from the outset bound for separate spaces and separate futures, apart from the common’. What angers people is not the introduction of alternatives to impoverished public universities. It is the total disdain for and separation from the ongoing struggles of the lesser-nobility and commoners to defend the social value of the critical disciplines, and the possibility of dialogical, deep and meaningful learning. It is also the apparent lack of consciousness about what it means to suggest that we must charge individuals £18,000 a year for this privilege in a country where nearly half the population draw annual household incomes of about £22,000 or less, and where poverty is known to be persistent. The NCH promises excellent personal support, tutors who are committed to teaching, and the chance to be educated as a human being rather than a number. But these are democratically defensible goals only so long as they are for everyone, not just those who can afford to purchase them or the fewer who are fortunate enough to be philanthropically sponsored.

Sadly, but predictably, the whole NCH debate seems to be missing the point that there are genuine alternatives on the table. Some of the most interesting new analyses of society are being produced not during individualised academic tutorials with famous professors, but as part of political struggles against the repressive exercise of state and market power (including the defunding of public universities). Consider the proliferation of attempts, in the UK and worldwide to establish free universities and autonomous educational networks and collectives. Or, consider projects such as the Social Science Centre (with which I am affiliated), an experimental, self-funded co-operative that aims to make intensive experiences of collaborative teaching, learning and research available to all those interested, regardless of their ability to pay. In other words, there is more than enough chutzpah and get-off-your-assing to go around; plenty of will, desire and effort to find some way of defending and practising intellectually robust humanities education in a political environment that seems to be able, almost effortlessly, to suffocate, rarefy or commodify it. The fundamental difference lies not in whether we all have a ‘seriousness of purpose’ in education, but in who we want to educate for what purposes and how, and in who has the power and privilege to materialise a socially sanctioned institution for doing so.

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Chris Newfield
9 years ago

Sarah – really nice. I especially like your identifying the core objection to NCH as its failure to address the core need of mass access and general social development (not your terms, sorry!) and working on projects like the Social Science Centre as an alternative. I’ve been a big defender of restoring the US version of the huge public university that at least in principle aimed at mass quality, but more than half of me now feels that this is a waste of our efforts, and we need to start building the escape pods (networks) before the still functioning pieces… Read more »

Richard Hall
9 years ago

Great post Sarah. Alternatives are central to the struggle. There are some more – beyond the Social Science Centre at the end of this blog posting:

In solidarity.


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