It still worries me, the accusing look of resentment on the girl’s face as she snatched the book I had bagged for her. I was on the tills at a Cambridge bookshop. A schoolgirl—fourteen, fifteen—came forward to buy what was almost certainly a set book for her exams. She had to read the book to pass the exam to do further study to qualify for the job. It was not a pleasure: it was a duty, and one she deeply resented. Or so I surmise. If I’m right, then the girl regarded her studies as an obstacle to be overcome, an impediment in her progress towards the job that pays and has responsibilities and prospects. The alternative possibility, that her studies would offer her the resources she was going to need in her work and in her life, was not considered. What did her eyes say? ‘Just give me the fucking book.’
There is a remarkable, if rarely noted, agreement among educators that education is not simply about passing exams. From the crustiest, gowned Classics master to the Social Studies experimentalist in blue-jeans there is the common conviction that education is a foundation for a life beyond the examination hall. Or, at least, that has been the case. Today government and media routinely confuse education with vocational training. Education may contain its vocational element, but not exclusively. It was—I daren’t say is—about training the mind.
When I was a student I visited a cousin who was reading a book I was reading for my course. He was simply working his way through the Fontana Modern Masters series, as I was to do. We knew something of each other’s interests. We had interests in common. You didn’t go to study one subject and nothing else. You went to broaden your knowledge base, and to develop a range of personal faculties. That was a given, surely? There was as much to be learned outside of the seminar room as there was within it. Perhaps there was more to be learned beyond the curricula. The thought of just going in for lectures, and then going home at the weekend, well, just wasn’t done. There was a community of varying interests but with a common purpose.
And what was that purpose? To explore the options available in terms of culture and leisure pursuits, in terms of political and religious commitment, and in terms of working life. What are students searching for? Direction. Even when pursuing a vocational course there are many ways that might be approached. A job, in any case, need not be a career. To expand your capabilities you need to be widely informed, to be variously skilled, and to be both flexible and directed at the same time. The ideal of education is to create that possibility within the individual.
The student brings, or ought to bring, a questioning attitude, but one that balances scepticism with belief. The cynic or the fanatic is an intellectual and moral failure. The ideal is to dream of things that are not and say, ‘Why not?’ Knowledge is what is offered. Imagination is what students must discover for themselves.
The process does not stop at graduation. That piece of paper is only provisional. In my experience the world is not interested in how well qualified you are. The world wants to know how capable you are, and how able you are to continue learning. The habit of mind that constructs a hierarchy of formal achievement is applicable only to a limited set of applications by functionaries who make a virtue of their limitations.
Administrative tasks can be performed by the appropriately trained. But social development requires creative thinking rather than text-book conventions. The manual of instruction is not the last word. It is the starting-point, the foundation of the imaginative leap, the strategic plan, the experimental venture. But the manual does not cover the contingencies. They can be dealt with not according to the rule but according to the circumstance. Understanding the difference and being able to apply that understanding is the mark not of the qualified functionary but of a disciplined and purposive intellect.
Society can function without imagination, but only as a machine. It does not possess the living organisms that can adapt according to circumstance. That, surely, was the quintessential flaw in the Soviet model. Moral failings could be rectified, but the mechanism at a practical level was obsolete. The West, riding so high now, threatens to go the same way.
It was a pertinent criticism of industrial capitalism that it required people to act as robots. The justification was that the material abundance created was available to all. That remains the justification of corporate capitalism. Another kind of robot is required, not the physical labourer but the technician. You see them everywhere, operating the machines that serve the financial and commercial sectors, of course, but the health and welfare and transport and leisure sectors. Everything is done by a click of the mouse. You are not required to think: the machine will do that for you.
Technology, of course, can offer so much. I am not writing this with a quill by candlelight. On the other hand, later I shall be reading a book, a biography of Visconti, to improve my Italian. I shall make a note of the current Maggi Hambling exhibition. The preferred options of corporate capitalism would be something to do with a Hollywood blockbuster and some populist art of the shallow gesture. I shall not be arrested for my preferences, but the distance from the accepted mainstream is clear enough to anyone who is aware of our media, including those areas dedicated to a public service ideal.
One of the purposes of public culture is to consider critically what enters the public realm. Affirmation without consideration leads nowhere. One of the virtues of a liberal culture is the liberty to propose alternatives to the current wisdom. A liberty and a duty. To lose that frame of mind is to lose the saving grace of contemporary Western society. All claim to the legitimacy of convention is lost if conformity becomes the norm of discourse in the public realm.
Where is the source of free exchange in public utterance? It surely is to be found in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and ideas. Sustained concentration, far from dulling the mind, stimulates the appetite for creative thinking. The discipline required, however, conflicts with the culture of sensation, technique and the immediate gratification of ephemeral desire. The ideal course of study in corporate capitalism is technical or managerial training instilled by the acceptance of received ideas. The language is not the language of enquiry. The rewards of obedience are high in terms of status and wealth. Without a credible alternative to materialism, thoughts and values are incapable and may be disregarded. And they are.
The idea of a liberal education has not vanished, but it is diminished by the demands of the market for a unified structure. Tradition and precedent have been sidelined into nostalgia. Social co-operation and common wealth have been eradicated. We are one class now, aren’t we, in an arc of opportunities? The only remaining problems are to do with race and gender. The answers may look progressive. The language used is progressive, but the purpose is to remove all obstacles to monolithic unity. We are all in one great community, thinking alike, talking alike and acting together for a common purpose which is freedom and fun. Who could ask for anything more?
It is the world of the young, probably single, and without responsibilities. Ambition is paramount. The feelgood of being comfortable and free is an evident plus. Freedom means travel and limitless credit. Comfort means designer commodities. It is felt to be so obviously better than anything on offer to previous generations. And what is obvious should not be questioned.
The desire to ask the deeper questions may come later if it comes at all. When the need arises one needs the resources to fulfil the desire. This is something that cannot be bought, that is not subject to fashion, that is not something taught in a module. The sense of absence can be very disillusioning. Cynicism, especially when redundancy looms, is the likely outcome.
The scenario does not suggest a society at ease with itself. The gradual erosion of a liberal education has been marked for so long now that it cannot be attributed to one source. In part it was willed by political leaders who had little more than volition. In part it was created by a simplistic media myth of a free world. But its growth was not inevitable. It came into its own in the vacuum where once there was ideological debate. The corporate sector does not offer intellectual and cultural development. It does not welcome personal initiative nourished by a broad field of vision.
There is, however, sufficient plurality to suggest that alternatives may be found. There is even the possibility of a consensus against philistine management culture and its monotonous soundtrack. Neither RADA nor Sandhurst could operate without valuing initiative and enriched personal resources. From different and opposing traditions the progressive and the traditionalist may be capable of uniting against crass materialism and the narrowing of focus that produces resentful teenagers who wouldn’t be seen dead in a Cambridge bookshop if their course didn’t depend on it.