Friday, 27 October 2017

All The Noose That's Fit To Print

One of the disputed joys of being an academic is the constant self-criticism. Whatever the field, academics hold that claims are contingent: we get attached to our current interpretations while hoping for new ones. We live in a state of professional doubt in the best possible sense, knowing that there's always more we could be reading, teaching and thinking about. The down side of this, perhaps more pointedly for those of an Eeyorish disposition, is the concomitant feeling of inadequacy. 75 years is not enough time to get through all the primary texts, let alone understand the critical theory sufficiently. And that's not counting all that time spent sitting on Review of Reviews committees (I kid you not).

My point is that this week's furores (furora? furori?) over Oxford and Cambridge's white posh intake and white literature curriculum are both welcome and vile. The obvious temptation from my end of the see-saw is a smug feeling of superiority: my institution's BME intake is roughly 40%, whereas some Oxford and Cambridge colleges haven't accepted more than one or two black students in 15 years. My curriculum, too, is diverse: we're teaching works by Equiano, Bernardine Evaristo, Monica Ali, Ralph Ellison, Gil Scott-Heron, Armistead Maupin and Jackie Kay just in the next few weeks, while postcolonial and queer readings inform our discussions of canonical texts as a matter of course.

But on the principle that academics are never allowed nice things, there's no reason for this smugness. One could quite easily see our diverse student intake as a property of structural racism: educational and employment outcomes are poor for BME groups, as is access to 'élite' higher education institutions, which means that we benefit from society's dysfunction because we have a mission to widen participation and they clearly don't. There's also the issue of the white curriculum: I have friends and acquaintances in Cambridge and Oxford faculties who are horrified at the accusation that they are individually or collectively racist, and who lead the field in theoretical diversity: Priyamvada Gopal, who has been monitored by the Telegraph and the Mail is a shining light of our discipline. It's also true, though, that blaming social failure (such as the secondary school system) feels like a cop-out. If my colleagues and I work hard to develop our curriculum despite being well ahead of these so-called elite institutions, we need more recognition from them that there really is a problem. In my more mean-spirited moments I wonder if Cambridge and Oxford will soon reach a point of equilibrium at which the number of BME students will equal the number of BME-authored texts on the curriculum.

What brings us together, however, is the lynch mob mentality of the Telegraph and the Mail. Hearing of a request from students for faculty to widen the English canon, they used it as the opportunity to indulge in a bit of Black Panic: while the online version of the story has been hurriedly altered, the Telegraph used the term 'forced' and pointedly used a portrait of Cambridge University Students' Union Women's Officer Lola Olufemi to evoke Confederate-era fears of a slave rebellion.

I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of links to an article outraged at the idea of asking students to read texts by black people with one robustly defending academic freedom:

The Mail, meanwhile, having spent recent years mocking students' perceived opposition to free speech, decided to add university lecturers to the list of Enemies of the People, aided by an epistoholic Tory MP who apparently dropped out of my very own university and devoted the rest of his career to persecuting anyone using polysyllabic words.

Funny how cultural position changes your perception: I look at that list of 'Lefties' and see some rich white liberals who have sold out by accepting jobs looking after most rich white kids: not many socialists think that taking a mansion and lots of cash from a massively rich training ground for the social and political elite (50% of whom come from the 7% of privately-educated children) is an act of insurrection. Although their students will be suffering some of the same individual hardships mine face, I very much doubt that many of them will submit work late due to homelessness, deportation, hunger or poverty, as happens here fairly regularly. Much as I admire Rowan Williams's literary criticism, for instance, or Will Hutton's economic analysis, I see their jobs as the Establishment's gold watch for good and faithful servants who haven't said or done anything to scare the hedgies or hunters. But perhaps that's the politics of envy talking…

Not being in the direct firing line means that I've had a lot of fun teasing Heaton-Harris, the Mail and the Telegraph but it isn't really a laughing matter. These unaccountable organs, owned and run by offshore shell companies for the benefit of tax-avoiding barons, are spending an awful lot of time hunting down people who think of themselves as public servants, and they're going for women and ethnic minorities first. The differences between me in my ex-poly and them in their medieval quads are nothing compared with moneyed racist élite and the ordinary people whom they're attempting to whip up into a xenophobic, mean-minded fury.

Universities and the people who constitute them are meant to be critical: of social structures, of cultural instruments, and of themselves. Sometimes we fail to be self-critical enough (out teaching body and management cadre looks nothing like the student body, for instance) and sometimes our obsessions with critique seem esoteric or frivolous, but far from being negative, critique speaks of a belief in progress and improvement, as John Stuart Mill knew:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
The Mail and the Telegraph are pigs. They believe that they've achieved the right answers to pretty much every question, and are satisfied. Once such an attitude is adopted, its proponents start to draw up lists. Earlier this year it was judges. This week it's black intellectual
women and Remain-supporting academics. Who knows who will be next? It certainly won't be rich white newspaper-owners.

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