[lbo-talk] posh as fuck

James Heartfield Heartfield at blueyonder.co.uk
Mon Dec 5 15:02:10 PST 2011

Like most institutions and workplaces under capitalism, universities combine a reactionary and a progressive potential.

On the reactionary side, they are engines of social inequality. They don’t create social inequality, but boy do they entrench it. Schools too. Looked at in those terms, it is right to speak of ‘credentialling’, the distribution of a restricted supply of certificates that give you access to social success, based on ability to pay.

On the progressive side, the understanding that grows there is a real thing. There I have to depart from Michael’s polemic. The philistine trend in western societies is quite strong enough, and doesn’t need any of us helping it along. Actual study, for its own sake, is a marvellous thing. The unexamined life is not worth living. Even the bullshit (like Derrida or Foucault) is productive. Error is productive, as long as there is room to examine it.

What seems pretty improbable to me is that anyone could make an egalitarian case for universities. Even when a handful of working class people are allowed to get there, it is generally on the basis that they must betray their class. Education – and certainly not higher education - will not be addressing the problem of inequality any time soon. Sociologists and economists working in universities might give us the tools to deal with inequality, but universities as institutions in their own right will only crank it up. That’s not an argument against them. We should not expect universities to fix social inequality. We should expect them to cherish knowledge and understanding.

Obviously students get very defensive about this. Most intellectuals have a massive guilt/inadequacy feeling towards the working class. That is why they go on about ‘access’ and fairness. But until such a time as most people go to university (and even then there would be class differentiation between universities) they are bound to exacerbate class divisions.

On the tactical question, I don’t think it is at all a problem of drawing up recipes for the cookbooks of the future. We ought to defend what is good in universities today – and that is the love of knowledge for its own sake, and the fearless pursuit of understanding. Not lying to yourself about what universities are seems to me a good starting point in defending what ought to be defended.

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