Cut from a different cloth

In an age of extroverts, a scholar’s paean to shyness and Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘radio phone-in’ PMQs tack against the prevailing winds

September 24, 2015
Hand cutting red cloth with scissors

Among the many column inches written about Jeremy Corbyn’s singing voice (The Red Flag), lack of singing voice (God Save the Queen), top button (undone during the Battle of Britain remembrance service) and performance at PMQs (in the style of a radio phone-in), commentators found room for at least some pontification about the role of academia in the rather chaotic rise of the Labour Left.

Writing in GQ, the former Mirror journalist Tony Parsons (who now calls himself a “reluctant Conservative”) lamented the demise of a Labour Party he could vote for, on the basis that it had been taken over by “unreconstructed comrades” and supporters who spent Saturdays spraying slogans like “Fuck Tory Scum” on Whitehall war memorials.

“Who are these people screaming ‘Tory scum’? Most seem to hail from academia or the creative arts and have a column or blog in The Guardian. They are certainly not the working class,” Parsons wrote. It was a caricature of academia – as home of the loony Left – that is not uncommon, even if such militancy is in most cases hard to reconcile with reality.

What’s undoubtedly true is that university corridors are still overwhelmingly left-leaning despite the marketisation of recent years (indeed, some argue that this may have made resistance to the prevailing winds stronger still).

In a poll of university staff conducted on our website before the general election in May, a large majority said they would be voting Labour or Green, though they proved to be at odds with the country at large.

And writing in Times Higher Education shortly after the election, a Tory-voting academic described how convinced she had been that Labour would win by a landslide, not because of the polls but because social media had “been awash for weeks with anti-Tory protests and proclamations of superiority from my left-leaning, mainly academic friends”.

Yet the idea that academics are all cut from the same cloth, politically or otherwise, is nonsense. That is a point well made in our cover story on a very different issue this week, in which Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University and author of a forthcoming book, Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness, discusses the place that introverts have in higher education.

In the age of the “extrovert ideal”, when lecturers are expected to perform and entertain and satisfy – as well as educate – their students, what unique attributes do shy academics bring? Quite a few, Moran suggests, not least the diversity that should be the hallmark of any university community.

Back in Westminster, where shyness is not a particularly helpful attribute amid the blood and thunder of the debating chamber, Corbyn’s surreal first week as Labour leader saw him appeal for a gentler style of politics.

He was “into persuasion” and “being nice to people”, he said, while his first appearance opposite the prime minister at the dispatch box saw him crowdsourcing questions from over 40,000 submitted by the public.

As soon as they had been posed, the media were on the hunt for the people who asked them: Marie (private landlords), Stephen (housing associations), Paul (tax credits), Claire (also tax credits), Gayle (mental health) and Angela (also mental health). Newsnight managed to track down Claire. What did she do? She was studying at university, of course.

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Reader's comments (1)

Academia is indeed full of individuals who owe their livelihoods largely to the public purse and whose employment history is typically narrow and unworldly. The bubble in which they live and work encourages them to believe that their leftish liberal world view is shared by the majority of voters and taxpayers. The election results showed just how out of touch they are with the public. Typical of this is the current lobby that free university places should be given to migrants to the EU.