Established members of the professoriate might be tempted to look expectantly at their letterbox as the end of the calendar year approaches. They hope that a royal communiqué will drop onto their doormat asking if they would accept an honour from the Queen if they were offered one. It’s become routine for the names of academics, sociologists and even anti-establishment radicals to be included on the New Year’s honours list. Names of campus luminaries appear often sandwiched between high-ranking policemen, managers of a royal household or actors and pop stars. For esteemed academics – like contemporary court poets – the temptation of a knighthood or an OBE, or the elevated title of Dame is simply too much to resist.
Honours come in different forms. The title of Knight or Dame goes back to the medieval period. This explains why knighthoods are conferred by a touch on the shoulder by the royal sword. Others like an OBE or MBE are more recent and have their origin in the British Empire. During the First World War King George V created the honours system to reward contributions to the war effort at home. It is for this reason that they are called Orders of the British Empire, be it Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE) or Member (MBE). Prime Minister David Cameron’s nostalgia for these imperial honours is such that he reinstated the British Empire Medal in 2012, which had been scrapped twenty years earlier.
Today people have to be nominated for an honour, which is in turn evaluated by the various honours committees covering everything from the economy to the arts. Here civil servants, independent advisors and politicians make recommendations for the award of honours to be approved by the Prime Minister and ultimately by the Queen.
Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against rewarding citizens for good work – I understand why people who have run hospital trusts or musicians from the wrong side of the tracks are lured to accept an OBE. But for academics it seems they are simply status adornments like medals to be pinned after their name, perhaps alongside their British Academy fellowship. Such baubles smack of an imperial melancholia that haunts British society and indeed university common rooms. How can any intellectual worth his or her salt accept an award that ends with the word ‘Empire’?
It is for good reason that many in good conscience have refused to accept them. Stuart Hall turned down both a knighthood and a peerage, as did Richard Hoggart, although, as Alan Bennett – who declined a knighthood – commented, making a public fuss can also smack of ‘swanking about it’. The right thing to do in reply to such an offer is perhaps to scribble quietly ‘thanks but no thanks’. Not that I have, of course, needed to do this, but I did receive an email today that was a kind of New Year’s Honour of sorts.
The email came from a University Campus Suffolk (UCS) student called Samuel Clark whom I had met briefly earlier in the year. He’d attached a copy of an assessment he’d written, a critical review on one of my books entitled The Art of Listening. The book had been assigned by Shamser Sinha – a friend and colleague – who teaches sociology at UCS. The students had read the book a chapter each week through the course of the term. The trek to Ipswich to speak to them about the book and their imminent assignment seemed like the least I could do in return for such a compliment. Samuel explained that our discussion prompted him to email:
The session made me reflect on how important your book has been for me, and immediately reminded me of a passage on the back cover of Marshall Berman’s Adventures in Marxismthat I recently read:
‘I feel like one of those people whose life is adventures in Marxism. I’m fifty years old, and since I spent my life as a construction worker raising a family, I’m at this stage still in college . . . Your book was inspiring to me because it reminded me of why I made the sacrifices I did to get an education . . . the sheer joy of learning about ideas and the hope that education can make some kind of a difference. The great thing about your approach to Marx is that you show that theory and the world of ideas can be exciting and intellectually rich, but also relevant to all workers, blue collar or otherwise.’
Personal letter to the author from Scott Smith, construction worker and student (Pittsburgh).
This passage describes the same feeling I have, when reflecting on what your book has meant to me. I am 28 now and in the final year of my undergraduates degree at UCS. Since leaving school at 17 (dropping out of sixth form after one year), I have worked as a labourer, taking jobs wherever I could. I have two young daughters, and with my partner raising the children, was struggling to find work during the economic decline. I believed this to be all there was, never imagining there could be an alternative for me. I decided (reluctantly) to consider further education. I doubted my decision until five-to-midnight on the final cut off day, to submit my application; no A levels, no real expectation to get in. By some miracle I did, but my introductory lectures on Marx, Durkheim and Weber had me questioning my decision. I thought about quitting, I was never going to get my head around this complicated theory – I just couldn’t see past the jargon. In my first lecture with Shamser however, he held up a book, The Art of Listening, which he recommended we all read as an introduction to ‘a different kind of Sociology’. It was the first book I had read in ten years. It immediately resonated on a level I had never before experienced, much like Scott when he read Marshall’s work, it opened up a whole new dimension. It was relevant to me as a ‘blue collar’ worker, but also possessed a scope equipped to illuminate the hidden corners of the world. I am glad it was the first book I read, because it laid the foundation for my conception of Sociology, what it is and what it is for.
Samuel’s message – accepted gratefully – is the finest reward any university teacher or academic could hope to receive. There are no better words than his to express why I think what we do matters. The value he found in reading my book and thinking about it is expressed so eloquently. Such an acknowledgment is treasured beyond titles, honours, university research rankings or even scores in the national student survey.