Rishi and Gradgrind

Rishi Sunak’s expressed intention to cut down on university courses that don’t lead to profitable employment (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/aug/07/rishi-sunak-vows-to-end-low-earning-degrees-in-post-16-education-shake-up) should be a wake-up call to anyone who values the arts, and anything that can’t be measured in terms of financial gain.

For of course universities are not just utilitarian institutions, but educational ones too; there to broaden minds, stimulate thoughts, encourage criticism (in the positive sense), and – hopefully – to give students an idea of what is really valuable in life. Sunak obviously sees training students in mediaeval history, for example, as a waste of money: both the State’s and – ever since student fees came in – the students’ own. (Thatcher I remember thought the same.) How much a course earns for the people taking it in their post-university careers is all that matters. Put in the investment, and see how it multiplies.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this. Rishi before he turned to politics was a banker – a very rich one; and this is very much a banker’s view: ultra-materialistic and sterile. It also of course fits in with Oscar Wilde’s famous definition of a cynic: someone who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Which could be seen as an apt motto for the now dominant wing of the Conservative Party, the ‘dry’ one, as opposed to Thatcher’s despised ‘wets’. Lastly, and writing as a historian, I see it as continuing a particularly English (perhaps Scottish too) tradition of philistinism, exemplified by the character of the school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times (1854): dedicated to ‘facts’ and profit alone, and denigrating ‘fancy’. 

Of course, even in terms of his own priorities Sunak can’t be sure that ‘fanciful’ courses in universities won’t turn out ‘useful’ and even wealthy people in the end. The spark of originality that education, as opposed to training, encourages in people even without directly enriching them, can have unpredictably valuable material effects later on. If Sunak had studied some History at university, even Mediaeval History (he read PPE at Oxford and Business Studies at Stanford), it might have broadened his own mind to look more critically on the conventional capitalist economics he clearly imbibed at his universities, and which seems to be entrapping him now. I’m not sure that Truss would be much of an improvement. She read PPE too.

Is this – to hark back to my last post – to be the pattern our particular British form of ‘fascism’ might take in the future? Conventional capitalism, or what is misleadingly called the ‘free economy’, will be at the heart of it, protected by agencies of oppression; what Anthony Gamble characterised years ago – describing Thatcherism – as ‘the free economy in a strong state’. Limiting university syllabuses to ‘useful’ and earnful subjects, together with all the other tools of incipient authoritarianism – effective censorship, limiting public protest, privatisation of ‘free’ broadcast channels, oppressing immigrants, criminalising anti-Britishness, disregarding inconvenient kinds of expertise, propaganda, distorting history, manipulating voting (Cambridge Analytica), help from Russia, and of course the Daily Mail – could well give the clue to the sort of quasi-fascist society that Britain is about to become.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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