Broader is better for Scots

The Revival of the Democratic Intellect
October 13, 1995

The central theme of Andrew Lockhart Walker's book is an excellent one: it challenges Scottish higher education to rediscover its generalist roots, for both pragmatic and ethical reasons.

The expansion of knowledge calls not for increased specialisation, he argues, but for a three-year general degree covering both arts and science, to be followed, where necessary, by a specialist two-year honours degree.

This, he claims, will not only produce the sort of graduates that today's employers need, but the generalist, philosophical approach which characterised Scottish education until the 19th century goes hand in glove with a democratic principle of access.

The title suggests a follow-up to George Davie's The Democratic Intellect and The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect. But Davie's eloquent concern about the stultifying effect of anglophile university reform has turned here into an anti-English rant.

This leads Walker into absurd contentions. He notes the longstanding hostility to higher education devolution from the traditional universities, and concludes: "Can any reader doubt that the English majority on all university bodies, and even in AUT Scotland, is the principal reason for this quite extraordinary position? Had there been a majority of Scots it is all but certain that repatriation would have been preferred."

Not that certain. One of the most ardent supporters of devolution was the English principal of Strathclyde University, Graham Hills, while one of the strongest opponents was the Scottish principal of Aberdeen, George McNicol.

Welshman Alwyn Williams, principal of Glasgow University, was on the Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Council which proposed a Scottish planning and funding body, but his university opposed funding devolution, although Walker himself acknowledges that Glasgow is the most Scottish of Scottish universities.

Scotland, with 9 per cent of the British population, has 12.6 per cent of fulltime higher education places, partly because of its higher participation rates.

There is no solid evidence that English students are being imported at the expense of qualified Scots applicants. But Walker believes the proportion of English should not exceed 10 per cent in any institution, and wants a long-term appointments policy to cut the number of English staff, which would presumably concern the Commission for Racial Equality.

In one bizarre footnote, he quotes his son, "not an intolerant young man", phoning home after his first two months at Edinburgh University to demand "Where do all the Yahs come from?", and going on to reveal the existence of Scots-English graffiti wars.

According to Walker: "Any bad feeling that may develop is not the result of 'nationalism' but of the unthinking policies of university leaders, and they would bear full responsibility."

One of the major differences between England and Scotland at present is that issues of national and cultural identity, the preserve of the academic community south of the border, underpin a much wider public debate in the north. Walker states that he wants to be part of this debate, but a general reader will be utterly baffled by bald references to "Halsey and Trow" , "R. Houston" and "R. H. Campbell".

A tougher "Who he? Ed" line from the publishers would have helped the reader to assess the relative values of a bewildering range of sources. These include Francis Jeffrey's evidence to the 1826 Universities (Scotland) Commission, newspaper cuttings, and comedian John Sessions's view of the difference between English and Scottish comedy. The scissors-and-paste approach often makes it difficult to distinguish between a quote, Walker's gloss and his independent comment.

Walker's polemic clearly springs from genuine passion rather than sophistry. It is a pity that he has not channelled his fervour in a less xenophobic way.

Olga Wojtas is Scottish editor, The THES.

The Revival of the Democratic Intellect

Author - Andrew Lockhart Walker
ISBN - 0 7486 6188 3
Publisher - Polygon
Price - £13.95
Pages - 382

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