Who the hell cares about a footnote?

September 15, 2006

Now that's edutainment! Julian Baggini looks back at how a movie about a lecture brought showbusiness to the academy.

Al Gore didn't know what he had started. The real success of the film-of-the-lecture An Inconvenient Truth was to open everyone's eyes to how showbusiness and academe could be perfect partners.

This very publication was an early pioneer: it is hard to believe that Higher! once went by the austere name of The Times Higher Education Supplement , and that even calling it The THES was daringly outré. But then that was before Boris Johnson became Education Secretary in 2008, declaring that his priorities would be entertainment, entertainment and entertainment.

Johnson's project has proved such a success that the television channel Five is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. And despite protests by some backward-looking vice-chancellors, its first week on air has been a tremendous success.

I particularly enjoyed You Are What You Write , which brilliantly showcases the virtues of the new peer-review system. Gone are the days of dull meetings in stuffy seminar rooms. Now Gillian McKeith descends on a lecturer's office and mercilessly probes bookshelves and hard drives. The moment where everything that the academic has published over the past five years is stacked up in front of McKeith makes for great TV.

The humiliation on the face of the hapless Dr Fowlup in Tuesday's show was both gruesome and compelling. "Two pathetic journal papers," hectored McKeith. "How can you look at yourself in the mirror when you're living like this? You're quite literally killing your career."

McKeith prescribed a media-training course and a professional makeover, and now Fowlup is churning out DVDs - which, of course, attract much more research funding than books.

I had some reservations about Noel Edmonds's Grant or No Grant? Apparently, the original idea was for student funding to be allocated by a talent show, The Cheques Factor , but this was considered too elitist, requiring some skill on the part of contestants. While Grant or No Grant? relies largely on luck rather than intellect, I reasoned that getting to a good university always used to depend more on accidents of birth than ability, so I sat back and enjoyed this populist, egalitarian alternative.

Paul Merton's Philosophy Room 101 is the perfect format for a subject whose introductory courses have always been about showing students why almost all the greats of the past were wrong. "Alfred North Whitehead once said that the whole of Western philosophy consisted of footnotes to Plato," said this week's guest. "That tells you exactly where Western philosophy has screwed up: who the hell cares about footnotes?" The audience loved it, but Merton refused to consign footnotes to Room 101, arguing that pressing the red button on your remote for "extras" had wiped them out years ago anyway.

Higher edutainment's principal achievement has been to breathe new life into the lecture - by killing it off in its old form. Good lecturing was always about performance. The only people not to know this were usually lecturers themselves. But the new generation of academics showcased in Monday Morning Live know that "stand-up lecturing" is the way forward. In their ten-minute slots, the "acadecomics" are now honing their lecture routines to perfection.

It was therefore perhaps a little cruel to include old-school turns such as Professor Beard in the programme last week.

"When does a phytomer senesce?" he asked, giving the answer in a heavy Italian accent: "When-a it no wanna phyt-a-no-more!"

The students, no longer waiting for an invitation to question, heckled in reply: "What are you on about, grandad?"

Beard muttered something about "required reading" and was booed off the stage.

The younger academic who replaced him then introduced a group of people dressed up as plant parts whose song-and-dance routine explained phytomer senescence more eloquently than any textbook could.

Beard learnt the hard way that erudite puns and gags are passé - to succeed in academe today you need either edgy observational material or ironic big numbers.

Indeed, watching the young Turks in action made Gore's original inspiration look pallid in comparison. The former next president's filmed lecture was a hit only because of a lucky confluence of his fame, late-found charisma and Zeitgeist-capturing theme.

Those who tried to copy him often failed, and the now-notorious box-office flop Discrete Mathematics and Numerical Methods for Computer Science: The Movie was the last major attempt to simply film a lecture. Gore's film was just a tentative first step down a road that led to such televisual gems as Who Wants to Be a Gerontologist? , Celebrity Law Island and The Weakest Shrink .

The lowlight of Five, however, was tired old University Challenge . The contestants may well be knowledgeable and learned; but if this is all their education gave them, it's a bad advertisement for the value of universities.

We all know that education should make us laugh and cry. When you look back at the state of the sector in Gore's day, it's hard to decide which to do.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine .

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