Gary Day

January 2, 2004

Intellectual battles should mean stimulating encounters with students rather than colleagues cutting one another in corridors

It used to be quite common for people in English departments not to talk to one another. I believe F. R. Leavis started the trend at Cambridge University in the 1920s when he attacked F. L. Lucas, whose crime was to be condescending about T. S. Eliot. It was far better, he said, for undergraduates to lay back in a punt than to worry over the meaning of The Wasteland . Leavis was incensed because he thought literature was something you should take very seriously, rather like the advice on medicine bottles.

Life being what it is, he was to be denounced years later for not being serious enough. Up-and-coming critics, who are now on the verge of retirement, pilloried him because he thought Shakespeare was part of a common culture instead of a tool of oppression who kept women, the working class, gays and ethnic minorities in their place.

We now live in an altogether more sociable age. Why, our department even went out for Christmas lunch. It has to be said that there are few more grim sights than a party of English lecturers setting out to enjoy themselves, but we managed. The fact that there were no paper hats helped.

I don't know why, but the sight of colleagues' heads ablaze with yellow, purple and green fills me with gloom, even if they're worn at a rakish angle.

At first it seemed as if fun was a distant goal. No one had any gossip or scandal. Then, for reasons I can't recall, someone stood up and showed their shoes to the rest of the company. Soon everyone was doing it, though without any clear idea of why. In a way it was a baring of souls. With some it was a very quick baring as their balance was not all it might have been after several glasses of wine. It must have looked like a strange Masonic rite to the other diners, who seemed to melt quickly away, leaving us in sole possession of the premises.

Yes, life is more sociable now. And secure too. You feel looked after. The Quality Assurance Agency tells you what standards are and even offers useful tips on how to conduct yourself in meetings. "Don't keep your thoughts to yourself", it advises, and "check that you don't ramble". "But I'm a professor," a friend complained, "I'm supposed to ramble." But if we are cautioned to be more alert, is it all in vain if the students are getting dimmer?

Ah yes, students. Are they getting dimmer? One recently asked a colleague if he was the author of the medieval morality play Everyman . A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to some sixthformers about the hero in Captain Corelli's Mandolin , the novel critics love to hate. I thought I'd done a reasonable job but I hadn't reckoned with my audience. "What's a mandolin?" asked an A2 English student. You hear it all the time. Students don't know anything.

They don't read and they can't write. But isn't it just that, as we get older, the gap between us and the students widens, giving the illusion that they know far less when, in fact, it's us who know far more - and that's very little?

Worryingly, there's a new breed abroad who have little patience with such thinking. They are unashamed elitists who are appalled that more people are going to university now than ever before. What particularly offends these products of privilege is that the comprehensive pupil, who did not have access to the best teachers and a well-stocked library, may need support in adjusting to a university environment. It is obscene to witness those who have had every advantage pouring contempt on those who have had none.

They don't allow for the fact that students are changed by what they learn.

And staff too, as I discovered when discussing The Rape of the Lock , Pope's poem about the cutting of a curl from a woman's hair, with students who wear the hijab . The teaching context gave this work a wholly new and unexpected power. The more we are shaken up by such encounters, the more chance there is of creating what Leavis called an "educated public" that would check the power of press and politicians. Yes, he was serious.

These self-styled guardians of higher education have got it wrong. It is not students who are a threat to standards but government bureaucracy, which wants to maintain them at a low level because that's what makes them easier to measure. We can all join in this fight and, in doing so, prove that intellectual battles needn't lead to colleagues cutting one another in the corridor. And if we win, why, we can all go out and celebrate and show each other our footwear.

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

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