Requiem for lost optimism

Alan Ryan muses on the naive vigour of higher education in the Sixties.

January 10, 2008

It is well-known that the Golden Age ended - well, it's not clear when, but either the year before you were born, or the year before your parents were born, or the Saturday after the darts team last thrashed The Old Mill. For undergraduates it has always ended the term before they arrived at university, and for faculty the year before they were appointed. Or is that quite true?

I think my generation - the people who began their careers in the early 1960s - are something of an exception. Our notorious grumpiness owes less to the fact that academic life was wonderful when we started work than to the fact that it was going to be wonderful: we were promised a Golden Age that never quite materialised but one we saw in tantalising glimpses, trailers of Utopia.

Anyone in 1962 would have found it hard to think of the 1950s as golden years for someone working in a university. Redbrick universities were stuffy and hierarchical, full of people who'd laboured slowly up the ladder from assistant lecturer to lecturer and possibly to senior lecturer; many had endured two or three stints as untenured assistant lecturers, reappointed every three years until some older member of the department dropped off the perch or retired to tend his cabbages and they could step on to the bottom rung of the lecturership scale.

When such people became professors, they were notably unsympathetic to their juniors and often soured of university life in general.

The University of Oxford was agreeable enough, but the undergraduate syllabus was astonishingly old-fashioned, and its chief merit was that it didn't unduly get in the way of getting an education from other sources.

When the Robbins report proposed the creation of a dozen new universities, we assumed that the brightest faculty and the best new students would abandon Oxbridge and head for the University of Brighton. Why would anyone teach in a place where it took 15 years to change a special subject paper, and why would anyone study in a place that was so frightened of the new social sciences?

All my tutors headed for the south coast, and immediately after graduating I headed off to Keele University, which was - all too briefly - a really serious American liberal arts college that had mysteriously been parked on a hillside outside Stoke-on-Trent. It was no accident that we had twinning arrangements with Swarthmore College and Reed College, nor that visiting faculty had a habit of staying for ever.

How golden was it? Impossible to say, as we certainly had a severe case of the overoptimism of inexperience. The effect of the great expansion of the early 1960s was that the average age of the faculty in the new universities was astonishingly low.

When I got to the University of Essex in 1966, the oldest person on the campus was 42 - the vice-chancellor. Nowadays, universities are terrified of giving young people power; then, the assumption was that if you hadn't got a chair by 30 you weren't trying. It made for a certain amount of nonsense; because we had been bored by our own education we tried to teach unprepared freshers the latest thing that had turned us on and were terribly upset when they balked at absorbing Althusser in their first term.

Nonetheless, there was one thing that it is hard not to miss. "This is your university," the founding vice-chancellor Albert Sloman told the incoming Essex students. "You must make of it what you wish."

Of course, three quarters of them had no idea what a university might be for, and half of them had applied to other universities and had been swept up in clearing, and most of them just hoped that there might be a decent job at the end of this mysterious process. But they did pick up the idea that they had been liberated from the constraints of school, family and locality and were now free to build themselves a life of their own.

We may have been - we certainly were - pretty naive about what resources we took for granted and our brand-new students lacked; but the project itself was not be sneered at.

The contemporary obsession with turning out students who are ready to do their employers' bidding lacks the charm of the promise of liberation. What, after all, is the point of being "employer-ready"? Certainly, it's hard to build yourself a life if you are unemployed, homeless and hungry; but it's not obvious that you will build a more interesting life merely by being the compliant, efficient, uncomplaining wage slave who is the summit of the new Labour ideal.

Since we now propose to keep everyone at school until they are 18, then send most of them on to further training until they are 22, we ought to have a more interesting story than we do have about what all this preparation is for. Forty years ago, we had lots; perhaps the Golden Age was that brief moment before we discovered their flaws.

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