Higher education should be about love and justice

An edited speech by openDemocracy co-founder Anthony Barnett to graduating Goldsmiths students, and accepting his honorary fellowship.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
26 September 2019, 5.03pm

I’m proud to share the pride you all feel in being recognised by Goldsmiths for what you have achieved. All of you, students and the parents of students – indeed especially the parents for all the support and love you have given and the stresses you have endured. It makes me very happy to join you and receive this honour because: there are universities and there is Goldsmiths.

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What does it mean to be ‘honoured’?

Before I say why Goldsmiths is so special, and about your lives after Goldsmiths, I want to talk about being honoured.

I don’t believe in Britain’s historic ‘honours system’. Those earldoms go back to success in rape and pillage. The aristocracy was then systematised by empire. It signalled entitlement, preferment and exclusion.

I have dedicated much of my time, as you have just heard, to trying to abolish it.

Instead, it got worse – it was commercialised. Peerages were openly bought and sold - one reason why there are now 780 members of the House of so-called Lords with a rich range of interests. Even if we can name the exceptions, never have there been so many peers with so little nobility.

However, our country is also changing in better ways. Our traditions of deference and privilege are weakening. My attitude towards the honours system has not weakened, the nature of being honoured is changing.

I first thought about this when the Open University offered me an honorary doctorate for services to democracy. My mother was one of its first students, having left school at 14. I felt honoured to be accepted into its project which like Goldsmiths is one of inclusion - of extending excellence to those like her who had been deprived, and I dedicated my degree to her. And said, “never again”.

Now, I’m proud to make a further exception.

“There are universities, and there is Goldsmiths”

Late last year I was part of a discussion in Goldsmiths about the future of capitalism. To find the building where it was taking place I examined the campus map.

Usually, great universities are filled with buildings glorifying figures of the old regime. Afterwards I said to those I was with, “You know, it is an odd feeling: three of the buildings here are named after people I knew!”.

The Richard Hoggart Building, named after Goldsmiths’ fifth Warden, the Ben Pimlott Building, named after its seventh Warden, and the Stuart Hall Building. I met Richard Hoggart once. A working class writer, famous for his pioneering 1950s book, The Uses of Literacy, he had been trying to help make the whole world literate by running UNESCO. I was struck by his practical seriousness and his commitment to what the Scottish call the democratic intellect.

Ben Pimlott was my age. I greatly miss how we annoyed each other, in the way only people who are on the same side can. We both opposed the invasion of Iraq. But often disagreed. He approved of Harold Wilson, a dreadful Labour Prime Minister. He wrote a respectful biography of the Queen whereas I am a republican. But he was profoundly committed to public service. Today, the culture of public service he personified is traduced by the tabloid press as self-interested paternalism. In fact we badly needs Ben’s selfless commitment to democratic responsibility.

I think of Stuart Hall as a comrade-in-arms. One of the first times I met him was in the Great Hall of Birmingham University in 1968 when the students who were occupying it. We were both there in solidarity with them (he was married to one of them and I was going out with another). I understand how such occupations can be bewildering for parents, who see their children mobilise against the institution they have worked so hard to get into. Yet collective action is a learning experience with a difference as it confronts everyone, on all sides, with crucial issues of agency and responsibility, including how to protest, how to win and to retain support, how to resist sectarianism, and when to end it.

Stuart Hall himself was profound but never intimidating. He was the first in this country to identify the explosive dangers of ‘Thatcherism’. I loved the way he developed concepts to help us understand. It was a term he coined before she was even Prime Minister. He warned against what he described as her “regressive modernisation” – meaning the way her supporters claimed to be traditional while storming our future. I hear Stuart’s laugh now, as Brexit unfolds. His laughter was like a song, its Jamaican lilt captured the absurd danger of our vulnerability but not in a way that was cynical. His unwavering refusal of all forms of dehumanisation and racism made him a democratic life-force.

In Songs of Innocence, William Blake wrote that we might see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower. But can we see democratic intellect, or responsibility, or life-force in a building?

Maybe not in just one. But it feels to me, walking across Goldsmiths, that a democratic argument is taking place between the legacies of these three fuelling an urgent, contemporary engagement amongst the women and men who are the students and faculty and support staff of Goldsmiths, that makes it such a unique centre of higher education: a conversation that is expert and exploratory and is what a university should be for.

The tragic commercialisation of higher education

Each personified what higher education should be about and resisted it being marketised and commercialised. A tragic moment in this process was when, in 2009, Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, commissioned Lord Browne to propose how to pay for universities. Browne, who had been the head of BP, reported that, I quote, he could not find any “objective measure of quality” that could guide the public funding of higher education. Therefore the market should decide via student fees.

I would have loved to hear Lord Browne in a public debate with Hoggart or Pimlott or Hall! They certainly knew, without dogmatism, the qualities that measure good higher education and the need, therefore, for public funding.

All three knew the value of independence of mind and judgment as a mutual gain for all. How this needs training and nurturing. They understood how essential are what we can broadly term the humanities, especially if we are to look after each other in these hard, rapidly changing times. For you cannot have a democracy without a democratic culture with its standards raised by democratic universities.

Stuart Hall, Ben Pimlott and Richard Hoggart. They did not serve vested interests. They engaged in the hard effort of understanding how our society works – that’s scholarship. And how this needs to be available to all – that’s equality. And how it can improve the world – that’s being practical.

They tested their judgements in publications and broadcasting and policy-making and as educators, so that their buildings are the opposite of ivory towers. They added to the unruliness of the public domain. They pursued the hardest thing, being truthful and also, to quote Paul Gilroy, who taught at Goldsmiths, “They knew that the call that matters is what we can do for each other”.

It is perhaps a proof of their dedication to this cause that none of them were honoured by that official ‘honours system’.

“My generation has delivered you a world that is burning”

Which brings me to the lessons for your future as graduates. For let’s be clear, one reason why Richard and Ben and Stuart were not officially honoured is that they lost. Their generation - my generation – has delivered you a world that is burning, a power system that is reckless, leaders who are racists (one about to become our Prime Minister). No, let’s be scrupulous in our use of language in a way that he is not. Like President Trump he would say that he does not have a racist bone in his body. But somehow many of his supporters and followers don’t believe him and he knows this and seems OK about it.

So I’d understand if you feel that no one from my generation has the right to offer you advice!

All I can offer, then, is a warning. As you leave Goldsmith’s each of you deserve to achieve your potential to the full and this means striving to make the best of yourselves. But do this by cooperating with each other. Don’t think you can save the world or yourself by competing with everyone else to maximise your advantage. That’s the system of selfishness advocated by President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and their present day successors.

Today it is bringing us a ruinous Brexit that will close off our continent to you, a climate emergency, polarization, inequality and violence, and as we are just seeing in America, the threat of a new form of fascism fanned by social media.

Love and justice

In these dire times asking what you can do for others is the best way to reach out for yourself. This is what Martin Luther King was seeking when he called for the world to be governed by a love that does justice.

Cooperation is harder but much more rewarding than competition. It means refusing both to be a victim and to make others your victim. It means sharing your feelings without being ruled by emotion; having empathy for the feeling of others when you don’t share them. It means not closing down your identities, for we all have more than one, but allowing them to change and grow. It means using the facility of our digital age to be a co-creator of society and never just a consumer. It means always using the power of your intelligence, including your emotional intelligence, to make the call that matters, to ask what we can do for others - with love and justice.

Video - Professor Alan Downie's tribute to Anthony Barnett

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