In 1997, the headmaster of the English secondary school in which I was teaching ordered a bibliocaust. The inspectors were coming, and he wanted our library to look up-to-date. All the old stuff had to go; only bright, modern volumes relevant to the contemporary curriculum were to be on the shelves. Each department was told to appoint a teacher to a team that would pick over all the books and cast any that were dated or dusty into a skip. A more-perfect metaphor for the British government’s treatment of education would be hard to imagine. The past is rejected, on principle; obedience to the new orthodoxy is unchallengeable; what matters above all is how things look. Of course, the same invincible arrogance is displayed in every area of New Labour neoconservatism, but it is most keenly and determinedly exercised in education, which is the anvil upon which future generations are beaten into shape.
Before the lorry came to cart away our cultural cast-offs, I rescued as many books as I could, but the container was full to the brim, and I could only pick over the top couple of layers. So I did not, alas, find the complete set of Scrutiny that I knew to be somewhere in the heap, but I did recover the school’s leather-bound Lewis and Short Latin-English dictionary. I have it before me now. It still has its comforting library smell. On its inside front cover is a plate, dated 1932. Above it is written, “This book may not be removed from the library.” It has been, however—along with countless other books that were the rightful inheritance of generations of English schoolchildren to come.
Among the tomes that Blair’s bullies caused to be rejected were many that form the cornerstone of any civilized library. Several contained prophetic warnings of the destructive zeal that would consign them and books like them to the skip. I recovered copies of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and Reflections on the Psalms, but our copy of The Abolition of Man must have been thrown away earlier and lay buried too deeply. The Abolition of Man is a series of lectures that most explicitly warns against the perverse modernity that now poisons English universities and schools. In it, Lewis warns that education is in danger of being taken over by what he calls “Conditioners,” those who would use it to train youngsters to become something that suits the plans of an arrogant, manipulative elite:
The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly, the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus and thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.
The spirit that Lewis describes now directs the entire British educational process, which has been reconstructed to produce wage-slaves to serve the national economy. School pupils are no longer equipped to think freely; they are not taught to question but to provide the right replies. What they need to know is not found in libraries of accumulated ideas and opinions but in textbooks that have been authorized by the government. Yes, there are still pockets of critical thinking here and there in the system, just as there are pockets of air in a recently sunk ship. Those bubbles are not going to bring the vessel back to the surface, however, and those that inhabit them will not survive for long.
Rescuing those C.S. Lewis books was instinctive and inevitable: They all but leapt into my outraged hands. But there was unfamiliar treasure trove, too, including one remarkable book on whose spine were the letters B.W.P. When I opened it, I found that they stood for “The British Way and Purpose.” It was a collection of essays on citizenship used by the British army to teach our troops what they were fighting for—and against—in World War II. When I read what the book had to say about education, I realized that, in that department at least, those troops had fought in vain.
The B.W.P. speaks proudly of a system in which “headmasters and headmistresses are free, within wide limits, to run their schools on the lines they think best. They in turn, if they are wise, leave their staff to work out their own syllabus and methods.” Anything further from today’s teaching by government-issued numbers would be impossible to imagine. Now, headmasters and headmistresses are free, within narrow limits, to run their schools on the lines that the government has ordained are best. Neither they nor their staff have any more freedom of operation than that enjoyed by railway-station ticket clerks. The syllabus is fixed nationally, and teaching methods are imposed and inspected by a massive machinery of management designed to serve not the children but the government. The B.W.P. contrasts the freedom and openness of English learning as it then was with the tyrannous regimentation of schools in Nazi Germany, where “the purpose of education is to mould people to a fixed pattern, so that they are forced to fit in with the way of life imposed by a government or party.” A better definition of contemporary British education would be hard to find.
That this should be the case is self-evidently tragic; there is an aspect to this particular tragedy, however, that makes it all the more intense. New Labour’s inversion of educational values has been widely accepted; the people have been told the lie that they want to hear. They naturally desire material prosperity and security; the Conditioners have persuaded them that education exists solely to provide it. The idea that the sole purpose of study is to prepare people for employment has been so relentlessly iterated that it now goes unchallenged. It is the starting point, not the conclusion, of any educational argument. The lie is not that learning leads to earning—which it usually does—but that learning is for earning, which it is not.
The lie is believed, however, and vast amounts of time, energy, and money—public money—have been spent in shoring it up. If a job exists, institutionalized education must be provided for it, or the belief that everyone needs to be educated to get a job cannot be maintained. An ever-increasing number of half-witted courses have been created as a result. The laughably named examination board Edexcel now offers a two-unit diploma in wheel clamping—an art that can be mastered in perhaps 20 minutes but which is puffed up to keep a student—and his assessor, the assessor’s verifier, and the verifier’s moderator—occupied for a week. The Swansea Institute of Higher Education (no, I hadn’t heard of it before, either) has recently launched a three-year B.A. course in surf and beach management, and several of our newer universities offer degrees that qualify students to manage golf courses. Sure, leisure beaches need lifeguards and golf courses need managers, and the people who meet those needs have to know what they are doing, but does that knowledge warrant the award of a degree?
Your answer and mine might be “no,” but Tony Blair’s answer would be different. It has to be. He has announced that he wants 50 percent of those under age 30 to attend university by the year 2010, and they are all going to have to study something. The figure is arbitrary: It was not preceded by any public debate on the subject. Like the decision to abolish the thousand-year-old lord chancellorship, it simply proceeded from the mouth of the prime minister. If our universities were still universities in the traditional sense, of course, that 50-percent figure would be unattainable. No nation could possibly function if every other person were an academic. But that does not mean that, in the Britain Blair is building, every other person cannot get a degree. (Though it does mean that B.A. ends up meaning “Bugger All.”)
Most of this wasteful, dishonest, pseudoeducational silliness is played out in the country’s countless colleges and technical institutes that have been rebranded and empowered to confer degrees. Meanwhile, significant damage is being visited upon Britain’s real universities, the places that people have actually heard of. Tin-pot colleges only have to run crackpot courses for below-par undergraduates, but traditional universities have to conduct academic research. That costs money, and the government provides it—but only according to its own rules. Funds are allocated under the Research Assessment Exercise, which distributes amounts to university departments according to the quality of their research.
On the face of it, this might sound like an idea that fosters academic excellence, but, in Blair’s Brave New Britain, things are never quite what they seem. Just as the unspoken purpose of schools is now to provide statistical outcomes that keep the inspectors off their backs and make the government look good, the preoccupation of universities is not the pursuit of knowledge but the pursuit of funds. The intrinsic value of any research is less important than the number of points it earns toward a target figure that has to be met. Papers are rushed into print to meet assessment deadlines; long theses are split in two to earn double points.
Such gamesmanship is almost forgivable when one considers what is at stake. This year, top-scoring research departments get a 4.75-percent funding increase, but those that miss the threshold even by a whisker get a cut of 42 percent. Given that many universities have to subsidize their teaching costs with part of their research income, the result has been that several good departments have had to close. At the time of writing, the architecture department at Cambridge is threatened with closure; physics is finished at Newcastle; and the musicians and chemists at Exeter have been told to shut up shop. The Exeter press release makes particularly depressing reading, for it shows how the independent spirit of even our best universities has been utterly crushed:
The Council of the University of Exeter (its supreme governing body) today voted overwhelmingly in favour of proposals designed to refocus its academic activity . . . Chemistry will be phased out. At Council there were 26 votes for the proposals, 2 against and one abstension [sic]. Music making will continue and be strengthened by the appointment of a full time Director of Music but the academic study of Music will cease once the current cohort of students has graduated. [Anyone still wondering whether the barbarians are within the gates is invited to read that last sentence again.] At Council there were 23 votes for the proposals, 2 against and 4 abstensions [sic] . . . The changes endorsed by Council are designed to refocus the University’s academic activities, enabling it to reduce financial losses in some departments and allow those making a surplus to invest in their future success. They are also a response to recent changes in the higher education marketplace . . .
And there we have it, spelling mistake and all. Education is a commodity in the marketplace; academic activity is justified by financial success. It is hard to read that press release without disgust. When the percussionist Evelyn Glennie heard its contents, she sent back her honorary degree. Nobel prize-winning chemist Sir Harold Kroto sent his back, too. Even more disgusted were the chemistry students that started their degrees last October. They were told just before Christmas that their first term was to be their last. The system that Blair and his cronies have created has treated them exactly as C.S. Lewis said it would. The poultry-keeper has not taught his fledglings to fly; he has trained them to peck. And when market forces make feeding them unprofitable, what choice has he but to wring their necks?