John Gray gives a Pharos lecture, Oxford

Less will be better

More students have been worse. Some became dons — they have been worse too

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

More has meant worse. Indeed, when Kingsley Amis in Encounter wrote about expanding higher education that “MORE WILL MEAN WORSE”, that was him in 1960 reviewing the fifties — a decade that now looks like a pinnacle from which everything since has fallen away.

Amis was still at Swansea University then, though he was soon to move to Peterhouse for what would turn out to be two bitter and futile years teaching English at Cambridge.

What a burden it is on the most intelligent undergraduates that they have to spend their time fighting

The college was denounced by F.R. Leavis for hiring a “pornographer”, but the contra-Whiggish hopes of its then master, Herbert Butterfield, that this was exactly what the age needed (someone to provoke the Leavisites), were to be disappointed. Amis fled uncongenial collegiate life for fun in the Majorca sun.

What should keep anyone at Cambridge now? Why, indeed, should academic or student alike be at any of our universities? Our February 2023 leading article said the point of them was “intellectual life and academic rigour”.

Yes, the government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) was doing great harm and external credentialisation of careers by poisonous nonsense such as Athena Swan and Racial Equality Charters was corrosive to the concept of promotion by scholarship.

And universities damage themselves by being led by their most feeble cohort — professional administrators. Yet, despite all this, “freedom of enquiry” remained the goal. Alas, this is what the universities have honestly set themselves against.

In a May 1960 House of Lords debate, William Beveridge said plainly, “the most important purpose of the university [is] to spread knowledge rather than add to it”. This, Amis noted, rested on the assumption that academic standards could be maintained however much tertiary education swelled.

Where Beveridge saw an injustice righted, supposing that access had hitherto been denied, Amis instead sneered at the “delusion that there are thousands of young people about who are capable of benefitting from university training but have somehow failed to find their way there”.

How much more so that is today. Rather than expansion being viable when it strives to enrol 50 per cent of all young people (let alone the absurdist three-quarters enrolment Tony Blair would have Keir Starmer’s looming government accomplish) university graduates are, in Amis’s words, “like poems or bottles of hock, and unlike cars or tins of salmon, in that you cannot decide to have more good ones”. We have decided to have more; they have been worse; they graduated and some of them became dons — and they have been worse too. Can this cycle be broken?

This magazine is an unashamed product of the universities. We have devoted this special issue to them because we believe that they can and should be saved. There is hope. In her article in this issue, a recent undergraduate, Charlie Bentley-Astor, shows that however stultifying the universities are, students can find subversive ways to fight back.

However, what a burden it is on the most intelligent and committed undergraduates that they have to spend their time fighting, rather than studying. Their enemy, of course, being not one another, but their debased instructors.

Michael Lind charts where it first went wrong: how a delusion about the superiority of the nineteenth-century German “research university” poisoned what had been the Anglophone preference for “the transmission of canonical bodies of cultural and professional knowledge”.

This is the honest acceptance that since most undergraduates won’t — and should not — progress to being academics themselves, the proper purpose of the university lies in the forming and shaping of excellence as much as it does in intellectual cultivation. There is no shame in a school that actually finishes the whole man.

Yet, as Lind notes, “in the arts and humanities” (the hard sciences can be left to look after themselves, or fail by their own measures) “anti-traditional innovation is more like iconoclasm on the part of a new religion”, which triumphantly smashes the idols of the old before erecting its own in their place.

The side that offers a faith, any faith, wins out

Our Sounding Board columnist, Marcus Walker, dejectedly notes that the Church of England’s current managers wish to do away with the liberating security of clerical stipends, their parishes, and even what its foes accuse of being “long, costly college-based training”. This leaves us with priests, much like academics, “unable to explain [their purpose], unable to talk authoritatively”. It has been the death of a vocation, and it has been a suicide cult that did it.

It is not difficult to name the new religion. For Maurice Cowling 30 years ago it was simply cultural Marxism, infinitely more dangerous when done within and by the West than Soviet state Marxism could be abroad.

Edward Skidelsky has Foucaultian “regimes of truth” plainly in view too. He, like a handful of other brave academics, has fought back: they have banded together and formed a resistance. Their Committee for Academic Freedom is a courageous and noble endeavour.

Dr Skidelsky is clear-eyed about the scale of what has to be surmounted. The REF plays its part in generating Soviet tractor factory-levels of academic production for the sake of it.

But universities are happily complicit in this false measure of value. Why would it be otherwise when universities are no longer self-governed by scholars but instead run by (and for) self-serving administrators? This circle is vicious but gets even worse.

Our executive editor, Sebastian Milbank, returns to a subject on which The Critic led the way [see Poppy Coburn, The great foreign student scandal”, February 2023]. Through their risible pretence of “exporting education”, he details how universities mask their visibly failing Ponzi scheme to expand themselves by importing ever greater numbers of dud students from abroad.

Once again, the truth is painful to see: far from the attraction and cultivation of excellence, unworthy degrees are bought by unworthy recipients.

Dr James Orr nails the problem: “The weakness of the liberal conception of the university is that it treated its enabling norms as self-evident to all, when it turned out they were obvious only to an intellectual class shaped by the cultural memory of its medieval origins.”

Liberals have been the masters for some time now and it is their bitter, fruitless lessons we learn. In large part this is because we lack any faith in our own orthodoxies, or even in the possibility of them. It should not surprise anyone that when we do not believe in our own “true opinions”, the side that offers a faith, any faith, wins out.

He will blush to be described as such, but our literary editor, Dr David Butterfield, is one of the greatest classicists of his generation. Holding on to  and exemplifying a two-thousand-year-old tradition, he ought still to be a fellow of his college too, but he has no home in Cambridge now. This is a damning indictment of the University and everything it has become.

Butterfield in these pages charts the crisis of meaning and loss of confidence at the root of the problem. “Even for the [academic] majority who agree teaching should matter most,” he asks, “does that mean teaching content or process, providing knowledge or skills?”

Crisis, he reminds us, originates in the Greek for decision, and we need to make our minds up.

Amis 64 years ago sought and failed to find someone who would:

Refute the phantom dichotomy of ‘the two cultures’, repudiate the ever-more widely accepted view of the humanities as behind the times, vague, decorative, marginal, contemplative, postponable, while science (which in this context usually means technology) is seen as up with the times, precise, essential, central, active, urgent.

Science, and the claims made for it, are no longer the problem. The humanities remain, as they always shall, the measure of the human condition. Technology is the fire, and there is nothing contemptible in its mastery. But the truth lies with the arts.

To save the universities we must accept that the truth may now lie outside them. Excellent initiatives like Pharos in Oxford, or Ralston College in far-off Savannah, Georgia, offer hope. When the present has become a lie about the past, start again. Less will be better.

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