Monday, 30 April 2012

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money

Not the most apposite aphorism for a blogger, you might think, but Samuel Johnson crossed my mind when I was thinking about my students this morning. And not just because he - like me - was a scruffy troglodyte ('shaking, twitching, pockmarked… distinctly careless about his dress' as Boswell put it).

Despite the small group who have told me that they 'don't like reading' - despite signing up for degrees in English Literature - the majority have been fine, admirable and charming people.

Each year, I mourn the graduation of another group whose like will never be seen again, only for another cohort to stake its claim on my admiration. This year, and last year, saw the departure of some very, very bright students who in a sane and rational world, would be pursuing postgraduate studies at our finest institutions. Instead, they're working in local pubs or as classroom assistants. Nothing wrong with that of course, but a total waste of talent. Our government forgets that to abandon decent education funding is to scandalously cast aside the next generation's critics, thinkers and creators.

What's the relevance of Johnson? Well, he was thrown out of university after a single year because he couldn't pay his bills and was forced to churn out hack work for people he didn't respect: we're now used to students withdrawing for financial reasons, and next year it'll be even worse. But more inspiringly, he was convinced that learning must and could be available for all, whether they worked as rowers or clergymen:
…a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge. 

My students already give all that they have. They're mired in debt with little prospect of every repaying it (a cynic might say that perpetual debt is the necessary condition for obedient wage-slavery). Many give up good jobs or take on bad ones. Relationships suffer and families take the strain, yet they carry on. Last year, I talked to the husband of one of my graduates. He inspected kebab shops for a living, and told me some horrible stories - yet he'd read everything his wife studied, because he didn't want a cultural gap opening up between them.

I hate the end of the year. As the economic and intellectual climate worsens, I see lovely, thoughtful, clever people returned to the dole queue from whence they came.
Better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied
said Mill. Perhaps that's where I can rest my hopes. My graduates aren't pigs or fools and hopefully they're intellectually, politically and culturally dissatisfied, enough to write songs and stories, lead riots and revolutions. I send them off into the dark and cold while keeping my fat arse parked on a comfortable seat. I'm the armchair revolutionary - they'll be on the front line. In Johnson's terms, I'm his old teacher, Richard Savage - less learned than they'll be but smugly safe, one of those who has 'slumbered away their time on the down of plenty'.

This is the worst year yet - I have more hugely talented students graduating who should be doing MAs and PhDs than ever before, and none of them can afford it. Still, at least the executive team and administrators all have iPads. And that's what matters.

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