One of my colleagues posed an intriguing question yesterday: if we were asked to nominate one book that all humanities, law and social science students should be given when they arrived at the university, what would it be?
It appealed to my deeply nerdy list-making side - a bit Desert Island Discs, a bit High Fidelity. The honest answer is the that question induced a state of indecisive paralysis. All students? If it was a different book for each subject area, that would be easy. Catch 22 or Fahrenheit 451 for the War Studies, Uniformed Studies and other military subjects. Thoreau's Walden for philosophers. Ben Goldacre's Bad Science for the social scientists, or perhaps some Goffman or Durkheim. Barthes' Mythologies for Cultural Studies, Flat Earth News for the broadcasting and journalism kids. Everyone would get Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing of course, but that's a guide rather than something that would blow their minds and mark the end of school and the start of a new educational adventure. I'd love to give them a radical history of Britain and its neighbours, because all the wonderful bits of British history are excluded from school curricula: the Chartists, Tolpuddle, the Luddites, Rebecca Riots, Tonypandy, the General Strike, the Lollards, Jack of Kent, the Commonwealth, John Lilburne, Winstanley, the rebellions and the workers' organisations, 1798, the Wild Geese, 1916, Y Mudiad Cymraeg, the Plough and the Stars, the NUWM, the Clearances and so on. Likewise the evils of the British polity are never mentioned: the Empire is presented as a cuddly social club and foreigners as largely puzzlingly ungrateful.
That's really the important point for me. So many schools now are exam factories – despite the best efforts of the teachers at the chalkface – in which the league tables and the school's reputation massively outweighs the purpose of education: not to inculcate facts in a robotic fashion, but to encourage weirdos, rebels and free-thinkers who might just come up with new ways of living and new ways of loving. But no. Instead, from Eton to Scumbag Comprehensive, the emphasis is on Knowing Your Place, whether that's at the top or the bottom. There's a direct link between Etonian Cameron not having a single unorthodox economic idea despite doing PPE at Oxford and hordes of young folk leaving school fit only to serve coffee or sell mobile phones. It's not an accident: the plan is to produce a workforce of limited, obedient drones grateful for the minimum wage while the elite jealously guard their privileges. Eton might have better facilities but its purpose is identical to the poorest school: to maintain the status quo.
The population you eventually get from children who have spent 20 years training to pass exams is not one which will change the world: if you look at the inventors, economists, theorists, scientists and philosophers who have done it, you'll often find that they didn't fit very well into the sausage machine, but carved out enough space to retain their weirdness, while finding sympathetic allies, teachers and mentors who encouraged them to reach beyond the mundane. If my students are trained to hope for nothing more than mundanity, this country will become a stagnant pool of mediocrity and wasted talent. Look at the economy: crashed and burned by two generations of economists and city types buried deep in standard mathematical models who either couldn't or wouldn't see the obvious truth – that their models would impoverish us all for decades to come. There were dissenting voices, but nowhere influential. The finance ministries, boardrooms and (sadly) the universities were stuffed with people keen not to rock the boat while they and their friends got rich. No wonder Manchester University's economics students are in open rebellion, and all power to them.
When they get to university, a lot of these students have had their natural curiosity ground down. They're often not sure why they're here at all, so automatic has the process been. The effect is depressing: without the enthusiasm which comes with choices freely made and dreams potentially fulfilled, university feels like school, a place attended on sufferance. Too many students expect to be given answers suitable to passing exams, rather than seeking out questions which will expand their consciousnesses and their sense of cultural and social place. Not all of them, of course: there are always lots of lateral thinkers, odd-bods and weirdos restless and curious enough to want something more. My sense of the student body twists in the wind depending on whether today's seminar consisted of passionate arguments or total silence from a bunch of people who haven't bothered to do the reading.
So back to the books. What we need is a book or small selection of books which definitively communicate a new start, a new intellectual mode to incoming students. Ones which will start the process of widening their horizons and flexing their cerebral muscles. I asked my contacts on Twitter. Suggestions included Kafka and Camus, Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club, George Orwell's essays or 1984, Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen to avoid Death By Powerpoint, Bleak House (I'd go for Hard Times over that if I had to choose Dickens but excellent bookshop owner Dave makes a compelling case), The Selfish Gene, Bartleby the Scrivener, AP Herbert, Douglas Adams (me), Caleb Williams, Middlemarch, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (tempting, but enormous), Midgley's The Myths We Live By, which I would second whole-heartedly), Ant and Dec's autobiography (thanks, head of the university press office) and the Quran. In the United States, lots of colleges ask students in every subject to read the same book as an introduction: Random House's selection (thanks for the link, @RobertaWedge) is a little too triumphalist and/or soft-centred for my tastes.
My personal favourite is Walden but lots of these appeal. So, over to you: if you were asked to administer a swift literary kick to the head to a diverse bunch of students taking a massive range of subjects, what would it be?