Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Learning from the Ancients

A friend of mine gave me an intriguing book recently, More Essays of Today, edited by F. H. Pritchard and published in 1928. I added it to the pile and only got round to leafing through it a couple of days ago.

Each essay is 3-5 pages long, is often quirky, if not whimsical. And yet - so far they're remarkably relevant: perhaps the title was prophetic. The first essay is J. C. Squire's 'Moving a Library', an amusing little squib reproducing most accurately the mental and physical terrors of the undertaking - something my friends will appreciate, having help me out devotedly when I moved house.

Night after night I have spent carting down two flights of stairs more books htan I ever thought I possessed. Journey after journey, as monotonously regular as the progresses of a train round the Inner Circle: upstairs empty-handed and downstairs creeping with a decrepit crouch, a tall, crazy, dangerously bulging column of books wedged betwen my two hands and the indomitable point of my chin… at times during the process one hates books as the slaves who built the Pyramids must have hated public monuments. A strong and bitter book-sickness floods one's soul. How ignominious to be strapped to this ponderous mass of paper, print, and dead men's sentiments! Would it not be better, finer, braver, to leave the rubbish where it lies and walk out into the world a free, untrammelled, illiterate Superman? Civilization! Pah!

Unlike our current government, whose library closure plan is seemingly designed to produce the illiterate Superman, our hero recovers sufficiently to consider the much-discussed problems of how to arrange one's collection (he likes size/chronology/genre) and the 'despair' invoked by the intrusion of 'Stodge' onto the shelves of 'Pure literature' (ah, how Leavisian - I could devote a whole lecture to that one sentence) before ending on a hopeful quotation from Ruskin: 'I don't suppose I shall do it again for months and months and months'.

Serendipitously, the next essay is Reverend George A. Birmingham's 'Asking Questions', a longer and passionate diatribe on the scourge of the questionnaire. The good vicar doesn't like forms, especially those devoted to easily-available information, and those which are never actually consulted, a test he assays by inflating the size of his schoolroom to monstrous proportions then shrinking it to the size of a sentry box in each successive year.

I have never in my life been tempted to issue a questionnaire. The fact that I am forced to use this word - there being no English equivalent - proves that the thing itself is of foreign origin and that the vice is not native with us. That the word has a secondary meaning among the French, 'torturer', shows what they think of it.
Of course a pretence is made that the returns are required for the compilation of statistics… If we really prevented the compiling of statistics we ought to be given medals… for statistics are not merely useless - they are misleading, far more dangerously misleading even than the speeches of politicians…
Year by year, the number of these papers of questions increases. Year by year more of our time is wasted in writing answers. Year by year the nervous irritation consequent on wrestling with returns gets worse. 
The only remedy I can think of is to kill a few of the people who issue these forms. Perhaps five or six would be enough. The others, fearing the fate of their fellows, would be cowed into quiescence. Morally I think these executions would be as justifiable as the hanging of murderers, for we should be ridding society of pestilent nuisances. [Or if he could reach the head questioner] it would be better to try to cure him. That might be done if he were shut up in an asylum, like those provided for inebriates, and compelled to work for eight hours every day at a typewriter which had no note of interrogation on any of its keys. 

Now why did I say 'serendipitously'? Well, I'm drowning in these things. It's census time in the UK. The outsourced contract has gone to international gun-runner Lockheed Martin, which hasn't pleased many people. Some questions are contentious. After the previous census's successful Jedi Rebellion (enough people wrote in Jedi under 'religion' to skew the figures pleasingly), should we atheists stick to that or write 'no religion' (and perhaps acquire some state-funded atheist schools alongside the Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus and Muslims).

My students are given module evaluation forms and mid-module evaluation forms. While we stir up their curriculum to suit the university's financial problems and managerial obsessions, we ask them to fill in the National Student Survey. I'm being asked to fill in another form detailing my exact work patterns under various headings.

The good Reverend was on to something. Decades before Foucault et al., George hit upon the disciplinary system: the administrative demands of the institution aren't merely a massive job creation scheme (The Hegemon has 1500+ administrators and 700 teachers) but a control system. Knowledge IS power. Making us analyse our every move and report them internalises a repressive system. It tames us, it makes us behave, it might even persuade us of the benevolence of managerial activity.

Should I be hanging my line managers from a lamp-post? Probably not. George points out that his boss, the rural Dean, has a wife and family to support, and probably hates questionnaires too. But like him, I can't help but wonder if the defenestration of those at the top (Michael Gove? Willetts? the Vice-Chancellor?) would lighten the burden somewhat…

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