Last weekend the Guardian had an interesting article about the New College for the Humanities, some dodgy knock-off rich-kids proto-university in the UK, land of inequality. Apparently it’s being run by someone left-wing, so we have to take it seriously even though it charges 18,000 pounds a year (twice the cost of Oxford) for a humanities education. For my reader(s) who is not familiar with this issue, the college was set up by A.C Grayling (apparently a lefty, apparently a philosopher). His college has a bunch of famous professors like Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson (who lectures precisely two classes a year) and offers the following quality of service:
Every week, [Jamie] goes to 14 hours of lectures and has one hour-long group tutorial, with three students and one tutor, and one hour-long individual tutorial. “We’re expected to do between three and four hours personal study a day. We write a minimum of an essay a week. It is a full-on education. We are being educated actively.”
Let me tell you something, “Jamie”: you’re being ripped off. I did a physics degree, and in first year I had 32 contact hours a week, and at least two assignments. Included in that is my first year English course, so I had to read a novel a week (sometimes Shakespeare) and attend a one hour-long group tutorial, with about 5 students and one tutor. I had three hours of laboratory a week, which (obviously) required special equipment. You can rest assured I didn’t pay 18k pounds a year – actually in 2012 pounds I paid about 1000. Are you sure, “Jamie,” that you’re getting value for money? Incidentally, I was lectured by Paul Davies, so I guess I got famous lecturers for my 1k. What do you think, “Jamie”? Are you doing better for having chosen the New College of the Humanities over some dodgy red-brick or an ex-teacher’s college?
Despite this, the article makes the environment sound fairly good, and certainly it seems like the lecturers and tutors are generally attentive. But the cost keeps being raised, and I can see why – not only is it a lot of money, but there are a lot of people in Britain (i.e. most British people) who really aren’t very wealthy, and for whom 54,000 is completely out of their range (especially since everyone is culturally expected to be up to their eyeballs in housing debt). Now, I’m sympathetic to the argument that poor people choose not to go into debt for education for cultural, rather than financial reasons – they’ll take on huge debt for a dodgy housing investment, that they wouldn’t take on for a reliable education investment, for example – but still, 18000 pounds is pretty damn steep. So I was interested to read AC Grayling’s response to the cost issue. And what did this famous left-wing philosopher say?
“The downside of being educated at someone else’s expense is that you may not value it,” he says. “You may regard it as an entitlement. Unless you are acutely aware of the opportunity that is being offered to you, you may be rather cavalier about it. [You] might not be quite so keen to suck the marrow from it.”
Statements like this leave me simultaneously angry, sick, disappointed and confused. First, let’s make one thing clear: no one in Grayling’s college is being educated at their own expense. No one at the age of 19 – people who have never worked – can afford 18k a year. They’re all being educated at someone else’s expense. Of course, in this case it’s their parents’ expense, but why should that matter? Certainly when I was at university I met a wide variety of people being educated at their parents’ expense, and I can assure you that they were “not quite so keen to suck the marrow from it.” But this was not what Grayling is thinking of when he said this – so much is clear from the context. He was clearly thinking of people being subsidized by the state.
And this is why his statement leaves me angry, sick, disappointed and confused: why is there a difference between the state paying and your own parents paying?
It makes me angry because there are a lot of people out there who are desperate for an education but can’t afford it, and if someone else paid they would snap up the chance. One of my players is from the Dominican Republic, and he finds it amazing that in Japan there are still people who don’t really care about the education they are receiving, because in the Dominican Republic an education is a difficult and precious thing to get and so many people who want it will never get it. Yet somehow Grayling – advanced philosopher that he is – thinks that all those people out there hungering for an education can’t really properly value it because if they did get it would be through someone else’s largesse, thus suddenly their desire is sapped.
It makes me sick because I am one of those people. Abandoned by my parents at 17, with no money and no prospects, I was funded through my education by the state. I appreciated every single fucking minute of it, thank you very much, and I shat all over my private-school educated, parent-funded friends. I fought my way into university, I studied hard, and I loved it. I still remember in first year my private-school-educated “colleagues” openly challenging my high school grades because they didn’t believe a pleb like me could have done so well. Fuck you, you rich fuckers. I beat you every step of the way. Not only was I better than you, but I understood the value of the benefits I was getting from the government. I knew exactly what my “free” education was worth. But here we have some famous, apparently left-wing philosopher recycling this crap about how because the state paid for my education, I didn’t value it? That makes me sick.
It disappoints me because it shows how far the understanding of welfarism and inequality has fallen in the UK – once a beacon of thought on these issues – if supposedly left wing philosophers are spouting this claptrap. What chance have we of addressing the serious inequality issues in the UK if serious educators seriously believe that anyone who is funded by the state to support their education is going to be inherently inferior in attitude to someone who is funded by their parents? What hope for redistributive justice in such an environment?
Finally, it confuses me because, as someone whose parents never helped him out, I can’t understand why receiving fat scads of cash from your parents is okay but getting the same cash from the government is poisonous for your character. I don’t deny the right of parents to pay for their kids’ education, or the fundamental rightness of people supporting their own children, flows of capital through families etc. That’s all fine. But the idea that a person’s character and attitude towards self-improvement (represented, in this instance, by education) should be somehow reduced by being supported by a soix-distant patron, rather than a family member, is just confusing. I mean, it’s all free moolah, right? How come one is character-endangering and one is not? I have never, ever been able to understand this, and I think I’ve never been able to understand it because it is bullshit.
An interesting aspect of our culture is that we make these cultural assertions about how weak and inferior rich kids who receive gifts from their parents really are, but we make policy that benefits those people and encourages that act. So we refer to rich kids as “spoilt princesses,” “trust fund babies,” etc.; but we make policy that is explicitly designed to benefit these people and we make philosophy (apparently) that values their personal achievements more highly, even when those personal achievements were bought not earnt. For example, in Australia everyone can take a university debt; but rich kids’ parents can pay up front, in which case they get a 15% discount. So rich people get exactly the same education as poor people, but pay 15% less for it. So on the one hand society is laughing at these kids for being supported by the mummy bank, but on the other hand society is guaranteeing that those kids and their rich parents pay less for the same product. And then those poor people are meant to thank their all-powerful masters for their beneficence? Or maybe we’re supposed to accept these crumbs of wisdom from people like Grayling, who tells me that even though I paid 20% more than my neighbour for exactly the same product, I value it less because the government, rather than my rich daddy, dropped the money in my lap.
What can I say to this logic? Fuck you, AC Grayling, and your “philosophy.” I didn’t go to your top quality university, but I think I can detect bullshit a lot more easily than you can. But I guess, sitting in your room labeled “Master” after a life of success, you don’t really care how much your bullshit smells to people like me, do you? Is there a word for a philosophy like that?