University is the Grinch that stole Christmas

December 23, 2005

Higher education offers barbed gifts - not just geographic but intellectual dislocation, admits Julian Baggini

The traditional Christmas is under attack. But not, as the tabloids believe, by politically correct councils or bureaucrats. The real Santa slayer, the nemesis of Noel, the vicious chopper of the Yule log, is none other than higher education.

. The least of the charges against higher education is that a university education systematically undermines all the beliefs and values that enable people to enjoy the festive break wholeheartedly.

First-year undergraduates who were previously as enthusiastic about Yuletide as anyone are returning home filled with strange ideas that alienate them from the festivities: Christmas is a symptom of the crass commercialisation of Western culture; it is just a ritual; it is a hypocritical, conservative celebration of the nuclear family; it involves slaying millions of cruelly reared beasts; it is a sick show of excess in an unequal world; packaging and cards alone are major contributors to environmental degradation, and so on. It's enough to force you to make an early start on the port - the one feature of the holidays that most students have no ideological objection to.

More profound, though, is the effect higher education has on community and family cohesion. For the past six months, I've been living in a South Yorkshire town that is demographically typical of the country as a whole. There, I've found that the decline of family and community has been greatly exaggerated. My neighbour can see the house she was born in from her doorstep. A bloke down the pub has nine siblings, most of whom still live no more than a five-minute drive away. These are not rare cases. Yet there is a large and growing exception to this: when children go off to university, most never return for good.

This is illustrated by a study earlier this year by the graduate careers service Prospects, which showed that six months after graduation, one in six employed graduates lives in London, while 40 per cent of graduates remain in their university region. So who has the more traditional Christmas?

Families whose children left school at 16 or 18 are more likely to have a whole family get-together. They will also have more Christmas drinks with friends known since childhood, at home or in the pub. If the kids have gone to university, however, the picture is often quite different. The chances are at least one family member will be missing. With each year that passes, returning children know fewer and fewer local people. And absent relatives will probably not be living in close-knit communities, but in larger, more anonymous cities or soulless dormitory towns.

Christmas thus reflects the general impact of higher education's barbed gift. On the one hand, it offers graduates new opportunities and wider horizons. On the other, it is instrumental in the weakening of local and family solidarity. Not only does it create geographical distance, it often creates intellectual distance, as those who pass through it adopt middle-class liberal values that conflict with those of their relatives.

Even the festive TV programmes that once brought the family together can divide, as undergraduates acquire "sophisticated" tastes.

While the decline of the traditional family has not bothered academe too much, it has been concerned about the break-up of communities, which erodes solidarity and social capital. If this is a real worry, higher education needs to accept the link between family and community life, and its part in undermining both.

For example, higher education is a much more atomising influence than the great bogeyman of the centre-left: Thatcherite consumerism. Those who left school at 16 or 18 and became the first in their families to buy their own houses are generally more tied to their local communities than the graduates who were the first in their families to get a degree.

Individualism is also much more of an academy-based Enlightenment value than it is a market one. The market thrives on people feeling the need to spend at Christmas to conform and to maintain social standing and status in the eyes of others. Real individualists make less compliant consumers.

Higher education needs to make a new year's resolution. Stop whining about the decline of community and accept it as the price of giving more individuals greater opportunities. The cohesion and homogeneity of strong communities cannot but be undermined by an education that introduces students to difference, challenge and variety. If you really want to protect community life, then start by attacking campus life.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine .

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