Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Please Sir, We Want Some More!

There are few more moving moments in the history of the novel than that in which little Oliver - unlucky enough in life to have found himself at the mercy of state provision in the workhouse, and unlucky enough in that to have drawn a straw so short as to have been elected by his fellows to be the one to do the asking - presents his empty bowl, raises his hungry eyes, and says "Please sir, I want some more." Food and shelter are said to be our birthright; to have one so young left so short of both is pathetic indeed. But there is something more pathetic, and it is not to be found in the workhouse, and it does not even know its own name.

The National Student Survey results released this week show that third level students in Britain are, on average, 82% satisfied with their educational experience. In a country where education - that very next phase of our birthright, after food and shelter are assured - is at this stage more or less unavailable, this level of satisfaction represents a degree of want that not even Oliver could imagine. For it is one thing to know what you lack, to have a very clear sense of the object of your longings and to be able to hold out your bowl to receive it; however hopeless your holding out, however unquieted your longings, however unanswered your knowledge, there is a satisfaction and a dignity in naming your want. It is quite another thing, and another thing much more degrading, to have no idea at all what you lack, to have a general sense of want but no particular notion of anything wanting, to have a free floating sadness with no object to which to attach it, to have a bowl that needs filling, a hunger that gnaws, a vague sense that not all is right, but no means to pull it all together, nothing to make you stand up and ask, in fact nothing to prevent you from declining the ladle when at last it comes round with more gruel, while all the while feeling that something falls short and that life is not all that was promised.

It is worse than that, in fact. In many cases, the survey shows that students' dissatisfaction is felt at the poverty of what are called "learning resources" (Blackboard is a popular one) and the failure of lecturers to highlight what are called "key concepts" (all the better for Wikipedia-ing, one supposes); but, to the extent that education - that is, the training in abstract thinking, in reasoning, in argument, the communication and critique of ideas, that defined education for most of human history - is not only not facilitated, but is actually diminished, by the demand that understanding be summarised in a drop-down list and posted for students to see on their own terms, students' current use of the National Student Survey is tantamount to Oliver actually emptying the contents of his bowl on the ground as irrelevant to his general malaise and a distraction from his efforts to set things to right.

Students these days are on unprecedented amounts of prescribed and unprescribed drugs, are in astonishing depths of therapy, show unimaginable levels of ennui, and continually describe themselves and their friends as suffering under a mental illness of some kind; meanwhile they declare themselves very satisfied with their educational experience. All of a sudden, Oliver and his bowl seem a story of hope in a time of plenty; for nothing is worse than the one starved with hunger who does not even know where his stomach is, never mind what a bowl and a ladle might have to do with it.

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