Star turn

November 12, 1999

Alison Goddard meets a Birkbeck lecturer who believes a civilised society is one where theatre and philosphy mix well.

With his high forehead, shoulder-length hair, red waistcoat and blue cravat, Anthony Grayling looks the archetypal don. A

philosophy lecturer at Birkbeck College, London - which enrols part-time students on evening classes - Grayling is refreshingly off message when it comes to adult education.

"Aristotle said we should educate people so they make better use of their lives," he says. "Now we educate people to work in Tesco. But take, for example, a dinner party where it is the host's responsibility to provide the food and the guest's responsibility to be good company. Education should be for the whole of one's life and people should spend time preparing to be good dinner guests."

The delivery is typical, his lectures make profound points in an entertaining manner. "I like the way he sweeps in, gives his lecture and sweeps out - it's majestic. It's like a theatrical performance," says Ian Townson, who by night studies politics, philosophy and history at Birkbeck and by day is an international market research assistant.

Grayling first became interested in adult education as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford. "I was interested in extramural studies and admired those people who turned out on a winter evening," he says. "They were central European, from a culture that values education and lifelong learning. A really civilised society would be one in which someone goes to the theatre twice a week and to a philosophy lecture once a week."

Respect for these students lay behind Grayling's decision to become a lecturer at Birkbeck College in 1991. "Students at Birkbeck are very, very motivated - they come two or three evenings a week; they are hungry to learn - and I admire that," he says. "I also like the fact that anybody who really has the will to succeed can do it. To belong to an institution that has Birkbeck's mission is tremendously satisfying."

Grayling's admiration for his students does not mean he is willing to give them an easy ride, however. "In philosophy, if you do too much for the students it does them no favours," he says. "Active knowledge is only acquired when you do the work yourself - the reading, the battle with ideas. I try to inspire and stimulate and interest students so they think, 'Crumbs - I'd like to know about that' and they go and look it up. I try to give an overview of a landscape from a mountain top, an idea of the terrain, pointing out the steep climbs and the gullies."

Grayling keeps a careful eye on his audience as he lectures. "I think you should engage with the audience all the time," he says. "If you are trying to explain something and people are looking thoughtful then you have to find another way of expressing it."

Students attending his "Introduction to Philosophy" lectures on Tuesday evenings seem to appreciate Grayling's approach. "In the first lecture, he said that philosophy is the dogged struggle to achieve clarity. He defines everything very clearly; you can't fail to understand what he says. He unravels and demystifies the subject," says Gerard O'Donnell, a Birkbeck student and landlord.

"He makes the subject people-friendly," adds O'Donnell. "It's a complete vocation for him - I get the feeling he would give lectures without payment. I look forward to his lecture every week - I get here early."

And what does Grayling want his students to get from his classes? "I hope that students find their intellectual horizons hugely widened, that I give them the equipment to enjoy themselves and enjoy life," he says. 'I try to give an overview of a landscape, pointing out the steep climbs and the

gullies'

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