'Do you honestly think the YouTube generation is remotely interested

October 19, 2007

I don't quite know how to say this. The thing is, we're just not getting on any more. I don't know why. The spark seems to have gone out of our relationship. We've let things limp along when it would have been better to make a clean break. So it's time to say goodbye. We've had some laughs. Je ne regrette rien and all that. But really, this is the end. We need to move on.

This is the 21st century. No one believes in education any more. Certainly not the Government, which, having heard that ignorance is bliss, has decided that must be the way to keep the electorate happy. And certainly not the vice-chancellor who said that he hardly ever goes to work. "I don't give a shit about the system," he declared. "I've got my villa and when I retire they will buy me a house." He should be on that programme, what's it called? You can't fire me, I haven't finished robbing the till yet. Or something like that anyway.

We believe in different things. As it says in the song, you say potato, I say patattah. Take the other night. You said that liberal humanism was dead. That it belonged to a moment in history that's gone. Do you remember? You got quite heated. "Things change," you shouted. "We can't compete in a global economy if the future workforce has its head stuffed full of literature and history and all that nonsense. What people need is skills training. Look around. Do you honestly think the YouTube generation, hooked on Grand Theft Auto , is remotely interested in Wordsworth and his bloody daffodils?"

You spoke with such belief, such conviction. I wanted to say that it is not an either/or situation. That you can read philosophy and spend your days doing spreadsheets, although a spot of Aristotle may make you want to ask if your existence has any higher purpose. And, if nothing else, knowing a few dates might come in handy should you ever get to go on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The quiz show seems to be the only place where knowing who was the author of Hard Times seems to matter. What the novel says needn't concern us because it was written in the 19th century. Imagine if someone decided the laws of gravity were out of date just because they were written in the 17th.

In fact, I wanted to ask if you are sure, really sure, that things have changed that much. On the surface, yes. We can now get quiz shows on 70 channels instead of just three. But underneath, aren't things the same? What am I saying? Of course they're not. They're going backwards. The gap between rich and poor is now what it was in the 1930s.

And let's not forget the about-turn on democracy. We're not quite back with rotten boroughs but I'm sure we will make it with a little more effort. Gordon Brown is doing his best, scrapping regional assemblies and handing the power to business. Our rulers, in fact, seem to be regressing to the early Victorian period when privatisation was believed to be the solution to all society's problems. How dare some interfering busybodies seek to curb child labour? Don't they know it will reduce productivity and make Britain less competitive?

Still, it's good to know that some things remain the same. Not just ignorance and stupidity but also class. However you measure it - land ownership, the dominance of Oxbridge in politics, business, education and the media - class is the twisted spine of British society. And those at the top mean to keep it that way. That's why they don't want to extend the kind of education they have had to the thousands of students they persuade to go to university each year.

Don't teach them history because then they will see what we're up to. Don't teach them literature because then they might start expressing themselves. And just to be on the safe side, let's plunge them into debt so they'll be too busy worrying about money to care for anything else. God may have made idiots for practice before creating Government ministers, but it doesn't do to underestimate either.

All these things I would have said. But couldn't find the words. And what would have been the point? We always found it hard to communicate and now it's too late. Still, I would like to say just one thing and that is...

Editor's note: This column is unfinished. Before the author could continue he was taken away. The poor man was clearly suffering from some delusions about the state of society and education. That's what happens if you start thinking. Let it be a lesson to us all.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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