Don't rubbish post-92s' efforts 1

August 15, 2003

It is not easy to decide whether Charles Pasternak's rumbustious attitude is more entertaining than his hilariously inept argumentation ("Curiosity made us great, but it's waning in the West", THES , August 8).

Ostensibly, he wishes to warn of the possibility that by the end of this century the West may have been intellectually outstripped by the East. He urges us to mend our ways, and seems to assume that the East will not in time emulate our sluggish habits. It's all highly speculative.

Inadequately obscured by this hot air is a snobbish tirade against newer universities in favour of older ones. In the former, we are told: "The students... are taking courses not in philosophy or physics, but in packaging, pig enterprise management and popular music studies; their teachers hold professorships not in linguistics or law, but in leather technology and leisure management." These disjunctions are untenable. There are, for example, internationally known philosophers at Middlesex and golf course management studies at Birmingham.

Pasternak laments that "university graduates are barely able to write a coherent essay". He declares that "so far, dumbing down has not infiltrated pockets of genuine learning such as Harvard, Heidelberg and Oxford". But if authorial coherence is the criterion, I can testify that I have examined doctoral theses in older universities that are dumbed down. Furthermore, in terms of the rigour of their research-degree regulations, some new universities put some older ones in the shade.

Pasternak pronounces: "It is folly to imagine that a professor at Bristol or Cambridge has no more intellectual clout than one at Bournemouth or Coventry." But if all four professors are internationally recognised in their various fields, surely only the blinkered would fail to value them equally. Conversely, are there no professors in older institutions who, after the bright start that got them the job, have gone off the boil or even fizzled out altogether?

Two exhortations conclude the diatribe. First, Pasternak writes: "Let us stop deluding ourselves that the questing nature of man is present in all to the same degree." Of course it is not. But whereas Pasternak employs this platitude to bolster his view that a lot of students ought not to be in universities, it is possible and more accurate to suggest that many students in new universities, grateful for the opportunity, exhibit more signs of the intellectual quest than some students elsewhere who swan through their three-year adolescent rite of passage.

Finally: "Let us enthuse all our young with a search for knowledge." By all means, but let us do it without rubbishing the efforts and achievements of others. Such behaviour ill becomes one who writes a book with the subtitle The Essence of Humanity .

There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the old binary divide - which makes the use of that term increasingly inappropriate, and demands subtler arguments than those advanced by Pasternak.

Alan P. F. Sell
Milton Keynes

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