Gary Day

May 23, 2003

As it cosies up to corporate culture, this government is losing sight of what is true and valuable

Drat that Charles Clarke. Why couldn't he have kept his mouth shut and let everyone think he was intelligent? I don't want to write about him. I want to write about these strange emails I keep getting at work. Do I want bigger breasts? Would I like to meet faithful and grateful women? And would I like my septic tank cleaned?

Life. It's so difficult to keep it at arm's length, isn't it? Someone called Tom keeps asking if I want to burn CDs. Well Tom, if you're reading this, no I don't. Why would I want to torch my Andy Williams CDs? I know they're not everyone's glass of rose but this is still a free country and if I want to sing along to Can't Take my Eyes off You I jolly well will.

Actually it's not a free country. The government can't take its eyes off us. I suppose that's how "Tom" knows about my CD collection and why he suggests I consign it to the flames. It is his way of telling me to modernise.

How does spam get through anyway? It's a different story when I try to use the web. Instantly my screen flashes a warning that the Robert Tressell home page is a forbidden site and that university policy does not permit the viewing of pornographic material. All that's missing is the helicopter hovering outside the window.

I tell you I have had it with electronic communication. An email arrives from a galaxy far, far away. It's a form to complete. I fill it in and return it within ten minutes, feeling mighty pleased that I've done some real work for a change instead of research or teaching. If only I could rouse myself to do more administration, I might one day be a professor. Then I panic.

Whoever sent that email may think I can't be very busy if I dealt with it so promptly. Sure enough another email arrives, not, thankfully, asking me to account for how I spend my time, though no doubt that will come, but an office-friendly request to print a hard copy of the form, sign it and put it in the appropriate pigeonhole.

"Why?" Because they need my signature. "Why?" So they know it's me who's filled out the form. But they know that already because it's come from my email address. Yes, but someone could have discovered my password and be using my email.

"Do you really think that someone who goes to the trouble of hacking into my email would do so in order to fill out forms?"

"It's possible."

"You mean that someone could be impersonating me?"

"Yes."

"Why on earth would anyone want to do that? I don't even want to be me.

Especially today."

But my attempts to lighten the tone are met with frigid silence. The form must be printed and signed. Naturally the printer now doesn't respond and no one can fix it until next week. That's what happens when you try to be efficient.

Back to Mr Clarke. Like the Prince of Wales he's given to making a bit of a Charlie of himself when he opens his mouth. He caused a stir a couple of weeks ago when he said that we didn't really need medieval historians.

Except he didn't say that. He was misquoted. Hey, it happens. What he actually said was far worse. That if universities want state funding then, by golly, they had better do as they are told or, as he more delicately put it, "assist in the process of change". The Right Honourable Gentleman declined to say what kind of change. He isn't concerned with such matters.

And he doesn't want universities to be either. No thinking please. We're new Labour.

The secretary of state for education is not that keen on truth either, which should endear him to the postmodernists. Not that he dismisses it altogether, otherwise he wouldn't get so upset when he's misquoted. And he is prepared to support "one", only one mind, "university of medieval seekers after truth - as an adornment to our society". Truth as an embellishment, eh? Well, it makes a change from embellishing the truth.

If you cosy up to corporate culture as this government does, then you lose sight of what is true and valuable. "Money," wrote William Langland in 1379, "smiles on falsehood and tramples on truth." And the truth is Mr Clarke doesn't want universities to produce critical citizens, he wants them to "benefit the economy", a euphemism for growing inequality and collapsing public services. But who cares about that when you can get "one acre of land on the moon", or a "non-prescription herbal enlargement formula for men"? It's enough to make you cry, "I'm an academic. Get me out of here!"

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

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