Wednesday , December 13 2017
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The Little University on the Prairie

Apparently there is a plan in Scotland to pay students £8000 per year to study. Scottish students already have their fees paid by the taxpayer. The idea now is that they should be paid the equivalent of the “living wage” to study. This all begins to get rather expensive for the tax payer. But is it worth it?

A while back I came across an exam paper from the late nineteenth century. The task involved translating various passages from English literature into Ancient Greek. With a bit of effort I could imagine doing the reverse of this. Give me a few months, a dictionary and a grammar and I could probably make a stab at translating a bit of Plato or the Bible. But to translate Shakespeare into the language of Homer, to translate Milton into the language of Xenophon, this is a task I could not imagine being able to do.  Yet there were students from an unsung Scottish university able to do something that nearly all of us today would consider to be impossible.

We have a habit of looking down on the past as something superseded. Look at those awful late Victorians with their “white man’s burden” and their dreadful views about everything. How lucky we are to be so enlightened. How terrible it must have been for them to live in such darkness. But if you ever have the chance to read a work of scholarship from this period, you might be surprised to discover the level that was attained. Civil servants in India would produce scholarly editions of the Vedas as a hobby. Our man in Baghdad could actually speak fluent Arabic in various dialects and understood the history of the area and the people who lived there. It was for this reason that he could give sensible advice to the Government.

The reason these people could do these things is that university education in the late nineteenth century was of a very high standard indeed. Whatever people studied required hard work and serious intelligence. It didn’t much matter what someone studied, because any employer would immediately recognise that a degree from even the most humble Scottish university qualified someone to take on whatever burden was assigned. Does it do that now?

When I wander into the university library the first thing that I meet is a wall of sound. It may as well be Ronnie of the Ronettes telling me to be her baby for all that this present building resembles any previous place I have ever tried to study. I remember going to the University Library in Cambridge and finding silence. Anyone who spoke more than a couple of whispers immediately got a dirty look. No-one went to study with their friends. But we have progressed. Now we have a social space. Now we have collaborative learning. I would prefer frankly to leave collaborating to the French.

I find myself frequently in a room where I am the only one actually reading a book. I open my book of Russian literature and begin reading. I continue doing this until I’ve read enough and leave. This is what I think studying is. But I am the only one doing it. The first thing that everyone else does when they enter the room is to open their laptop. They then open their mobile phone and proceed to switch attention from the one to the other until this becomes boring and they then proceed to chat with their friends. On the laptop is everything that they need to study. All the lecture notes have been written up with nice bullet points. Nearly everything that has to be read can be found on something called a “virtual learning environment”. It is rarely if ever necessary to even go and look for a book, let alone read it.

Some good work is still being done. Intelligence is a constant. The same proportion of the population is very able as was the case one hundred years ago. But a university degree no longer tells me that someone is even moderately able. Governments increased student numbers to such an extent that people with IQs of 100 and sometimes even less can obtain a degree. This logically follows from expanding numbers towards 50%. The standard has to be lowered otherwise those towards the bottom of the ability range would have to be kicked out. But this also means that those towards the top are unable properly to distinguish themselves from anyone else. It also means that there are courses I have come across where the set texts include Little House on the Prairie.

The tragedy is that I see able students who work hard, who find it impossible to get a job that is suitable for their ability. Sometimes they choose to do a further course to try to distinguish themselves, sometimes they start at the bottom doing a job they could have done at sixteen.  Many jobs that used to be done by school leavers now require five or more years of education, just to gain a piece of paper that is then used to set up a sort of closed shop to protect those who have it from competition.

Degrees that teach something objective have retained some of their merit. But many of the courses in the Arts and Social Sciences are simply teaching young people how to be unemployed. The problem is that far, far too many people are studying these courses. The only merit in medieval history or philosophy is that they provide a mental training that can then be transferred to for instance translating the Vedas or Shakespeare into Greek. But when you make these courses open to those of moderate ability they cease to provide a mental training for the ablest and cease to distinguish the ablest from the moderate. What then do they do? Well you might teach about life on the prairie in the nineteenth century America, but this won’t help you do anything and it won’t distinguish you from anyone else. Anyway we knew all of this already from watching television.

The Arts and Social Sciences in particular have been taken over by the Left. We now have books dealing with Feminism in Spinoza and post colonialism in Macbeth. The only way to pass is to toe the party line. We now have safe spaces even and trigger warnings. Here’s a warning. You are not going to like this blog. Whatever is the latest fad, we must import it. Dare not question it. Is this really worth paying so much for?

At some point in the near future someone is going to demand that I call them “ze” instead of “she” or “he”. Fair warning. I will laugh. I won’t be able to restrain myself.  This is what is now coming out of our universities. We must accept without question and without argument whatever the latest left-wing fad is. But to accept in this way is to give up the ability to think for yourself. But the only purpose of going to university to study the Arts and Social Sciences is to question everything, argue about everything and think for yourself. Without this you have nothing and certainly nothing worth paying for.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: http://effiedeans.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/the-little-university-on-prairie.html

About Effie Deans

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Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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