Politicians are unanimous about the role of universities in providing the knowledge and skills demanded by British capitalism as it attempts to compete in an increasingly crowded world market. Manifestos, policy statements and speeches have little or nothing to say about what the Americans call ‘the liberal arts’ and the British ‘the humanities’. These, it seems, are luxuries we can ill afford, indulgences we regard with pained expressions, as we focus on the dizzy possibilities of the digital economy. What is the value of being able to date Roman pottery, read medieval Latin or read a Victorian novel? What has that got to do with devising new financial derivatives or designing improved weapons systems? How does it improve our skill set, raise our productivity and increase our GDP?
You can see the impact of the erosion of the ideal of ‘universal’ education by comparing the typical campus of the 1970s with that of today. It was only the fag-end of a student revolt that had peaked in the late 1960s. But attending a traditional university at the end of the 1970s was still to enter a hubbub of radical activity and debate. There were pickets, occupations and rent strikes against investments in companies operating in apartheid South Africa. There were several left-wing meetings organised by political parties and campaign groups every week. Wall space was plastered with notices for them. It was possible to be a full-time political activist. I sometimes had to have ‘breakfast meetings’ to plan the next demo and was too busy to attend lectures during my final two years. It was, I now realise, only the fag-end. But at the time, we expected the revolution soon.
The contrast, going into a ‘new university’ at the end of the noughties, could not have been more stark. The austere glass-and-concrete edifices of the Ages of Major and Blair stand testimony to the success of the neoliberal counter-revolution. Entombed within, breathing only the stale air of an ‘academy’ from which all critique and counter-culture has been virtually eradicated, are the proto-proletarians of a digitised, ‘knowledge- based’ capitalism. To enter the main campus complex of the University of Hertfordshire – to take my local example – is like entering the atrium of a City bank. There is the same numbing brainlessness, the same suffocating absence of thought and imagination, the same absoluteness about the unquestioning conformity. So drained of intellect, culture, and politics are they that many of these places are the very negation of ‘universities’. There is nothing ‘higher’ about them. They are skills factories turning out labour units in an environment that combines the clinical functionalism of Huxley’s Brave New World, the political conformity of Orwell’s 1984, and the bureaucratic absurdity of Kafka’s The Trial.
Is the contrast overdrawn? If it is, the procedure remains valid. We seek to understand the world by abstracting essences and tendencies from the more messy and multilayered social reality we actually experience. What Chris Harman has called ‘the fire last time’ – the explosion of political and social revolt during the years 1968-1975 – created a ferment of critique and democracy. This infected especially the young and the universities and, by doing so, it brought the universities closer to their ideal. For the very essence of ‘universal’ education is that it unites practice and theory, skills and critique, the knowledge necessary to do things with an understanding of purpose and consequence.
This defines the contradiction at the very heart of the bourgeois academy. It is a contradiction that first arose in response to what historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the ‘dual revolution’ of the late eighteenth century: the combination of the economic or ‘industrial’ revolution pioneered in Britain from c.1750 with the political or ‘bourgeois’ revolution whose most radical expression was in France between 1789 and 1794. But the contradiction became explosive only in the two decades after the Second World War with the expansion of higher education in that period. And it has become yet more explosive today after a further four decades of expansion, during which the number of university students in Britain has quadrupled. To grasp its profundity, it is useful to place this contradiction in a deep-time historical context.
The bourgeois university has its roots in the gymnasia, academies and libraries of Ancient Greece. The preserves of a leisured elite, these offered a curriculum that combined literature, science, philosophy and physical training. Uncontaminated by any discordant plebeian presence, the Greek ‘universities’ developed as part of a wider elite reaction against democracy. Mass participation in the politics of the city-states, achieved through a series of ‘hoplite revolutions’ during the sixth and fifth centuries BC, was bloodily suppressed by an alliance of Greek aristocrats, Macedonian kings and Roman viceroys in the succeeding centuries. Greek philosophy is deeply imprinted with these class struggles. The work of the great masters, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, is in large part a rejection of democracy and an assertion of the exclusive fitness of the elite to rule. Indeed, there is a sense in which Western elite thought ever since can be construed as an attempt to deny democracy in one form or another.
Nevertheless, Greek ‘philosophy’, unlike modern bourgeois philosophy, was holistic. The word, which is of course Greek, means ‘love of knowledge and wisdom’ and the Greek philosophers were indeed polymaths, as keen on politics, history and science as on metaphysics. This indulgence involved little risk of any subversive intellectual ‘turn’. The audience for their speculations was a safely conservative ‘gilded elite’, and in any case, no class capable of developing and acting upon a generalised socio-political critique existed.
The same remained true of the Western medieval continuators of the classical tradition of scholarship. Theirs was, if anything, an even more exclusive world than that of their Greek forebears, for medieval scholarship was conducted almost entirely within the Church and using the medium of Latin. It was also holistic, admittedly within the rigid constraints imposed by received text and doctrine, but none the less constituting, or at least purporting to be, a comprehensive world view.
A central feature of the bourgeois revolution growing inside the old order was the way in which this tradition – of an exclusive intellectual elite seeking general knowledge of the world as a whole – burst its clerical shell. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment represented, at one level, the appropriation by lay intellectuals of knowledge stores, methods of scholarship, and analytical tools that had previously been monopolised by churchmen. But what matters for this story are not the revolutionary challenges to received wisdom represented by scholars such as Copernicus, Galileo and Leonardo, or by Isaac Newton, Jean Jacques Rousseau and the French encylopédistes, but the continuation of a tradition of holistic research by polymathic scholars situated within a socially exclusive community. The western intelligentsia was larger and more socio-culturally diverse in the eighteenth century compared with the twelfth, but it was still an elite embedded within an apparently secure property-owning class.
This world of intellectual security had been shaken by the upheavals of the Reformation, the Dutch Revolution, the French Wars of Religion, Germany’s Thirty Years War and the English Revolution. But it had not been shattered. The revolts of peasants and urban masses had either been crushed outright, or contained and channelled within the social framework of the bourgeois revolution. Of critical significance was the absence of an economically concentrated and socially distinct proletariat of propertyless labourers. The popular movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were invariably dominated by a petty- bourgeoisie of better-off peasants, master-artisans and small traders. These were pre-industrial struggles. Property-owners certainly feared ‘the many-headed multitude’, but they were not yet intellectually and politically paralysed by this fear.
 Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London: Bookmarks, 1998).
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (London: Abacus, 1977).
 Ellen Meiksins Wood, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages (London: Verso, 2008).
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