A few days ago the same newspaper carried two articles on universities, one by Stephen Glover, the other by David Blunkett, former Education Secretary.
Mr Glover wondered whether or not universities were fit for purpose, while Lord Blunkett had no doubts on that score: they are, which is why we must keep the Open University going.
To answer the question posed in the first article, we must first agree on what the purpose of a university is. Considering that the first such institution, University of Bologna, was founded in 1088, we’ve had a long time to reach such an agreement, yet none exists.
Though perhaps this was never expressed in such terms, medieval universities set out to equip a student with the intellectual tools required for pursuing the truth. Coming to the fore were such subjects as theology, philosophy, history, law, mathematics, music, astronomy, logic, rhetoric, grammar.
The corpus of knowledge in some of those disciplines was considerably smaller than it is today, but there’s no doubt that those universities justified their name by giving students universal education. Essentially, the medieval university was thinkers and scholars training thinkers and scholars.
I don’t know how many graduates of, say, the University of Paris at the time of Albertus Magnus left academic fields for careers in inn management or timber trading, but I suspect not many.
Without passing any unfashionable quality judgment, one simply has to observe that the concept of university has changed somewhat since that budding young scholar from the village of Aquino travelled to Paris to study with Albertus.
How much richer young Thomas (and we along with him) would have been had he learned not Aristotle but, say, ‘The Art of Skinning a Bullock’ or ‘The Plight of Women in the Agora’. So I hope you’ll join me in rejoicing at the progress we’ve made since those uncivilised times.
For this is precisely the direction in which the situation has changed. Universities have systematically deemphasised general, universal education in favour of specialised professional learning in narrow – and often useless – fields. The purpose is no longer the pursuit of the truth. It’s the pursuit of a lucrative career.
England, boasting Europe’s third-oldest university, managed to uphold the old principles longer than the Continent. Until very recently, a boy or a girl from a decent family could study something like philosophy for three years only then to go to the City, get some on the job training and eventually graduate to seven-digit bonuses.
But even in England this is becoming rare, and, say, in France such a career path is well-nigh impossible. If a youngster’s degree is in history, he can teach the subject or work in the archives. No one will hire him as a trainee stockbroker. Specialisation verified by documentary evidence reigns supreme.
However, as Mr Glover reminds us, even the university in its modified form wasn’t universally, as it were, accessible in his generation, which is to say in the sixties. At that time only five to ten per cent of youngsters went to universities. The rest muddled through life without a framed degree certificate adorning their wall.
That was the tail end of sanity, when most people still accepted the demonstrable fact that not everyone is qualified to gain higher education. Some youngsters, most actually, have neither the requisite minds nor the academic inclinations.
This obvious observation is of course anathema to the ideologically egalitarian, which is to say modern, mind. Everyone is supposed to be equally able to succeed in any field, except football. Granted, not everyone has the talent to score 30 goals a season. But everyone can get a university degree. It’s just a matter of opening paths.
Both John Major, who’s intellectually deficient but not evil, and Tony Blair, who’s both, declared that at least half of the population should be blessed with university education. The implicit assumption was that the chunk of the five to ten per cent of the population deemed fit for university admission 50 years ago has grown at least five-fold.
This ignores the evidence of the legions of youngsters leaving secondary schools without being able to read and add up properly. British schoolchildren’s performance in all exams other than pregnancy tests is consistently at the bottom of European leagues.
Hence it’s clear that no five-fold increase in the number of qualified university entrants has occurred, quite the opposite. But, once announced, the numerical target had to be met.
That has been done by modernity’s favourite method: sleight of hand. Countless polytechnics have been rebranded as universities, while failing to provide even the level of professional training they had provided as polytechnics.
Moreover, universities now offer credit courses that have no academic value, nor indeed much practical one. As usual, the US leads the way with such courses as ‘The Lesbian Phallus’ (The Occidental College, LA), ‘Philosophy and Star Trek’ (Georgetown University) or ‘Maple Syrup Making’ (Alfred University, NYC).
But British universities manfully hold their own, with courses like ‘How to Train in the Jedi Way’ (Queen’s, Belfast), ‘Harry Potter Studies’ (Durham), ‘The History of Lace Knitting in Shetland’ (Glasgow, graduate course) or ‘The Life and Times of Robin Hood’ (type-cast Nottingham University).
And of course such invaluable courses as black studies, women’s studies and, presumably, Che Guevara studies are routinely offered by all universities, old and new.
In his article, Lord Blunkett defends the proliferation of so-called universities and so-called courses. In particular, he extols the Open University, which allegedly elevates young minds to academic excellence.
As proof of this allegation, Lord Blunkett cites the example of a woman he knows, a social worker who got a master’s degree in her chosen field and now feels qualified to tend to the poor.
One only wonders how all those nuns in the Middle Ages managed to look after the poor without the benefit of advanced degrees in ‘poverty management’ or ‘social studies’. Somehow they got by on little specialised training, mostly contained within the Gospels.
Mr Glover justifiably complains that such an inordinate proliferation of universities is bound to indoctrinate half the population in ideologies of the Left. On the basis of anecdotal but empirically demonstrable evidence, he estimates the proportion of left-wing dons at about 85 per cent.
My observation of Western universities over the past half a century suggests that, if anything, this figure is too low, especially in the humanities. And of course the social damage of half the population brainwashed in Marxism is greater than it would be if only five to ten per cent were exposed to it.
One can think of any number of reasons explaining the leftward bias in the university. One is the same as the reason for left-wing bias anywhere: envy.
If at the time of Albertus and his star student, theology and philosophy were the axis around which society revolved, today’s societies pursue happiness (i.e. material comfort), not the truth. Hence it’s not dons but fund managers who are the priests of this godless religion.
Seeing that a young man can make in a year what a professor makes in a lifetime, the professor often feels envious and resentful, correctly perceiving himself as marginalised. And socialism is the creed of the envious, resentful and marginalised.
I remember many years ago talking to a friend, who at that time was Head of Humanities at a major university. As a youngster he used to sell Firestone tyres, and I often heard him complain that, had he remained in that field, he could have become a wealthy Vice President of the company, rather than a measly professor.
One could detect genuine regret, of the kind that Albertus Magnus probably didn’t feel about his own career choice. Can you imagine his complaining, “Oh Thomas, if only I could have sold carriage wheels, I’d have lots more ducats…”
If it were up to me, 90 per cent of all universities would be shut down or reclassified as polytechnics. And those that remained would be obligated to teach only traditional academic disciplines.
Society would be a lot healthier, not to mention cleverer. And… well, no point overdosing on the indigestible pie in the sky.