Friday, 21 January 2011

At Last, Something for the Digestion

Minister for Education, Michael Gove, is introducing changes to the second level curriculum that, for once thank heaven!, are not being greeted as another daring move towards the future but rather, at last, as a reanimation of the past: students of Geography will be expected to know the names of capital cities, students of English the novels of Austen, students of History the chronology of kings. Those so blinded by New Labour as to think that anything Old is regressive may say what they like, this is so hopeful a development as to amount to the possibility of a reopening of the channels to education that have been so surely closing over the last couple of decades or more.

And this too, at a time when what is called "higher" education has sacrificed itself so entirely to determining the extent of its quantity and, what is not, in the New Labour target culture, qualitatively different, its "quality," that it is no longer much else but the detemination of the extent of its quantity and quality. Open the pages of Times Higher Education these days, and what you see advertised in its jobs pages are lectureships in Higher Education. No, not lectureships in the higher education of students in Philosophy, or English Literature, or Physics, but lectureships in the higher education of students in Higher Education. In these times of unprecedented university cuts, when education has become so utterly defined by targets that the survey of students' sense of satisfaction as they sit in their "Introduction to Phenomenology" class is taken to constitute the success of their introduction to Phenomenology, the university has nothing but itself left to teach its students. The question is whether students' sense of satisfaction will be taken as constitutive of their higher education in Higher Education; if so, the university may find itself hoist by its own petard. Having savaged the possiblity of education in all disciplines but itself, the university may finally, having had to turn on itself for sustenance, end in savaging the university. It is too late, now, to feel that such an end would be anything but welcome.

But perhaps there is hope in the surprising guise of Gove: hope that, as education consumes itself at the top, it opens up again, nearer the bottom, to a healthier set of foods - including the recommended daily amount of roughage that has been utterly neglected by the over-refined, over-processed offerings of New Labour; hope that what had appeared as a devastatingly over-involved eating itself to death is only the last stage in a peristalsis that begins anew, now, to improve all our intellectual diets.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Classy Dress

Immediately outside the university library, there is collected a small number of students, third years perhaps. Your eyes come to rest on one member of the party, because she has pretty features and healthy, long, blond hair. And then you take stock of the rest of her, and what you see is this: dark green, rectangular-cut jacket with diamond-patterned quilting, such as people wear on TV programmes about horses; a foot, or less, of visible denim; and then the Hunter wellington. And you think: "Why would a pretty young woman dress in a jacket for which her shape is irrelevant, and a pair of wellingon boots?" And the answer follows fast: this is the uniform of a certain class of young woman, one who has horses, if not quite in her stables, then at least on her list of hobbies, one who wishes to attract a man to, if not quite yet, then at least very soon, keep her in the manner to which she is, if not quite accustomed, then at least determinedly aspiring. That she judges her chances of attracting this man to be greater when attired in a quilted green rectangle and boots for mucking out in than it would be in a mode of dress designed and worn to, say, emphasize her femininity, to - let's keep this very general - make her look nice, speaks volumes for the manner in which class has trumped style, of dressing and probably too of other aspects of living.

During the nineteenth century, when industrial modes of cloth production began to undermine the distinction that had been easily available to those who could afford dresses made of fine fabrics, middle class women became fearful of being mistaken for their servants and, what was almost worse, of their servants being mistaken for themselves. There promptly followed the introduction of the servant's uniform so that style continued to remain the preserve of the privileged. Society has changed sufficiently for the imposition of a class uniform to have become outrageous. But it has not changed so much that the benefits of such a uniform are no longer felt. It is simply that, now, the middle classes, constrained from dressing others in it, consent to dressing themselves in it, and opt to preserve a badge for their position in society by claiming as their birthright, no longer style but rather a green-quilted absence of it.