Gary Day

January 12, 2007

Life, they say, is in the details. In the small things. This could be because it is true or because the English are not capable of thinking big. No, that's unfair. They are capable of thinking big. About small things. Look at quality assurance. Look at teaching and learning. The bodies set up to focus on such matters institutionalise the anti-intellectualism on which this country prides itself. What John Stuart Mill called "the absence of enlarged thought" in English life is also related to the nature of capitalism. The division of labour in the factory becomes the culture of specialism in the university. Both the worker and the expert suffer from not seeing the whole of which they are a part. And neither does the student, whose thinking is fragmented by modularity "Only connect," says the artist; "only disconnect," says the bureaucrat.

But of course, he or she doesn't say it with quite such brevity. The economist tries to control inflation, the official to enter it for the 3.30 at Kempton. Why use one word when you can use a thousand? Take the example of Halton Borough Council. They spawned a 630-word sentence advising the public of their plans to move a path from one place to another. Verbal incontinence is a sign that civilisation has entered its dotage. The Lord's Prayer contains 69 words. The American Declaration of Independence 310 words. And the European Union Directive on exporting duck eggs contains 28,911 words. But, as Shakespeare reminds us, this is not a new problem. The schoolmaster Holofernes in Love's Labours Lost complains that an author "draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument".

Which brings me nicely to the subject of this month's reflection, staples. No, don't stop reading. Staples are fun. Annoy auditors by using them to fix your papers in the wrong order. Staples provoke some lively discussion on the net. Which are better, staples or paperclips? What is the biggest thing you have ever stapled to your ear? A horse. Is it all right to drop a stapler on someone smoking beneath your window? Yes. You can even use the stapler to close the wound you have inflicted. Its versatility makes it indispensable. And it is probably the only implement, and that includes the brain, in the entire higher education sector capable of connecting one idea with another.

Staples themselves are small. But so are subatomic particles, genes and me. Not all staples are tiny. The first sight that greets you on entering Telford is a tower displaying, in big red letters, the word "Staples". It is the name of a big company that supplies everything you need for the office. Indeed, if we investigate the history of the word, we find that it has a close connection with commerce. It derives from the Old French word " estaple ", meaning market, and the Old German " Stapel ", meaning an orderly heap of goods or stores. In Old English, it meant posts or pillars marking out an area of buying and selling, and it was also applied to those towns appointed by the king as centres of trade. The merchants there were granted a monopoly in the import and export of staple commodities such as wool, tin and lead. It is from such beginnings that Britain has grown to become the fourth-largest economy in the world, while also boasting one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe.

The stapler's association with commerce and its capacity to connect make it the most venerable object on an academic's desk. On this humble wire so much depends. It is like the nail in the nursery rhyme. "For want of a staple the form was lost./ For want of a form the grant was lost./ For want of a grant the book was lost./ For want of a book the notion was lost./ For want of a notion the revolution was lost./ And all for the want of a U-shaped staple."

But none of this is any reason for The Times Higher to put one through its midriff. What is the world coming to when a formerly respectable publication suddenly goes in for body piercing? Is this a desperate attempt to appeal to younger readers? What next? Editorials written in rap? Staples are all very well in their place, but that place is not the foreheads of prominent academics. It makes them look as if they are recovering from an experiment by Dr Frankenstein or are victims of voodoo. Frankly, I'm surprised readers haven't sued for damaged fingers, shredded as they try to retrieve articles for their files. So may I suggest a new year's resolution for the paper? The word is staple enough. Do not seek to make it metal. My own resolution is what it always is. To think of higher things.

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

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