Monday, 12 May 2014

You poor creatures

Thoroughly demoralised by the dissertation I've just marked, I'm probably in the wrong frame of mind to brighten your day with an inspiring blog post. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can't pass on to everyone the core values of academia: honesty, respect and the simple joy of applied thought. Here's hoping that the next one in the pile will be better. (I just peeked: it is).

I was idly considering the REF exercise yesterday. In case you don't know it, the Research Excellence Framework is the mechanism by which individuals' and universities' research output is graded. It's a mechanical, easily manipulated system which is entirely rigged to funnel what little remaining funds are available to the Russell Group universities while appearing to provide a level playing field. It distorts the kind of research we do, takes over the lives of those charged with administering the process in-house, and rarely seems to benefit those who actually do the research.

It put me in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro's disturbing, elegiac 2005 novel Never Let Me Go in some ways. In NLMG, we meet a very talented group of somewhat disturbed children sequestered in Hailsham, a remote boarding school, one of a network around the country. Encouraged to develop their creative skills, they dream of a future in which they are appreciated for their achievements. Gradually, however, the reader (and eventually the characters) realise that they have no such bright horizons. We learn that they are clones, called 'donors', and that they have a very limited life-span. They are, in fact, specially bred as living organ banks, and will 'donate' their vitals one by one until they are 'complete', i.e. dead, while the lives of the recipients are extended ad infinitum.

Some of them fervently, heartbreakingly believe that deferrals will be made for any donor who can demonstrate exceptional artistic talent because it showed that they were capable of genuine love, a hope cruelly fostered by well-meaning carers. The donors' error is to believe in a bourgeois notion of individual meritocracy when in fact they are the proletariat in a medical economy. In reality, the children are considered non-human, capably merely of simulating human qualities.

If that doesn't work as a metaphor for our education system, our economic system and the REF, I don't know what would. We educate our children to paint and sing and play, then send the vast majority off to work in call centres or serve coffee at a minimum wage, the better to enrich the recipients of these donations. Closer to home, we scholars in the less-prestigious institutions persuade ourselves that participation in REF will lead to elevation to the Russell Group, or more selflessly, to recognition that world-class work is being done here too. Like the poor children of Never Let Me Go, we donate our work time after time after time in the hope that we will be spared, and time after time we 'complete': our efforts go unread, unappreciated, our research funding is diverted and cut, and time after time we're exhorted to sacrifice even more, because next time we might earn our reprieve. We argue that our work is so important, so meaningful, that we are so transformed by it simply for its innate qualities that we deserve exemption.

Kath and Tommy, in love, track down their old teachers to show them Tommy's art in the hope of persuading them to spare him. As Madame puts it:
Because of course…your art will reveal your inner selves! That's it, isn't it? Because your art will display your souls! … Poor creatures. What did we do to you? With all our schemes and plans?
Madame's partner Emily chimes in with the truth:
It's something for them to dream about, a little fantasy. What harm is there?…It gives me no pleasure to disappoint you. But there it is … even back when Hailsham was considered a shining beacon, an example of how we might move to a more humane and better way of doing things, even then, it wasn't true. A wishful rumour. That's all it ever was. 
Like the Hailsham kids, we are fooling ourselves. We're the proletarians in this system, the cannon fodder in an education class war, spared a few hours and a pot of paint to keep us on the treadmill. Yet we know that certain influential corners of academia look down on our work, a view shared and encouraged by a government which has no interest in research that doesn't turn an immediate profit, or that challenges their narrow world-view. REF is the Hailsham mirage, the white lie to give us hope.

Kath asks the pair why the children's art was collected at all.
Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we're just going to give donations anyway, then die, whys all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?
The question can be asked of our globalised, capitalist economy. Why, in a system which is designed to reward the rentier class and exploit the workers, should we bother educating the workers and employing their teachers? It isn't, says Emily, out of altruism: it's to make the organ recipients feel better, to disguise the mechanisation of humanity.
…it made it easy for the rest of them…they could all carry on without a care … We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all. "There, look!" we could say. "Look at this art! How dare you claim these children are anything less than human?
In Ishiguro's world, Hailsham was a response to a much crueller, harsher cloning regime, in which society hid away the children and preferred not to talk about them - but the kinder system was swept away when a man tried to produce 'enhanced' clones:
It reminded people, reminded them of a fear they'd always had. It's one thing to create students, such as yourselves, for the donation programme. But a generation of created children who'd take their place in society? Children demonstrably superior to the rest of us? Oh no.

Let's not forget the Labour education secretary Charles Clarke who described historians as 'medieval seekers after truth' who are 'good to have as an adornment to society'. As postgraduate work becomes the preserve of rich kids at socially-élite universities, humanities research in particular is becoming a hobby or a superficial cultural marketing device with little social substance. Down here amongst the large, modern universities we're encouraged to spatter some paint on canvas, but deep down, we know that the game's rigged: we'll be allowed enough crayons to persuade ourselves that we matter but aside from a few handpicked exceptions who'll be plucked out, our working class students and dedicated staff will be ruthlessly exploited while the HEFCE-funded port passes round High Table as it always has.

This is the underlying fear of our rulers: that the masses will want the lives – educationally and otherwise – of the élites. REF, and the current university system is part of the mechanism of control. It looks like a nice way to enfold us all in progress, but it is in fact a thinly disguised means of reifying the status quo. Anyone who objects goes the same way as one of Hailsham's guardians, Lucy Wainwright.
…she began to have these ideas. She thought you students had to be made more aware. More aware of what lay ahead of you, who you were, what you were for. She believed you should be given as full a picture as possible. That to do anything less would be somehow to cheat you … but what she was wanting to do, it was too theoretical… Lucy Wainwright was idealistic, nothing wrong with that. But she had no grasp of practicalities.
'No grasp of practicalities': the mantra of the hard men and women of the governing classes, chanted as they make their money and pull up the ladder behind them.

And if that sounds bitter, it's meant to.


Anonymous said...

Spot on, with one minor quibble: things aren't actually as great as you imply in the Russell Group either (maybe it's different in Oxbridge...). Some differences in the mechanisms, or at least the rhetoric, of discipline and control ("You should feel grateful and privileged to be here, so work harder and stop complaining"), but same basic structure of managerial dictat driven by REF, NSS and indirect income demands. And the same self-delusion on the part of academics, who do most of the work exploiting themselves without the need for coercion from the management...

Rob Spence said...

I read an Edwardian detective novel (Trent's Last Case) last year, and one part stuck in my mind. The murder victim is a ruthless financier who had made millions through speculation. His young widow speaks: "Can you imagine what it must be for any one who has lived in a world where there was always creative work in the background, work with some dignity about it, men and women with professions or arts to follow, with ideals and things to believe in and quarrel about, some of them wealthy, some of them quite poor; can you think what it means to step out of that into another world where you have to be very rich, shamefully rich, to exist at all—where money is the only thing that counts and the first thing in everybody's thoughts—where the men who make the millions are so jaded by the work, that sport is the only thing they can occupy themselves with when they have any leisure, and the men who don't have to work are even duller than the men who do, and vicious as well; and the women live for display and silly amusements and silly immoralities; do you know how awful that life is? Of course I know there are clever people, and people of taste in that set, but they're swamped and spoiled, and it's the same thing in the end; empty, empty! Oh! I suppose I'm exaggerating, and I did make friends and have some happy times; but that's how I feel after it all. The seasons in New York and London—how I hated them! And our house-parties and cruises in the yacht and the rest—the same people, the same emptiness. " Has much changed in a century?