A healthy society needs maggots in the cheese

October 29, 2004

Universities must ensure that students reflect on the social impact of their actions, argues Richard Hoggart

In the past 30 years or so, many British universities have changed character. They have become more strictly functional, purposeful, vocational; in short, meritocratic. Their aim is to reinforce and extend society as it is.

Many of the big provincial universities began life in the 19th century in response to the needs of local industry - Leeds for textiles, for example. But they knew the word "university" meant more than that and soon established departments in the humanities. It is only a few decades since their vice-chancellors, while primus inter pares, were also national proconsuls, chairmen of many committees on subjects of public importance.

Nowadays, the pressures of the time have more often produced scientific or technological vice-chancellors (or good fund-raisers). The humanities are therefore less valued; they do not cost much and are not much thought of.

Education for life and for a well-nourished sense of social purposes is increasingly yielding to training for function.

Look at only one activity, by now a century and a half old: the decision by universities to go extramural and offer their subjects - especially the humanities - to people in the society all around them. That splendid tradition, matured by the magnificent R. H. Tawney, is now under sustained attack and is invited to save what it can by becoming more functional and offering classes -not "for the love of God and the relief of man's estate" but for marketable certificates - or to die.

Most universities should look again at their wider fundamental purposes. A university that does not value the humanities equally with the sciences and technologies is on the way to becoming, in any true sense, not a university at all. Not a polytechnic; more than that - a super-polytechnic. To adopt that title would not diminish its status, but more properly define it.

The late Irving Howe saw this change in American universities and argued that, properly conceived, they should stand for a "substantive social morality". Howe was saying that a university should not only service its society but should cast a critical eye on all aspects of that society.

Are we getting close to the idea that students of science or technology should be required to take a course in philosophy? No - that is very difficult to manage because it starts with opposition from most staff and inattention from students. We can do better than that, and the recipe, though it will demand new thinking from academic staff, is clear.

Every degree course, in whatever subject, should contain elements that require students to consider the relationships of that course with the society they will soon serve. To take two obvious examples: medicine and education. In how many schools of medicine are students required to look critically at the two-tier system of health provision in the UK? In how many schools of education are students required to look critically at our two-tier educational system?

And in the technologies generally? It is to be hoped that students of architecture are asked to consider the lessons of the Sixties tower blocks.

And the pure sciences? I met two young chemistry graduates. She worked in a factory producing cheap perfumes, he promoted chemically enhanced bar snacks. They seemed not to have questioned the line "chemistry degree to questionable product". They are free to make their own choices, but they should be equipped to do so thoughtfully.

The humanities? Not long ago, I gave a lecture at the British Museum about its external connections. Many of the staff present seemed uneasy or uninterested. The worst instance of a tendency to uncritical thinking I know came from a department of journalism. The professor in charge said the courses did not raise moral issues, as staff needed all the available time to provide "training for the job" - obviously as it is at present. That is, to leave graduates ill equipped for a profession in which most days they will be faced precisely with moral questions.

The late Charles Frankel, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, insisted on lecturing not only to graduates but also to first-year students, because "part of my job from the start is to put maggots in the cheese of American society". Back to Howe and his "substantive social morality".

But they will say there is no time to insert any new element into their courses. They always say that, and they always find time for what they value. I am asking them to value this change of approach. Otherwise, they will remain the reinforcers of present trends good and bad - but more bad than good.

Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy , was warden of Goldsmiths College, London, from 1976 to 1984.

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