grayling’s atrocity: what it means and what we’re going to do about it.

Daniel Harvey looks at New College of the Humanities, AC Grayling’s private ‘university’

I remember a time, not very long ago, despite seeming it, when a young student stood up to give a speech at a debate on the necessity of the New Atheism at his college. The speech ranged through all the usual canards thrown at the religious, the cruelty of nature, the unnecessary suffering in the world, the emptiness of the universe.  Of course, this student devotee of Richard Dawkins, Grayling, PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens (shoot me now), was myself, and in that vain, naïve enthusiasm even, remained until the day I discovered that this was about as intellectually fulfilling as squashing ants.

grayling: wipe the smile off his face

But this feature of the atheist calling has always been fascinating – why so much time and effort spent on continually stomping on the face of the religious phenomenon, when it is so easy to do? Of course, you ask any followers of Richard Dawkins who attended his ‘talk’ which I happily raided with some comrades the other day, and what will come back is a stream words about the threat of ‘accomodationism’, about the fact religion is so powerful, growing, spreading its tentacles into education, and practically undermining the entire Enlightenment.  But for one of the original founders of this movement H. L. Mencken, the great liberal journalist and commentator on the Scopes Trial, religion was more than this, it was the possession of the ‘immortal scum’ of human history, a whole layer of society that always threatened to overwhelm the elite, intelligent minority. In intellectual circles he said, all that “survives under the name of Christianity, above the stratum of that mob, is no more than a sort of Humanism, with a little more supernaturalism in it than you will find in mathematics or political economy.”

What then does this say about the New College of the Humanities? This, if you haven’t heard about it, is the new ‘educational’ institution which A. C. Grayling, a prominent celebrity philosopher, is setting up, and which will charge £18,000 a year in tuition fees to 80 percent of its students.  At the top of the new ‘college’ is an elite ‘professoriate’ made up of similar elite and famous intellectuals, including Richard Dawkins, liberal legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, neo-imperialist historian Niall Ferguson, and others all listed on the college’s website.  The fact that I use the word elite is not some left-wing canard either, in fact, as Dawkins stated on his webpage, ‘The ‘elitism’ charge simply never occurred to me. If it had, I probably would still have gone ahead and signed up, because I had not been impressed with the Blairite vision of university education.’ So right away, we can deduce that this new college, which as one commentator stated, looks more like ‘Jamie’s Dream School’ than anything, has its prestige and conferred status, as its most attractive feature for those participating in it.

What will this new college be like? The ‘Oxbridge rejects’, according to Boris Johnson, that attend this college are apparently going to be treated to the very best of Oxbridge education, with its centrepiece being the vaunted tutorial system, which Dawkins claims made him who he is, and which entails one to one meetings with teachers in which they discuss an essay submission. According to the website, the professors will take a personal interest in the each and every student that attends. However, it has now been revealed that this personal attention will have to be crammed into a single one hour lecture a year in most cases.  Almost all the work involved in the college is going to be, let’s say, outsourced, to a caste of junior academic foot soldiers.

Grayling reminds us that universities are parasitic institutions, and he has taken this to the absolute extreme. Not only will the professoriate leech off the hard work of their underlings, but they won’t even provide a syllabus, which Grayling has simply plagiarised from the University of London International Program.  Even the courses I took as a history undergrad at Royal Holloway, all appear here on the program, word for word, and my previous tutors are livid.  But this will not even be a university, that fortunately (for now) is a legally protected title, this new college is the same as colleges around the world which provide University of London courses, but are not connected to the university itself, except that is, where a few specially selected colleges have after many years of reliable teaching, been given recognition as a ‘partner’ of the university.  The New College of the Humanities will not even have this to begin with – it has the same legal status as all the crammer colleges you see lined up on the streets which teach anxious migrants and teenagers to pass their GCSEs.

But nonetheless, £18,000 a year is the price-tag.  After all, the wealthy city financiers that back this project are going to have to be paid off somehow, ‘that’s just business’ Grayling said in The Independent. There’s a common fallacy that this college is philathropic, which is deliberately promoted by the prominent display of a number and ‘registered charity’ over the top on the website.  Like the public schools, this amounts to only allowing a few lumpen-proles to study there for free if they show they really deserve it.  But no, this is a ‘private company limited by shares’, a straightforward private corporation, in which bankers own two thirds, and the rest is a cut for the upper circle of professors.  The charitable component will be the scholarships that will allow 10 percent to study for free, and another ten percent to ‘only’ pay the new maximum rate in the public sector of £9,000 a year.

Grayling tells his potential applicants in a video that they will share the resources of the surrounding colleges and the London Student’sUnion. They will apparently have access to the gym facilities, bars, rooms, clubs and much else that the public sector has paid for and is essential for the running of any college. Unfortunately for him, the Vice Chancellor of his former University Birkbeck has completely denied this, and fortunately all of the surrounding student’s unions are passing motions to greylist the college, meaning the students who attend it will have no support facilities at all.  But it gets worse, Cambridge Lecturer Michael Hrebeniak called the college posing as an applicant and asked if he could tour the college before he applied, the answer was no:

MH: Could that be because the New College of the Humanities doesn’t have a premises?

NCH: I think you’re right. It doesn’t sound very good does it?

MH: No, not really. It sounds like a racket.

NCH: I know.

MH: I hope you can secure a job elsewhere pretty soon. Thanks so much for your time. Cheerio.

NCH: Thank you, too. Goodbye.

It has no buildings at all at present, not even rented ones. Our attempts to picket the college buildings were impossible, because we literally have no idea where this college is going to be, except the assurance it will be inBloomsburysomewhere. But to top it all off it turns out that in flat contradiction to Grayling’s assurances that this project has no connection to the Tory government, apart from an ‘enthusiastic verbal response’ that is, it turns out one of the major donors to the party gave Grayling £200,000 to ‘breathe life into the idea’.

There is a deeper point here.

As long as there have been societies, there have been intellectuals. And what has the role of these wise-men in society always been? They have always been the pets of power, parasitic on them, paid by them to wash their interests in the neutral language of the will of the household gods, or nowadays in the language expertise.  Until now, the state has been willing to fill in this role, the intellectuals are maintained as a privileged class in society by public financing, and in return they have educated the upper-echelons of the population in the ‘how to think’ (Grayling again).  What the political establishment has been doing for the last couple of decades has been to hollow out this partnership by progressively holding back, and now massively cutting funding for higher education and for research.

It is the assault on this relationship which really vexes the likes of Grayling and Dawkins, and both keep making the claim that they wish the government would continue to fund them out of public taxes, but now that it turns out they won’t they will have to go elsewhere for patronage. What has precipitated this shift? Of course there is a general background of a decaying social democracy, which means there is a similar drive toward privatisation everywhere. But in the universities, and especially the humanities, there has always been a tension in this relationship, as some academics began to insist on more independence to be critical of power, and to insist on education for the sake of public enlightenment instead of the needs of the economy, or ‘employability’.  What follows is that familiar charge from the Right that hardly needs repeating, that the universities are a nest of Marxists, poisoning the minds of the youth against society.

So Dawkins and Grayling have both spoken out against Critical Theory, calling its practitioners charlatans, quoting the Sokal Affair, and Grayling stating writers like Alain de Botton ‘write books which are like the cream that comes out of the aerosol and vanishes after a few minutes.’ I wouldn’t challenge this in some cases – I mean you ask a real fan of Deleuze for the key points they took from his work, and what you get is a brief look like they’ve lost something, a disappointing comment about ‘desire’, and that’s about it. But make no mistake, what is objectionable to the establishment is not that they are talking crap, if this was the case most textbooks for management courses would be burned, it is that they are critical, and hence have no utility for the market or the state.

On the Politics Show on Sunday morning, a former Labour minster confirms this assessment, telling an interviewer that the publically funded model might need to be preserved, so higher education could be directed to meet the ‘future needs of the economy.’ So this is the key determining factor in the politics of higher education today, the distinction between those in the present coalition who think it best for capital accumulation to drive academia directly into the hands of big business by slashing teaching and research budgets, or those on the other side, who think there is still some space for public provision if the system can be made to do the same from the centre. It is hardly surprising that the prominent New Atheists have been the first to comply with their masters instructions. They know what is required if they want to keep their position above the rest of us, and above the religious mentality they associate with the mob that they implicitly despise the same way as Mencken did in the 20s.

The lessons of this for us have to be two-fold. Firstly, of course we will fight to the last to defend the public education system, against this college, and to get back to free education for all, at all levels.  But if this is all we do, then we will probably lose, if not immediately, then in the longer run.  I am being a pessimist here, I don’t think that, in the long-term, we can drive the profiteers out of the system, when already a number of other colleges are contemplating moving into the private sector, and those that don’t are going bust. This is part of a very long trend, which has been built into the higher education system from the start, with prominent universities being reliant on grants from the government, for instance, military funding in engineering, and the drugs companies in medicine.  When it comes to the humanities, this only has use for the system we live under if it is directed at the establishment, and those who are willing to serve it faithfully. In the hands of you and me it is a disaster, because we care about the history of labour struggles, and imperialism, and the economic exploitation of ourselves and broad masses of people around the world.  That is why this new college offers a lobotomised version of the humanities, with all the critical influences excised and replaced with the euro-centric ‘history’ of Ferguson, and positivist philosophy of Steven Pinker, Dawkins and Krauss.

The second point is that we need to rediscover the meaning of radical education. I saw something like this in the Really Free School inLondon. It operated out of squatted pubs, and it brought radicals together to teach other about the nature of pedagogy and of effective organisation. There is no reason why we cannot replicate the model Grayling has shown us in respect to setting up our own small colleges, which teach our own history, and our own philosophy.  We don’t need to look for the patronage of business or the state, because we can teach each other anywhere, in the park, our living rooms, our squats, in the street, the cafes or the pubs.  This is what we need, radical education from below, something the system can’t absorb, can never be privatised or nationalised, or owned by anyone but ourselves.  We are not just about exposing and challenging Grayling and the cretins who have chosen to follow him, but busting open the whole system of socialisation and indoctrination that the university represents. No more debt-slavery for us, certainly not like any idiot who is fooled into going to this sham, crammer of a college.  We can free ourselves from this system, but we have to organise and we have to build independently, something we’ve already started to do.

But this is not an alternative to, or a substitute for mainstream education.  In the past, this form of education, explored by Jonathan Rose in his book The Intellectual Life of the English Working Classes, showed how this kind of spontaneous education in the form of The Plebs League, Ruskin College and the Workers Educational Association, eventually led to, but was replaced with universal education. This is understandable because we all want a dependable system that we can all rely on.  We cannot abandon higher education to the wolves that are circling it, but have to advance on multiple fronts to defend a system that protects out intellectual independence, as well giving all people access to a quality education.  In fact, we have to make the prospect of independent, radical working class education so dangerous that the establishment will willingly do anything to undermine it, including recreating the old system of grants and free access.

The last problem now is resistance, how do we do it? What is effective? Well first of all, we must not fall into the trap being set by the professors that have so far been targeted by us for protests and pickets. They will maintain a persona of rationality, dialogue, which is meant to reflect our marginality, our lack of willingness to discuss rationally with our opponents.  On rushing into the ‘humanist’ evening of conversation between Dawkins and P.Z. Myers, the shouts came down from the audience ‘ignorant!’, ‘idiots!’, one started reading a book in the midst of the commotion to try and make a point, ‘look, I don’t care about you, my apathy shows you’re worthless.’ This is total rubbish. The louder we are, and the more disruptive we are, the more it makes their indifference look mad, not the other way around.  An article on a ‘libertarian’ site, argued we were restricting Grayling’s right to freedom of speech by attacking his ideas in Foyles, and using the smoke bomb at the end. The idea that we could do this to someone with such broad connections in the media, who can call up any paper he likes and have a article printed is obviously absurd. But it doesn’t matter what we do, we will always be cast as absurd if we resist the interests of business or the establishment.

But finally our resistance has to be inclusive, because we cannot allow it to become the property of a narrow group of activists.  So far the resistance has been about as good as it can be, so far its included work within the academic channels, from academic staff, from those working within the student’s bodies, as well as militant activism from students themselves.  Let’s keep this broad approach, advancing on all fronts, working to defend the present system, as well as building a new one from below.

5 thoughts on “grayling’s atrocity: what it means and what we’re going to do about it.

  1. Good article. Best part:
    ‘We don’t need to look for the patronage of business or the state, because we can teach each other anywhere, in the park, our living rooms, our squats, in the street, the cafes or the pubs. This is what we need, radical education from below, something the system can’t absorb, can never be privatised or nationalised, or owned by anyone but ourselves.’

    I agree completely, so much so that I’m planning to home-school (or park-school/street-school/pub-school) my kids, once I manage to have some.


  2. It’s not exactly what I had in mind, you can keep the public system, you do all that other independent education as a parent anyway. Which is a model we all have to follow, in and out of the state at the same time. But yes, I thought that was a nice Churchillian rhetorical highlight of my article too…


  3. I like Daniel’s article very much. Including the criticism of the secular fundamentalism of Dawkins and co . . . it’s always worth recalling Marx’s point that religion was ‘the soul of a soul-less world’, and not simply ‘the opium of the people’. On the ‘really free education’ idea, combined with remaining inside the state system (recalling “in and against the state”), it might be worth looking at the Campaign of Public Education that is gaining momentum among leftish university academics . . . and, as a retired but still busy academic, I’m very willing to combine with others with similar luxury (small pension + time) in offering my services to those who want to construct fully critical, fully democratic educational opportunities in sociology (where sociology joins hands with history, politics, psychoanalysis, literature, film, tv and political economy)


  4. I can’t get too fussed about this college. I think that the main problems facing higher education are the government cuts in funding and the ensuing cuts in jobs, courses and resources and the vastly increased fees.

    The NCH is basically a forcing-house for mediocrities with rich parents, who not only can’t get into Oxford or Cambridge, but can’t get into the University of London. It is offering UoL humanities degrees; but it is not hard with the requisite A-level scores to get into a UoL college, and there are usually quite a few vacant places left on humanities courses by the summer clearing (I know this from having been a UoL student and having worked in one of its colleges), and there will be lots more when the fees increase to £9000 per annum.

    It remains to be seen whether these rich mediocrities can be spoon-fed by the NCH into getting a UoL degree. If it has patchy results in this respect, it might not last too long.


  5. I think that is a bit complacent, and I don’t think you can separate all those different issues from this new college. The university is a vehicle of patronage for both the academics and the students. If private colleges like this one can confer more status by charging more then they will be successful, and the public counterparts will imitate them. The people attending will probably not just be rich nice but dim types either, more likely the children of the precarious middle class, anxious to keep themselves in the professions, and willing to mortgage their futures to do it.


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