A Community of Scholars - an English View

A QUICK READING OF GOODMAN'S BOOK leaves the reader rather breathless and I can only give you a kaleidoscope of quotations and observation that seem relevant. My first point is to question whether there isn't something phoney about the notion of the university as an autonomous community of scholars? Goodman himself points out that there has always been someone on the outside paying the piper and calling the tune. The moneybags are held by the University Grants Committee, who are (if you will forgive his plural) in the words of Mr. E. W. Playfair, Third Secretary of the Treasury, giving evidence to the Select Committee on Estimates in February, 1962, "in our minds, part of the Treasury. Their job is to do our job."*

The U.G.C. itself has declared that "Central planning on these lines involves no abridgement of academic freedom for no university is required, or could be expected, to undertake developments against its own considered wishes" and it went on to say that "if a university feels impelled to expenditure on purposes for which financial support from the Exchequer is not forthcoming, its remedy is to find a private benefactor to supply the need." But Professor Dent in his Universities in Transition (1961) concludes that "The plain fact is that the Government's — every Government's — financial policy is dictating the shape of the universities and the place which the various disciplines will occupy in them. The universities have really only one area of choice: whether to make acceptable proposals, and so expand, and grow in reputation, or to accept the fact that they will be supported only at subsistence level." Of course, Goodman's answer to this is obvious: "Choose subsistence, smallness and independence", and he would be right.

At Leeds the Grebenik Report on student's lodgings which came out a year ago graphically illustrated the difficulties students had to contend with. A later report to Leeds University published in November throws interesting light on another of Goodman's points: student

*but happily by 1962 the UGC and the Treasury were in public disagreement!

autonomy. A three-man delegation was sent by the University Housing and Estates Committee to study student housing in certain Continental universities. They reported that
We found that students, on the whole, were more independent, and carried more responsibility than in England, especially in the Scandinavian countries… The students play an important part in the planning and running of the residences and sometimes the student organisation is the owner and the administrator of all the student housing.
On their visit to Stockholm they declared that

We were amazed to find that the students organised the University timetable. The number of classes and laboratory periods in each subject were laid down, professors and lecturers expressed a preference for times and the students did the rest. It involved a lot of work but the students preferred to do it … The students also arranged the whole of the timetable for the examinations in January, June and September and told the university staff where the examinations were to take place. They also recently appointed an advisor who knew the university curriculum very well indeed and was able to advise students on the nature of the course they should pursue.
And to get back to demon sex, at Uppsala they found that

Each of the student houses had a married guardian on the premises who did not interfere in any way with students' lives … (The students) confirmed that if students spent the night together no-one would make any comment because "their morals were their own affair." The Rector confirmed that he had no responsibility for the morals of students …

In their conclusions for their own university drawn from their tour, they plumped for mixed student houses without segregation of the sexes, and expressed the positively Goodmanlike view that "Students who now seek, and who should be given, responsibility and freedom should be held strictly responsible and not shielded from the consequences of their actions. Partial responsibility is usually unsatisfactory; full, well-defined responsibility is much to be preferred."

Reports from this country fully bear out Goodman's views on the plight of youth in the organised system. The Edinburgh University newspaper The Student published at the end of last year the findings of an enquiry into the state of mind of the student. The student of today, it alleged is unhappy, and the degree which seems so important to him before he arrives at university loses all its magical significance after a few months in an artificial Utopia. The reason advanced by the investigator is that the thought processes have been so stereotyped by schools and the years of parental influence, that certain types of student "appear incapable of believing anything that they have not been told to believe. Despite, or because of his material well-being, the student spends too much time in egocentric thought and stagnant action."

And a report from Manchester University Staff-Student Relations in the University of Manchester reveals that less than half the students at Manchester had some informal contact with a member of staff more frequently than once a fortnight: a quarter only once a term. Many students insisted on the importance of informal staff-student contact to prevent the university from being just an extension of school. Students' replies showed that they expected university teachers to recognise that they were eager to learn, to share in their expertise, and that they no longer needed discipline. They commented on this theme more often than on any other. "After departmental parties the temperature is noticeably higher and the atmosphere much more relaxed and pleasant for a few days" answered a post-graduate arts student, adding however that "The semi-freeze soon sets in again." A certificate of education graduate remarks "The majority of staff don't want to know you — so don't push them." (C.f. Goodman's story of the student who had to invent a "personal problem" in order to get a teacher to pay any attention to him. Or his tale of the farm boy at the University of Vermont, complaining that he had come to college to be shaken in his religious faith, and the school had failed him.)

Goodman's emphasis on the historical fact of secession and the inestimable benefits it has conferred on the community of scholars, applies with considerable force to this country. Oxford was started by seceding English students from Paris, Cambridge by scholars who fled from Oxford, London by dissenters who couldn't accept the religious qualifications required by Oxford and Cambridge. Most of the "Redbrick" universities owned their origin to local initiative, the university college at Aberystwyth was started with a door-to-door collection. The seven newest universities however — those of Sussex, York, Norwich, Canterbury, Colchester, Coventry, and Lancaster — (only one of which has actually opened so far), owe their existence to the fact that local sponsoring committees have had their applications for support accepted by the University Grants Committee.

It is from a refusal of such support that the most Goodmanlike current English proposal arises. Dr. John Margeson who is an admissions tutor and lecturer in English at Hull University, proposes "A University for Rejects" (The Listener 8/11/62). Now it is well-known that this country provides fewer university places in proportion to the population than any country in Western Europe, and that to maintain even this level, now that the post-war 'bulge' in the birthrate is reaching the university age, the present student population would have to have been expanded by 50 per cent by this year — that is, to 163,000. It isn't happening at anything like this rate, and in 1962 a quarter of all the school-leavers who had qualified for university entrance were unable to obtain entry. Further thousands of "marginal cases", boys and girls highly recommended by their teachers who do not happen to be the kind who do well in examinations have also rejected. Mr. Margeson ("I am an admissions officer myself, so I am not a complete anarchist" he says), has interviewed enough of them to want to do something about it, and therefore proposes his university for rejects:

The only rule would be that all applicants must have been rejected by the 'usual channels'. I would be in favour of close contacts with interested schools, especially with progressive schools, and schools which are attempting to break away from the narrow civilization of the present sixth-form curriculum. Most schools admit that they are forced to maintain this specialisation because of the demands of the conventional universities.

Of the proposed university's finance he says,
I am assuming that the new university will not gain support from the Treasury and that its students will not be supported by local education authorities; so every applicant for a place in my university for rejects will have to face the problem of paying his fees. Education is an expensive business. Most of the students will have to work their way through college, as so many students do in other countries, and this will mean a reorganisation of the normal academic year. Instead of three short vacations for study and leisure, our new university will need one long summer vacation of four months or so. In fact, this business of high fees and self help should work to our advantage — the hard-working and ambitious students, those who are ready to put up with difficulty and hardship for the sake of an education, will be sorted out from those who have come to look upon higher education as a right which society owes them.

The reason why he settles on Stamford, in Lincolnshire, as the site for the university (apart from the fact that it is a good town, that it has solved its traffic problem, and that Spenser in The Faerie Queene curiously predicted a university there) is that it is a town which has the big advantage of having already applied to the University Grants Committee for a university and been rejected. "There is local enthusiasm for a university, and they know what it is like to be a reject." Stamford University would of course have to begin with temporary buildings.

To meet an urgent situation, we might have to take over assembly halls, barns, and warehouses. The students will have to rough it. I would like to see them establish co-operative houses of their own and run their own restaurants. They could adapt Nissen huts from nearby airfields. Under these conditions they might learn to live together as true communities. Few of the great halls of residence we have put up in recent years have developed into communities of any kind.

This shoe-string budget might force us back to a more lively concept of a university. We have come to regard universities as expensive institutions, demanding from the start a huge capital outlay on laboratories, lecture rooms and libraries. It is a long way from the medieval university, where a few outstanding teachers had private libraries and taught their own small circles of students. In those days students and teachers could move from one town to another if they disliked the local authorities, or the local landladies.

In enthusing over his proposal, John Margeson ruefully concludes that, "In spite of all I have said, finance is a problem, and my scheme is utterly impractical if I do not solve it." If government grants are not available he thinks there is no alternative to a public appeal, and the competition is already fierce. But "we all like to back a cause which has no official support, especially one which promises justice for those who are not getting their fair share", and perhaps he suggests, those business men who are always singing the praises of independence and self-help will pay up for a project in which students pay their own fees and run their own dormitories and restaurants. It could be, he concludes "an eminently practical proposal, and one that is unique in appealing equally to the conservative and the radical, to the hard-headed and the visionary. In fact there seems to be no good reason why work should not begin on the project immediately."

No, indeed, there is not. Where, on both sides of the Atlantic, are the initiators of the new communities of scholars?

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Oct 30 2017 00:25


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