I hear on the radio that it has been an excellent year for strawberries and dormice, rather a bad one for the Church of England and about average for education. The summer's crop of A level, GSCE and university admissions scandals had an almost formulaic feel; it soon blew over and I was too much exercised by the row over 'gay bishops' to fret about it. Whatever your view of the latter, the debate struck me as depressing from an educational point of view. Here were two groups, all of whose spokespeople had a higher education in humanities subjects and in many cases more than one, apparently unable between them to read a text critically or in its historical context, wilfully ignorant of variations in historical practice and doctrine, refusing even to take an intelligent interest in anyone else's point of view. If this sort of thing is the result, why do we bother?

The Conservative Party seems to be wondering the same, and after a generation of overall expansion, is beginning to suggest that higher education may not, after all, be the right thing for many people. When I hear that, I remember why I do bother. In a world where the ideas of a few affect the lives of millions, it is vital that those few have the habit of careful, critical thought, of looking at a question from all sides, of distinguishing prejudice and wishful thinking from a defensible argument. In such a world, the more people have the same skills, the more accountable the few will be. And, I believe, a society where people think thinking is important will be better than one where they do not. We have to try.

Which makes me a utilitarian, at least as a teacher. As a researcher, I share with Margaret Atkins in her article a sense of vocation: I do it because it is good--beautiful--delightful. Many of us share this double rationale (for many both research and teaching are both vocational and useful) and because of this I also have some sympathy with the authorities whom Margaret criticizes. In so far as what we do is meant to be socially useful, is it not right that society, represented by the QAA and RAE, the givers of grants and payers of salaries, should call the tune? Is it not fair that if they pay us to do research, we should be able to show that it has a point?

Margaret says no, because things about which people are vocational are a kind of art, and you cannot treat an artist like a factory hand and get good work out of him or her. But not all academics see their work this way. And the government might say that it isn't interested in artists, and if artists have been hired, it was a mistake: what they want is technicians.

Can we reply that vocational scholars make the best teachers? ... not always. Or that societies need intellectual artists? Maybe. Governments rely on sophisticated thinking, from civil servants, think tanks, consultants, the judiciary, the houses of parliament, and academics might dub themselves the full-time guardians of such ways of thinking. This almost gives us a utilitarian argument for vocation, which I suspect is the best compromise artists ever make with society. Our real, private reasons for what we do will never justify our getting public support, any more than Bach's or Holbein's did. If we are artists, then our problems are the old problems of patronage in contemporary form: persuading society that it will be somehow better for what we have to offer it.

Education is also an area of specialized knowledge. Like doctors, we are paid to know better than the people we look after, what they ought to learn. Unlike patients, though, almost everyone who has had any education feels that they know as much about it as the teacher. We'll never get around that, because education is too bound up with people's identity, and at the same time, what most people learn in school and college is too loosely related to what they do as adults. Nevertheless, I think it is true that educators do tend to know better than their students, both present and past, what is worth learning. But that is not a reason for rejecting assessment or the questions of funding bodies.

I see the government as a sort of recalcitrant pupil or disaffected student. 'Why do we have to do this, Miss? It's boring. I'm no good at it. It's not going to get me a job.' Every engagement with anyone in this frame of mind is an educational exercise in itself. The very fact that such views exist, is a reason to roll up our sleeves and deal with them. If we refuse to engage with them, not only are we not improving the situation, we are betraying our vocation. There are times, of course, when convincing yet another politician, or civil servant, or man on the Clapham omnibus, that what you do is worthwhile, is a howling bore. But the point about a vocation is that you can't leave it behind in the office. If we say that we have a vocation to think and teach, every display of ignorance or narrow-mindedness is a challenge we can't refuse.

CUCD Bulletin 32 (2003)
© Council of University Classical Departments 2003

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