We don’t need universities any longer

UniversityFormer Education Secretary Kenneth Baker didn’t say that in so many words. But he said it nonetheless.

Lord Baker observed correctly that a degree in useless humanities is no longer a ticket to “a nice house in a nice area”, which, as we all know, is the only conceivable purpose of higher education.

“I haven’t seen the passing up of a Russell Group university yet but we will eventually see it,” predicted Lord Baker with clairvoyant certainty. In other words, Britain’s top universities will become extinct like dinosaurs and other species jettisoned by evolution.

At £9,250 a year, a degree in history or philosophy isn’t worth the money, explained Lord Baker. It makes more sense to join an apprenticeship programme at an IT company, where a youngster can be paid up to £15,000 a year to learn how to push buttons with greater dexterity.

Such a youngster would be £24,250 better off than a drudge burying himself in useless Plato or Thucydides. Simple arithmetic, really. Open and shut case.

Now I often write vituperatively about our soulless, materialistic modernity. Yet nothing I’ve ever written at my most jaundiced condemns modernity more devastatingly than Lord Baker’s affable comments.

He said, effectively and possibly unwittingly, that Western civilisation is dead, a view I share. However, Lord Baker sounds as if he sees nothing wrong in this demise. Just the way the cookie crumbles, old boy. Yes, but this one has crumbled so much that there’s no cookie left.

Ever since the first university was founded 928 years ago in Bologna, everyone has understood that its function is to point students, and through them society, towards the path approaching eternal truths. Such truths weren’t to be found in crafts, useful as they might be.

It was subjects like theology, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, history and so forth that led to absolute truth. Because any civilisation is defined by its understanding of absolutes, they were by far the most important academic disciplines.

In those backward days no one doubted that absolute truth was transcendent, residing higher than man and ultimately beyond his reach. However, it was a university’s task to lead man up to the closest possible approximation of truth, thereby lifting society to new moral, spiritual and intellectual heights.

Modernity tossed transcendence overboard like so much ballast preventing progress from staying afloat. Truth was yanked off its absolute perch and internalised within each man. Since all men are self-evidently created equal, all are therefore deemed equally able to perceive truth.

Truth was no longer one and absolute; it became fractured and relative. In other words, it effectively ceased to exist. Our civilisation lost its soul, and consequently its intellect.

Intellect was no longer needed as a recipient and processor of verity. Modernity declared that truth is whatever is perceived by the senses, not by the mind or, God forbid, intuitive inspiration.

Since the senses perceive mostly material things, our society became grossly materialistic. It no longer needed to ponder the intellectual threads of which the fabric of our civilisation was woven in the first place. It needed training in acquiring material things as expeditiously as possible.

Few people noticed that the resultant intellectual catastrophe spelled social disaster as well. Every Western country has become an aggregate of atomised individuals, each either a depository of his own version of truth or, more typically, not bothering about anything other than pursuing happiness, as defined with the greatest possible vulgarity.

The calamitous consequences of this ‘progress’ are too numerous to mention. The most immediately obvious one is politics. It’s also one with the greatest potential for destroying the world not just spiritually but also physically.

Abolition of truth has produced a society of moral and intellectual idiots, unable to wield the most basic mental tools and incapable of distinguishing among emotions, opinions, judgements and arguments. Such men, observed Chesterton, “do not believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

They have no intellectual training to realise that almost everything they hear from politicians is meaningless waffle replete with non sequiturs, demagoguery and every rhetorical fallacy in the book (the kind of book no one reads any longer).

Whenever by some quirk of nature a politician appears who talks sense, he’s either drummed out of politics or forced to toe the line. In fact, it’s becoming exceedingly unlikely that such a politician can appear: an electorate of moral and intellectual idiots will unfailingly choose similarly inferior leaders. In a cannibal tribe only a cannibal can be chief.

Except that our cannibals wield not spears but weapons capable of wiping out the world. The weapons aren’t just of the explosive variety: some of them are economic, likely to destroy the very material happiness in whose name they were deployed.

Lord Baker is therefore right. The very concept of university has already been debauched, and even in this diminished form universities are no longer needed. They’ll either disappear or transmogrify into trade schools.

Those who will know the difference won’t think it matters one way or the other. Few will ever realise that the ensuing catastrophe isn’t just academic but also existential.

2 thoughts on “We don’t need universities any longer”

  1. A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,
    Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together.
    Science announced nonentity and art admired decay;
    The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay;
    Round us in antic order their crippled vices came–
    Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
    Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
    Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
    Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
    The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.
    They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named:
    Men were ashamed of honour; but we were not ashamed.
    Weak if we were and foolish, not thus we failed, not thus;
    When that black Baal blocked the heavens he had no hymns from us
    Children we were–our forts of sand were even as weak as eve,
    High as they went we piled them up to break that bitter sea.
    Fools as we were in motley, all jangling and absurd,
    When all church bells were silent our cap and beds were heard.

    Not all unhelped we held the fort, our tiny flags unfurled;
    Some giants laboured in that cloud to lift it from the world.
    I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
    Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;
    And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,
    Roared in the wind of all the world ten million leaves of grass;
    Or sane and sweet and sudden as a bird sings in the rain–
    Truth out of Tusitala spoke and pleasure out of pain.
    Yea, cool and clear and sudden as a bird sings in the grey,
    Dunedin to Samoa spoke, and darkness unto day.
    But we were young; we lived to see God break their bitter charms.
    God and the good Republic come riding back in arms:
    We have seen the City of Mansoul, even as it rocked, relieved–
    Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind, believed.
    This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells,
    And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells–
    Of what colossal gods of shame could cow men and yet crash,
    Of what huge devils hid the stars, yet fell at a pistol flash.
    The doubts that were so plain to chase, so dreadful to withstand–
    Oh, who shall understand but you; yea, who shall understand?
    The doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
    And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.
    Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
    Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.
    We have found common things at last and marriage and a creed,
    And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
    G. K. C.

  2. An excellent article – thank you. With regard to the transmogrification of universities into trade schools, the UK used to have an excellent system of Polytechnic education up until 1992. Most Polys had good links with their local and regional economies, and somehow managed to supply realistic numbers of graduates in the right subjects. There was, as far as I can recall, no glut of media studies and cultural studies “graduates” who had been fooled into doing the wrong subjects by clever marketing departments. And if a person found that their skills were becoming outdated, at least they had not been brainwashed with cultural relativism and a disdain for all forms of self-control.

    Polytechnics were essentially destroyed by the rising tide of expectations and entitlement. The students wanted to think that their degrees were as good as those from Oxbridge colleges, and the Principals of the Polys were uneasy lest someone might make a judgement that the institutions they headed were inferior to any others in the country. I vividly remember the “Vice Chancellor” of a miserable little college in Southern England saying that he was proud to be accused of running a “Mickey Mouse” university. “My degrees in Graphic Animation and Digitalised Entertainments are in the proud tradition of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse!” During his tenure there was also a TV documentary which scandalously broke the news that foreign students with very little English could just enrol, not turn up to lectures, and still pass their degree. Tutors were secretly filmed saying exactly this. The result was a huge increase in applications for that “University”.

    A thank-you is also due to Isaac Thompson, for reminding us of Chesterton’s genius.

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