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Vol. 24 No. 24 · 12 December 2002

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The Great Education Disaster

It is an interesting paradox that while selection is being reintroduced to secondary education, as Ross McKibbin writes (LRB, 28 November), tertiary education is under pressure to become ‘comprehensive’. Universities are enjoined to find ever more inventive ways of having 50 per cent of school-leavers (or is it now ‘people between 18 and 30’?) gain a university degree (or is it now ‘having some experience of a university’?). That ‘target’, actually a mere political wish stated by Tony Blair or his adviser Andrew Adonis, has no credible foundation: were it based on reasoned calculation, we might have a less symbolic figure. As a target, 50 per cent has no content, which is why it is so easy for the Government to shift its ground from school-leavers to 18-30-year-olds, from gaining degrees to having some tertiary experience – come for an Open Day. It is not clear what is being ‘joined up’ by Blair’s advisers, but it is clear that it is neither ‘education’ as (at least) a tripartite whole nor ‘rational thinking’.

One persuasive reason some secondary schools have gone along with the divisive ‘specialist school’ agenda is financial. The Government is unable or unwilling to fund all schools adequately, so it is incumbent on head teachers and governing bodies to grasp any ‘initiative’ from which money will follow. ‘Arts school’ status is as attractive as ‘sports’ or ‘language’, so long as it brings in the £100,000 that will help fill the £250,000 hole at the centre of a budget. That hole will, for many secondary schools, get bigger next year when the Government stops funding the ‘threshold’ pay deal (an extra £2000) for many teachers. Apart from the money, what else is there? A good drama department breaks up as teachers leave their ‘arts school’ for promotions elsewhere; my child might be a gifted linguist and footballer; a community with many children good at languages finds there is no ‘language school’ in their area; and so on. The ‘specialist school’ and associated ‘initiatives’ are designed to occlude the fact that the Government is no longer willing to do what is required to fund a national education service, and this affects not only secondary education, but the parts of the system that surround it.

In primary schools, divisions are made by the end of Key Stage One (seven-year-olds) and, in some instances, even before that. As Estelle Morris herself pointed out, divisions are sometimes being made within the first week of the child’s entry into formal schooling. Assessment in the primary sector is there not to enable children to develop but in the first instance to allow the Government to claim that certain political targets have been met.

At the tertiary level, the Government’s failure of nerve led it to introduce fees. it’s now trying to gain legitimacy for the idea of ‘top-up’ fees (in other words, a significant hike) by propagating the idea that it is a ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’ way of funding higher education, when the truth is that ‘fees’ and ‘graduate taxes’ are a way of allowing the Government not to fund higher education. The only position (hardly an argument) advanced in favour of fees is that they are not fees but investments, based on a view of education as a way of enabling private gain. But there are other reasons for going to university besides financial greed. A doctor will enjoy a salary that is likely to be higher than the salary she would have had had she not gone to university, but she is not alone in benefiting from her education. The idea that she benefits ‘disproportionately’, as Charles Clarke suggests, is insulting to her and to her patients. The same is true of the other professional and academic disciplines taught in a university, from astronomy to zoology, from literature to sociology.

And what about business? As McKibbin points out, businessmen do not know what they want from universities, other than graduates who can do whatever it is that their business requires. But since business, of its nature, is constantly changing, so also the requirements of business change. It is therefore not possible to organise an education system on a business model. After three years or so a university produces a graduate with specific and highly advanced capabilities. Then the university gives its product away, free, to business and other spheres. Maybe it is time for those businesses, who will certainly benefit from the education that their employees have, to pay something back. The business community has been given the opportunity in the past to make significant contributions, to ‘city academies’, for instance; but in the absence of a PFI gain associated with these invitations, they have been rather slow to take them up.

Thomas Docherty
University of Kent, Canterbury

What Americans Really Think

F.S. Schwarzbach (Letters, 14 November) writes that, so far as support for an invasion of Iraq is concerned, the wishes of the electorate were not represented by the vote in Congress giving Bush a ‘blank cheque’. Popular preferences bear only an occasional relationship to the distribution of seats in either house of Congress. The shift in the midterm elections was so fractional that a change of a mere 22,000 votes (in New Hampshire and Missouri) would have left the Democrats in charge of the Senate. it’s true (or probable) that the reversal of the ordinary historical tendency for the Administration to lose a few seats in the mid-term elections represented a personal success for George W. Bush’s brand of right-wing populism, but these are not ordinary times, and it seems to me that the election results concealed the fact that neither party enjoys the confidence of a genuine electoral majority. There is a substantial proportion of voters with no love for the Bush Administration, but no sense of affinity with the Democrats. After winning in 2000 by half a million votes, on a very low turnout, Gore remained silent and the Democrats have since failed to define themselves as an opposition party.

J.R. Pole

Free Norway

Joanna Griffiths’s Diary (LRB, 31 October) presented a glum view of Tromsø. Her descriptions are filled with error and, at best, convey only part of the story. Tromsø was considered the Paris of the North not because of some deluded civic sense of physical similarity, as Griffiths implies, but because at the end of the 19th century the city was wealthy enough, from trade and fishing, for women frequently to import the ‘latest’ Paris fashions. In her final paragraph, Griffiths describes herself looking across the fjord to the lights of Tromsø, but this is impossible from the airport. The city centre is on the other side of the hill: she was most probably seeing the lights of the island of Kvaloya, a growing suburb across the sound from Tromsø island. More important, she failed to mention that Tromsø is the regional centre for the northern part of Norway, home to one of four national universities and a very large medical centre, with one of the highest densities of PhDs and MDs in Europe.

Griffiths clearly travelled to Tromsø when the light was fading in late autumn or just returning in the late winter, seasons of very changeable weather. Her descriptions of the ‘battened down houses’ do not tally with my experience of houses with beautiful, open interiors and spectacular views. Sometimes Tromsø is ‘wind-lashed’; sometimes during the summer you might have weeks of round-the-clock sunshine and temperatures of 25°C. During the admittedly long winter, the Gulf Stream ensures that the temperature rarely strays much beyond a few degrees above or below zero. The -10ºC she claims as hardly exceptional, is, in fact, exceptional. I spent almost four years in Tromsø, and I, too, have ‘issues’ with the city, but it is also one of the most enchantingly beautiful and unpredictable places I have known.

Robert Lipton
Berkeley, California

Fossilised Underwear

Katha Pollitt’s essay about corsets (LRB, 14 November) reminded me of an item on my boarding school’s clothing list in the 1950s. Among the underwear, in addition to the brown knickers (to match our uniform) and the six pairs of white linings (to wear under the knickers), we were required to bring four vests and ‘two liberty bodices, or brassieres if worn’. The assumption was that any of us too young to need a bra would wear over her vest a garment that looked like a filleted corset. There were no bones, but reinforcing tapes ran vertically the length of the bodice every six inches or so. I believe that before our time these tapes had continued beneath the edge of the garment in the shape of suspenders. We wore knee-length socks, so had no need for suspenders, but I suppose we were wearing a fossil of the garment young girls had once worn. ‘Liberty’, I imagine, reflected the freedom from bones and stays.

Elizabeth Danson
Princeton, New Jersey

Is deference still with us?

A footnote to Frank Kermode’s review of Humphrey Carpenter’s The Angry Young Men (LRB, 28 November): around 1960 I was returning from abroad but was stopped by an immigration official who demanded further proof of my status. I had little on me, but in one pocket chanced on my membership card for the Establishment Club. ‘Well, I am a member of the Establishment,’ I said, to which he replied, without twitching a muscle, so that to this day I don’t know whether the old deference was still with us or we were sharing a private joke: ‘Oh well sir, if you are a member of the Establishment, that’s fine,’ and waved me through.

Rex Winsbury
London WC1

Book history does exist

There are problems in Leah Price’s characterisation of book history and the difficulties it currently faces (LRB, 31 October). It is true, as she says, that textual editors share certain questions with poststructuralists: the origins and instability of the text, the authority of the author and so on. But the difficulty, or impossibility, of recuperating meaning and intention is, for most of them, a matter of regret. Textual reconstruction remains the goal, even when the effort is understood as doomed, an attempt to recover what cannot be recovered. This Romantic inflection is entirely absent from, for example, Roland Barthes’s critique of authorship.

The role that ‘Readers’ and kindred forms of academic publishing are playing in defining and reshaping disciplines demands careful scrutiny, and is arguably far more significant than Price supposes. Readers do indeed use ‘voices’ to sell themselves, packaging collections of original texts, abridged or not. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that there is ‘no free indirect discourse here’. Quite apart from the unavoidable fact of selectivity, the whole apparatus of the Reader – the often extensive commentaries in general and sectional introductions, the titling and ordering of sections, the indexing strategy – strongly proposes ways of reading and valuing those voices.

Price sees a difficulty in thinking and working with the book as both commodity and artefact, but this has not been an intractable problem in the study of film, television or fine art. Are books so very different? One problem, which Price herself points to, is that book history tends to privilege empirical inquiry. Film studies, in contrast, don’t deal only with particular texts and genres and periods, but work towards a theoretical understanding of the processes of production and dissemination of the cinematic institution as a whole. Why not a similar attempt to theorise the processes and practices of the book? Why not Publishing Studies?

Rachel Malik
Middlesex University

Where have all the books gone?

Jeffrey Frankland (Letters, 28 November) is incorrect in stating that the British Library holds neither the Hesperus Press edition of Heart of Darkness nor Elisabeth Jay’s edition of The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant. Both can be found in our automated catalogue – go to and click on ‘search’.

Anne Summers
British Library, London NW1

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