Grayling’s enterprise

When AC Grayling announced his London-based New College of the Humanities, I didn’t think much about it, truth be told. it was in England, which has a quirky way of doing things, education-wise, and it just wasn’t on my radar. Some people lauded the effort, but the majority thought on it seems to be that Grayling’s private college, with its tuition somewhere around £18,000 a year (which, if you think about the traditional 2 for 1 ratio the pound seems to have, is about on a par with private universities in the US), is downright wrong, largely because it allows the British government to point to it and say ‘see? we can stop supporting the universities so much.’ Grayling’s response, as one would expect, says that the NCH isn’t going to stop the government from defunding higher education.  Both Grayling and his critics are right, and they are both wrong.

Let’s start with what his critics got right. One states that students who ‘should have gotten into Oxbridge’ (‘Oxbridge’ being an amalgam of Oxford and Cambridge) are the target audience for NCH. That’s sort of like saying the students who ‘should have gotten in to Harvale (you’ll figure it out). The problem with this is that there are other many fine schools in England (the University of London comes to mind for me), and what about those schools? Is Oxbridge the end all, be all? Should it be? But like the Ivies in the states (and a few others, such as Berkeley), the cachet is irresistible. The same critic adds that an NCH degree will look, in her words, ‘bought and paid for.’ Certainly, there is an element of the old boys’ club to that sort of thing, but unlike, say, Yale, there’s no history of legacy admitting at NCH. It’d take a while to get there (200 years sounds about right). Another critic finds the whole enterprise ‘odious’ because the price tag means poorer students will have no chance. It’s a fine point (although strongly worded), but the same can be said for many state schools on this side of the pond. With state support being cut, tuitions are climbing higher and higher…the UC system has topped the $10,000 mark, and while some state schools still remain affordable, the figures from 2004 are simply pipe dreams now. Access is being restricted across the US, largely because schools are finding it necessary to raise tuition at rates far above inflation simply to cover the staggering loss of state funds. For instance, in my small corner of the world, our state funding was cut nearly 80% in one year. There are only so many ways to make up for such losses, and tuition is one of them (perhaps the easiest one, but at some point, even that will break). The letter in the Guardian from University of London faculty argues that in the face of such cuts, academics have to stick together, and the mere fact that the NCH exists gives politicians an ‘out’, if you will, in supporting education.

Grayling’s response, that the economic and political reality is that funding is going to get cut, and he wasn’t going to wait around for the education system to collapse, is certainly forward-thinking. He’s right — the ‘chronic underfunding’ of higher education has been going on for years; the recent economic crisis in many countries around the world has simply accelerated the process.

What remains unspoken, in both the critics’ and Grayling’s letters, is that the humanities have become something of a target. How many times do we in the humanities have to hear some variation of ‘the humanities cost more than they bring in’ (despite the fact that it’s a flat out lie, mind you)? The skills we teach — critical thinking, argumentation, cogent writing and an understanding of how we got here — are vitally important, but undervalued. The NCH is an attempt to change that view, to put the humanities, such as they are, back on the map.  While I don’t know that I agree with the way Grayling is going about it, I do sympathize with the impetus behind his plans. Cultural knowledge, the kind fostered by the study of history, classics, and philosophy, has declined.

Certainly, in a globalized world, only knowing the history of the West is a bit narrow. But it’s still something that should be taught. I find myself dismayed at the lack of historical knowledge my students bring to the classroom (or don’t bring, as the case may be). They know about WWII, but they have no real idea, other than ‘Hitler was a bad guy’, what the causes were. They know that there was a USSR, but don’t know how or why it collapsed. They know China is an economic powerhouse, but don’t understand the role of communism (both positive and negative) in that expansion. And although they know that India is a cheap place for call centers, they have no idea why that might be. When I ask my students to research a topic in American history between 1492 and 1865, I get asked if it’s okay to research the Civil Rights Movement. In my writing classes, not a single student can look at a sentence and tell me what the parts of it are.  They don’t know an adverb from an adjective. Heck, I learned that watching Saturday morning cartoons (hello, Schoolhouse Rocks)! So I understand where Grayling is coming from.

And by the way, sir, you don’t have any openings for someone who enjoys teaching, and loves history, do you? Because I’m looking.

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 10:09 am  Leave a Comment  

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