La Triviata: public discourse is trapped in a downward spiral

Dumbing down threatens our culture, yet a managerialised academy can do nothing to arrest the decline, warns Kevin Sharpe

January 7, 2010

Although it is a depressing observation, it is widely accepted that our public discourse has declined in quantity and quality. Our documentaries are sensationalised; our weekly news covers the winner of (the surely ironically titled) Britain's Got Talent; our water-cooler discussions are about I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!; our review pages are dominated by Jordan's life story.

It is dispiriting to recall that it was not so long ago that working-class culture was also about self-education and improvement, about a genuine concern with public and social issues and, in friendly societies, unions, adult education and workers' reading groups, about informed discussion and the exchange of ideas. The loss of these values among the working classes is a subject that awaits historical analysis.

What is even more of a concern, because we might have expected them to be its guardians, is the decline in public discourse among the so-called "educated classes" - indeed, within university communities across the board. Universities are idealised by many young PhD students hoping for a career as places of open-minded debate (huh! - or should I write, "LOL"?), not only about academic matters but also the urgent political and social questions of our day. At one time the reality bore some resemblance to this ideal. Lecturers at the first university I worked at would sit some days for long coffees and lunches - discussing (as well as their disciplines) novels, exhibitions, travel and other cultures, news.

Today, a managerialised culture and (although I have benefited from it) the research assessment exercise, "quality assurance" (the cruellest of all ironies - as a Harvard University professor said, "quality assurance is only needed when you don't have quality") and the culture of accountability have cut not just dead wood from our universities, but any time for civilised conversation that isn't about meetings, targets or "learning outcomes".

Although thankfully one is surrounded by intelligent and interesting colleagues, it is only in out-of-work time that one can hope for a good discussion with them about - well, ideas.

In the case of students, things are even worse. With a minority of exceptions, they seem to have little experience of such discussions from school, nor do they appear to wish for them. That constitutes a transformation of far greater consequence than discussions about student politics.

There are many ways of looking at past student radicalism; but, whatever one's political persuasions or values, there was certainly broad and lively debate among students - in bars and on buses as well as in unions and sit-ins. Now the undergraduate talk - or (the self-confessed) "tweet" - is about trivia.

Facebook, Twitter and blogs, often truly stupefying in their inanity, fill many hours of the average student's week. Even at the Russell Group universities I am familiar with, conversations are largely devoid of any engagement with issues one might have thought to be of major concern to the young and the decision-makers of the future.

For sure, student newspapers contain articles on climate change and developing-world debt, as well as this season's skirt lengths; but the bus and cafe conversation is about Jedward and parties. Rather than coherent sentences, the language is "I was like" and "he was kinda", making it hard (for me at least) to imagine how a more serious discussion, should it take place, could develop into English that would translate into public discourse.

What this produces of course is the classic vicious circle - or irreversible downward spiral. As our educators and elite students demand so little of their media - and go on to run them - our great review pages, political weeklies such as New Statesman and The Spectator and TV current affairs programmes such as Panorama and Newsnight give less time to the most serious questions.

Critics often lament that our media have become populist. I think the situation is different. "Populist", as the critical debates of the 1930s remind us, has not always been a synonym for "mindless", and it is not by any means the commonalty alone that is setting the agenda. We are facing - perhaps for the first time and possibly uniquely in this country (there is far more respect for ideas in the US, let alone on the Continent) - an educated elite that is hostile to intellectualism.

Until recent times we might have looked to our universities to stem the tide, to be the champions of standards of informed public discussion. Sadly, government educational policies and the university system they have devised - and are still finding bits of to wreck - have driven the decline. We are all impoverished in ways that matter at least as much as our decline in wealth.

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