Gary Day

July 11, 2003

Dumbing down, quantity versus quality? If you feel a Victor Meldrew coming on, remind yourself it's not the world that's decaying, it's you

Either Russell Grant or some group of policy advisers - the difference is immaterial - has predicted a rise in student numbers. Does this mean the government will build more universities? They're always building new prisons. Perhaps they could combine the two: the students could teach the prisoners to read and the prisoners could teach the students to rob so they can clear their debts more quickly. The scheme would save the government money, rehabilitate wrongdoers and give students new skills. Above all, it would show that Labour cared.

And right now it's worried that some corporations are forcing us to retire at 65. The very idea that I should be marched off campus and onto the Saga bus before I've finalised my contribution to civilisation in the shape of the perfect module evaluation form is part of the sea of troubles against which the PM is to take arms. I've never quite understood how you can take arms against a sea of troubles, unless it means you use them to swim, but I don't think that's what Hamlet had in mind. It's turning over things like that, you know, that keeps me interested in life.

Still, all this talk about scrapping the compulsory retirement age made me think about the signs of old age. Yawning, repeating yourself and deciding there's nothing wrong with elasticated trousers. For men, it's also hair cascading out of their nose and ears, which is too high a price to pay for the wisdom that years supposedly bring.

But one infallible sign of age, for both sexes, is the urge to go on about how much better things were in the past. To which I say: how can we know when we can't even remember why we've just come into the kitchen?

I mention this because of the dumbing-down debate that featured in a recent conference organised by the Institute of Ideas. A lot of people were very upset that the proles needed help in adjusting to the demands of higher education because this impacted on standards. But they had no clear idea of what these standards were.

One person bemoaned the Harry Potter phenomenon, another applauded it. A professor of sociology was scornful that students at his university got a 2:1 if they could spell dialectical. An Oxbridge don asked what dialectical was. OK, I made that last bit up. But it was the old, old story. The wine of life is drawn and we are left with the mere lees.

Once there was Dusty Springfield and now there's the Cheeky Girls. The argument is fatally attractive but best avoided. Whenever I feel a Victor Meldrew coming on I try to remember that it's not the world that's decaying, it's me. Usually to no avail, I might add, for who can bear very much reality, especially when it comes in the form of cellulite and wrinkles?

The truth is that we can't tell what the truth is about standards. The evidence is contradictory. Take books: more people are buying them than ever before but, apparently, they are not reading them.

Or what about television? On the one hand, the number of people watching current affairs programmes has risen in recent years from 55 per cent to 67 per cent. On the other hand, the number of current affairs programmes has declined, their place being taken by soap operas, which have gone up 25 per cent, while game shows, hobbies and leisure programmes have increased from 3 per cent to per cent.

One survey says that fewer people are attending cultural events, another that those visiting art galleries and museums is growing steadily. Over the past century, IQ has increased by an average of three percentage points and the English no longer consider it their patriotic duty to be anti-intellectual. Quite the contrary, research by Publicis has found that we consider it cool to be smart.

"Yes, but," I can hear someone say, "the dumbing-down debate isn't about quantity, it's about quality." Well I'm not sure it is. The wonders of nature can be expressed as equations. If it weren't for mathematics, we wouldn't have the Milky Way. Quantity and quality go together like high and popular culture. The relationship is not a binary opposition, it's dialectical. The same applies to the past and the present.

By today's standards, life in ye olden dayes was not all that pleasant.

Sure the Greeks had Plato, but they also had slavery. More people now have access to higher education than ever before, and they can vote too. Of course things aren't perfect. We may no longer burn people at the stake, but we do have the Fast Food Rockers. Quick, let's have those new universities.

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

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