Wednesday, June 08, 2011

You're not my hero

In Belfast again for a few days (work). I was staying in a Premier Inn as it was the only hotel I could find in the area, and although I turned my nose up at it, it ended up being rather nice. Unlike certain other hotels, you got all the tv channels, rather than 5 channels and a menu of films that you then have to pay for if you want to watch anything decent.

On the first night I woke up and felt someone or something pulling the sheets off my bed. I started shouting out, and then woke up properly. It was just a weird dream, except it felt so real that I had to turn the light on to check that someone hadn't sneaked in and was hiding at the bottom of the bed.

Had I been rather weak-minded, I probably would have thought the room was haunted. But I don't believe in ghosts, or the tooth fairy or auras or horoscopes or magic crystals or the Loch Ness Monster or God. When I encounter anyone who does believe in any of those things I am always kind and respectful to their faces, while secretly my estimation of them plummets. So now you know.

I'm unlike Richard Dawkins who isn't cowardly and two-faced like me - he's very open about his atheism and seems to enjoy the cut and thrust of public battle. I, who take everything personally, have the mantra of avoiding conflict at any cost, which is why I resort to keeping most of my opinions to myself (or spouting the more objectionable ones under a psuedonym in a blog that a handful of people read).

So Dawkins is my hero - someone who agrees with me, and is even fighting that particular battle in the limelight and with all the controversy that it brings.

I was a bit dismayed then, to find out that in other ways, he is not my hero at all, but an advocate of something I hate. The New College of the Humanities is a private London-based elite college, fronted by academic celebrities. It will charge £18,000 a year (twice as much as the highest fees for non-private universities). Students will get a Rolls Royce treatment, getting face-time with the very best academics in the country. Small class sizes, the chance to learn from the best, and of course to make connections with other elites. How wonderful it would be if your parents could find £18,000 a year. Dawkins is one of the famous names who will be lecturing. I feel like I found out that Santa Claus is into S&M.

The New College of the Humanities stands for everything I hate. It lets an already-elite pay to ensure and enhance their elite status. Students will not pay for those degrees themselves - their rich parents will pay for them. And while there will be financial help for some students - making the whole enterprise seem fair and kind, for the vast majority, this will not be the case.

Education is the key to everything. It is the one thing that wealthy elites wish to control because if they can do it, they can keep the status quo. My mother, born to a miner, realised this early on and spent every last penny she had on books for me. My earliest memory is of her tucking me up in bed, surrounded by dozens of Ladybird books covering the bed, and her saying "which one shall I read to you?" and me saying "All of them!" and her saying "Alright then." If I ever showed a hint of not being top of the class, she turned into a Tiger Mother and cajoled me into working harder. It wasn't always easy, but the sacrifices and arguments paid off. And I changed social classes - to find myself in a new class with people who had been to Cambridge and Oxford, who had had a very different, much more priviliged upbringing to me. Perfectly lovely people - rich people usually are very lovely and have lovely manners, because they've had lovely lives, generally get what they want and people are nice to them. It's easy to be lovely under those circumstances.

I believe that people should have equality of opportunity - and those who try harder, or who have natural talents, should be reasonably rewarded. Otherwise there's little urge to try. But it needs to be within reason, and everyone should get a fair chance. That's why I hate it when rich people buy better educations for their children, because they are cheating the system and ensuring that their kids will get the best advantages, the connections, the best jobs, and so it will go on forever.

And kids from poorer backgrounds, who may have exceptional gifts - are much less likely to have those gifts nurtured and encouraged. If they do go to university, their parents probably won't know which one is a good one. Their funny northern accents will probably mark them out as different. They will probably have to take on extra jobs to help see them through university. They will continue to be disadvantaged in all sorts of ways. And that's even if they get to university.

There is a quote from Wuthering Heights which puts me in mind of the consequences of a free market education system, describing perfectly how gifted-poor kids will be passed over while dim-rich kids will get the best of things: “one is gold put to the use of paving-stones, and the other is tin polished to ape a service of silver." Puts me in mind of some of our current Tory and Liberal politicians.

Looking at Dawkins' biography, it is perhaps understandable why he would support the New College of the Humanities. His father was in the colonial civil service, he was born in Kenya, went to a school that was founded in 1556 and then on Oxford. He's never known anything other than the very best of everything. He's mixed with people very much like him. He can't know what it must be like to be really poor, to be hopeless and helpless. What's perhaps remarkable is that he's questioned an institution (religion) which is very much part of maintaining the status quo. Otherwise, his support of the NCH is depressingly predictable.

Well I've been poor, and I've been rich (or comfortable at least). And if you're in any doubt, being rich is infinitely preferable. And even though I'm not poor now, in arguments like this, I will always back the poor - because the rich are more than capable not only of cheating the system, but of creating the system to make themselves win.

And with the creation of the NCH, they just tipped the balance that little bit more in their favour.


ukjarry said...

If it’s any consolation I suspect this is a boondoggle that is going to come crashing down to everyone’s embarrassment. The academics involved are of such a stature that I doubt they’ll be all that personally involved. There may indeed be a couple like AC Grayling who will wholeheartedly devote themselves to this project and make themselves available to their students as well as engage in the necessary day-to-day faculty grunt work. The rest, I imagine, may present one or two lectures now and then when they can fit it in with their obligations. They may even on the rarest occasions descend from the transatlantic scholastic/media empyrean to administer a tutorial in person (or via online conferencing) to their paying customers – sorry, students. Surely, a memory to treasure forever and share with the grandchildren. But I suspect that the reading lists, coursework and whatever else will be administered by lesser mortals whose names will never trouble the pages of the broadsheets. It may not be an intentional bait and switch but I bet it’ll end up that way. The people paying their money will not get what they paid for and so it’ll be a source of magnificent schaudenfraude in a year or three. Young people will be disappointed, their parents will be outraged that they have not get their money’s worth, uppity media dons will be left with egg on their face, unworthy journalists and newspapers will have a field day, and various government departments will be left wondering how on earth they let this come to pass. Set your calendars now.

As soon as all these names got trotted out I couldn’t help but think Famous Writers School in America. You can read about it on Wikipedia or read Jessica Mitford’s article here:

- matthew davis

Lubin said...

Thanks for the link Matthew - and bonus points because it's Jessica Mitford!