I might be alone in this but is anyone else struck rigid with anxiety when asked to explain what we do for a living? The summer holidays are a particularly apprehensive time when it comes to answering this question for those who want to know exactly what we do in universities. Encounters with itinerant Brits holidaying in the sun are among the most excruciating episodes of this kind of status anxiety but weddings or family functions can be just as bad. It’s that awful moment when it is time to offer some dinner table account of what being an academic entails.
Usually, I try and fob off such queries and just say that I am a ‘teacher’. On one occasion this deflection strategy placed me in hotter water. I was on my way to give a talk at the University of Wolverhampton and running late. I jumped into a minicab at the station and gave the address. The driver asked ‘So, what do you do for a living then?’ ‘I am a teacher’, I replied expecting this answer to satisfy his curiosity. ‘I bloody ’ate teachers’, he said thumping the steering wheel, glancing up at me in the rear view mirror.
He explained how his son had been excluded from school by middle-class idiots who called themselves teachers! I tried to retract the answer. ‘Well, actually I am not that kind of teacher . . . I am a university teacher.’ The damage was irreparable. Arriving at the Walsall campus he took my money and drove off without making eye contact.
Of course, we are teachers but I suspect that there is something else going on. Being involved in or committed to the ‘life of the mind’ is still viewed as mildly indecent in England. It’s a cliché to say that we live in a thoroughly anti-intellectual culture but I feel its grip tightening. The suspicion of intellectual life is held across social divisions. A friend of my father’s used to say that his measure of a person’s importance is how useful they’d be if the atom bomb dropped and the world had to be made anew. According to his logic philosophers are dispensable but bricklayers are not.
A not so new vocationalism has become institutionalized through the changes in student finance. Students rightly need to see some return on their investment in university fees and student loans. While pragmatism doesn’t completely govern curiosity in our universities, it is a very powerful force. In other ways, the upper middle classes have a longer-standing instrumental approach to education.
A few summers ago I had a few glimpses into this world in the south of France among the British expats in Nice and Cannes. Our neighbours in London, Caroline and Alan, had a curtain-making business but these were not ordinary furnishings and they offered an upmarket service to the rich and famous. They also had a business in the south of France and we often stayed with them there, as they had become surrogate grandparents to our children.
I would sometimes accompany my neighbour Caroline on fitting expeditions and help out in return for their kindness. At some point Caroline would mention to her clients that I was just visiting and the inevitable the question would be asked: ‘And what do you do for a living?’
One retired accountant who lived in a mansion overlooking the Baie des Anges provides a good case study. His house was like a scene from J.G. Ballard’s novel Supercannes. At his poolside, bathed in the special glow of the Riviera sun, he decried the then Labour government’s aim to increase the numbers of school leavers going into higher education. ‘There’s no point kids doing degrees that are going to make them unemployable. I read in the Telegraph that there are graduates who can’t get on training courses to be plumbers.’ His other chief target was the profusion of ‘Mickey Mouse degrees like media studies and surfing studies’. His sons were studying at redbrick universities ‘where they study proper subjects like law and architecture’. When he asked the inevitable question I told him I taught courses in sociology and urban studies and the atmosphere cooled immediately.
My anxiety about these matters might not be unique. There is little self-consciousness about being an intellectual in France but in England it sounds fanciful, affected, or even just plain foolish, to foster such an ambition. Everywhere in public life there is the imperative to consume, to judge value from the point of view of a consumer – ‘is this value for money?’ Appeals to the importance of understanding as a process valuable for its own sake seem very weak in the current climate.
Universities are at their best when they are places where minds are allowed to wander, be it through the labyrinth of high theory or in the lowly task of making the familiar strange. This concern may not be shared but it seems important to stop being afraid of arguing for the vocation of thinking. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once commented that it was healthy for intellectuals to be made to feel like a fool routinely. He had in mind that this could inhibit the inflation of academic self-importance.
Humility certainly has its uses but this does not mean being shy of arguing for the intellectual life. Critical thinking needs protection from those who would reduce it to a currency traded on the open market of job opportunities. In August every year I take my turn sitting at the clearing desk and interview desperate applicants trying to find a university place. My last question is always what they think education is for. Most mention investing in their future or that a degree will help them get a better job. Every year there is a surprise.
Last summer a young woman came to Goldsmiths for an interview for the BA Sociology course. Her grades were terrible and mostly in science subjects. I asked her my question. ‘My parents wanted me to be a doctor and that’s why I did all those subjects. I hated them. To me a university degree is for a broader sense of possibilities and for the freedom to make up my own mind about what I want to be interested in.’ She got her place. The pragmatists who want to get people back to ‘proper trades’ and close down ‘silly degrees’ look past such miracles. Perhaps it is time to be more strident about the value of what we do and to defend the bloodless revolutions in thinking that take place routinely in the seminar room on an almost daily basis.