Sleeping in the Cinema

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

The below is a rough draft of a paper I was going to present at an academic conference in London this summer, but from which I have withdrawn because I can’t really afford it.

It is relatively ‘whimsical’ and not ‘hard science,’ though it flirts with some science in it.

But I offer it as ‘notes’ about what for me is a prominent aspect of the film viewing experience, falling asleep.

“You are 8 ½. What an age for a boy to ask about cinema and dream! It occurs to me that that same evening, Dadda was telling me that his falling asleep in the cinema is a particular honour to the film in question. He was telling me this as a compliment, his having snored through three of the four films released last year in which I appeared.”

– Tilda Swinton (2006: 111)

In an age when film studies wishes to map almost every aspect of the film experience – from ideological influence to affective response, from audience feedback to galvanic skin responses, sleeping in the cinema remains an overlooked aspect of spectatorship.

And yet, what does it mean to sleep in the cinema? Is it simply an index of a film’s failure to capture the attention of the viewer, such that they prefer instead to doze off in pursuit of more interesting thoughts? Or might sleeping in the cinema be something more akin to what Tilda Swinton playfully suggests is her father’s experience of the majority of her films – that is, an honour and a compliment to the film in question?

Theories of why humans sleep vary, although given that not all animal species do sleep, the prevailing logic would suggest that sleep does serve some function that benefits us, and which outweighs the dangers that are associated with sleeping, namely that one is not particularly aware of the potential dangers that could be lurking in one’s vicinity while in that particular state.

What is more, we spend roughly one third of our existence asleep, which reinforces the notion that it must serve some evolutionarily beneficial purpose.

The most common and seemingly plausible theory of sleep is that humans do it for the sake of information storage.

Various studies have shown that sleep enhances synaptic efficacy ‘through oscillatory neural activity providing “dynamic stabilisation” for neural circuits storing inherited information and information acquired through experience… Sleep, therefore, serves the maintenance of inherited and acquired memories as well as the process of storage of new memory traces’ (Krueger et al 1999: 121).

In other words, sleep fulfils some of the same functions that waking life achieves, namely our adaptation to the environment: ‘the major function of sleep is to maintain our ability to adapt to a continually changing environment since that ability is dependent on brain microcircuitry’ (Krueger et al 1999: 126).

By keeping our brains fluid and malleable, sleep enables us better to consolidate memories, which in turn enable us better to navigate our waking world.

It is perhaps useful at this point to explain that there are two separate modes of sleep, which some view as supporting ‘quantitatively different states of consciousness’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 685), namely rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.

Dreams only take place in REM sleep, which is deemed to ‘release hallucinosis at the expense of thought,’ perhaps because ‘the activated forebrain is aminergically demodulated compared with waking and NREM sleep’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 686).

What this latter phrase means is that the neurons used to regulate (or modulate) the size and intensity of certain brain waves (e.g. ponto-geniculo-occipital, or PGO waves) during NREM and waking life do not fire (the waves are ‘demodulated’).

As a result of this, and the hyperactivation and deactivation of other brain regions, REM sleep, or dream, is characterised by ‘the lack of self-reflective awareness, the inability to control dream action voluntarily, and the impoverishment of analytical thought’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 686).

Having differentiated between REM and NREM sleep, though, it is important to remember that both seem to serve a similar function: NREM sleep ‘could allow recent inputs to be reiterated in a manner that promotes plasticity processes that are associated with memory consolidation,’ while during REM sleep ‘the brain is reactivated but the microchemistry and regional activation patterns are markedly different from those of waking and NREM sleep.’

As a result, Hobson and Pace-Schott conclude that ‘[c]ortically consolidated memories, originally stored during NREM by iterative processes such as corticopetal information outflow from the hippocampus, would thus be integrated with other stored memories during REM’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 691).

If both REM and NREM sleep help to consolidate memory, albeit in different ways, during sleep, then the distinction is not necessarily a useful one to draw with regard to sleeping in the cinema, not least because it is hard to determine, even via introspection based upon personal experience, what kind of sleep goes on in the cinema – if there is a constant type of sleep that does happen in the cinema at all.

What is more, the case has been made that there is in fact slippage between REM sleep, NREM sleep and waking life. This is not just on account of the fact that we can ‘hallucinate’ during waking life, or have ‘day dreams,’ such that ‘all conscious states – including waking – might have some quantifiable aspects of dream-like mental activity’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 684).

Instead, this is based upon the fact that parts of the brain are always ‘asleep’ while other parts are more activated, meaning that even our waking life is characterised in part by areas of our brain sleeping.

In spite of this blurred boundary between waking, REM, and NREM sleep, however, the distinction might be useful for us in thinking about more ‘ecological’ causes of sleep.

The cinema is a darkened room; although light shines from a projector and is reflected from a screen, the room is predominantly dark.

Arguably (see Brown 2011), the light from the screen, particularly in the case of rapid changes of intensity and colour (i.e. lots of onscreen movement in the form of figural motion, camera motion, and cutting) in conjunction with loud noise, is enough to activate our attention in a quasi-involuntary manner.

However, the darkness of the room might also be important, since sunlight inhibits the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a compound that synchronises the biological clock; that is, once darkness falls, melatonin is released by the pineal gland, and this is useful as an anti-oxidant and for the immune system.

The darkness of the cinema, then, may also bring about a release of melatonin, which in turn prepares us for sleep.

I might add that melatonin is produced from serotonin in the human body. Both melatonin and serotonin have been considered as playing a role in human sleep, and both have also been used in the manufacture of recreational drugs for their hallucinatory qualities.

Now, cinema has been equated with the dream state since at least the 1950s (for example, Langer, 1953), but rather than the typically psychoanalytic slant given to the relationship between dream and film, I should like here to pursue a different, admittedly (equally?) speculative line.

Both serotonin and melatonin are neurotransmitters; that is, they help to transmit signals across neurons. When, as mentioned earlier, aminergic demodulation takes place, serotonin and melatonin allow the level of hallucinosis to rise.

Serotonin in particular is linked to feelings of euphoria (it is used in MDMA, or ecstasy).

It is interesting that as a transmitter – a guardian in the neuronal gateways – serotonin is between actual signals, but it modifies which signals travel through our brain – which connections are made.

Or rather, serotonin, from my understanding of it, enables brain plasticity; that is, it enables more, not fewer connections, to be made, and is comparatively inhibited, if still at work, during waking and NREM sleep as opposed to REM sleep.

As such, serotonin and melatonin (but the latter seemingly to a lesser extent) are a means of regulating not what we envision, but how we envision it; for creating and cementing new connections in the brain.

On a purely speculative level, in an era whereby scans of the human brain are being carried out during film viewing (see Hasson et al 2004; 2008; Kauppi et al 2010), it would be interesting to see if there are any similarities between brain function during REM sleep and film viewing – that is, whether the human brain considers film viewing in general, or certain types of film viewing, to be a form of hallucinosis.

As a neurotransmitter, which sits between signals or brain events, there is something intriguing about serotonin; as the interval between brain signals, we might consider a neurotransmitter to be more temporal than spatial: neurons themselves have extension, while a neurotransmitter is what decides whether to convert an action potential into an actual action.

As such, the neurotransmitter sits at the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious, between potential and action, between perception and hallucination, and between space (extension) and time (intensity).

Maximising serotonin levels, both in REM sleep and in hallucinosis (and maybe even in cinema?) is the foregrounding of the temporal and the intense rather than the spatial elements and extensive/motor processes of the brain.

Approaching the issue of sleeping in the cinema from the introspective point of view – that is, basing thoughts upon personal experience – during the period from 1 September 2007 to 1 September 2008, I went to the cinema roughly 150 times.

I fell asleep during roughly one third of the films that I saw at the cinema, which is of course a high tally.

I cannot say for certain, but based upon running times and/or conversations with others in attendance, my sleep typically lasted between 2 and 20 minutes.

There are several factors that contribute to my sleeping: typically I do not sleep particularly great lengths of time at night (six hours on average), and I do as a result often find myself tired during the day.

Post-perandial cinema visits, particularly in the early afternoon, would most often induce sleep, as to a lesser extent might early to mid-afternoon screenings before which I had not eaten.

In addition, early to mid-afternoon screenings tend to involve fewer patrons; the presence of other patrons in the theatre, in terms of atmospheric noise, temperature and perhaps also in terms of ‘emotional contagion,’ can affect the way in which we view a film – and the absence of others might also increase the likelihood of sleep.

What is more, my slouching posture and the comfort of the chairs, in addition to the potential effect that the melatonin-inducing darkness of the cinema hall can have on viewers, may also contribute to my nodding off.

Although these factors are important to take into account, I know from experience, however, that I also fell (and typically fall) asleep far more often during what we might term ‘art house’ films than I did (or do) during what we might term ‘blockbusters,’ if drawing such a crude dichotomy between film types be allowed for the sake of argument.

Rarely did I fall asleep for lack of enjoyment; if I may speak personally, very few are the films I do not like, and I like art house films most of all, at least in proportion to the number that I see when compared to the relatively few blockbusters that I actually enjoy relative to the number of those that I see.

Now, art house films tend to have smaller audiences than blockbusters, and given my desire to see them during the cheaper early to mid-afternoon screening slots, the small audience size may well have an even greater effect on my likelihood of sleeping than watching a blockbuster during the day.

That is to say, I suspect that each of these factors plays a role in my falling asleep in the cinema.

However, the most common factor seemed to be the art house nature of the films; that is, regardless of my (often high) level of enjoyment, the relatively slow nature of these films, in terms of movement onscreen, camera motion and in terms of cutting rate, helped to bring about sleep.

This stands to reason on a certain level: if we are aroused by fast action and the loud explosions of blockbusters, it is more likely that we will feel drowsy and/or fall asleep when no danger is clear or present.

However, I should like to offer a different reason, not necessarily in contradiction of this prior reason, but certainly alongside it.

The afore-mentioned work on what happens in the human brain during film viewing, or ‘neurocinematics,’ suggests that audiences in fact respond very similarly to mainstream films like Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958), while there seems to be a much greater level of independent brain response during less action-packed films, the least amount of what Hasson and his team (2008) call ‘intersubjective correlation’ (ISC) taking place when viewers see a video of a tree in a park in which ‘nothing,’ so to speak, happens.

According to Hasson et al (2004: 452), the brain regions that are most commonly correlated intersubjectively during mainstream film viewing are the parahippocampal gyrus, the superior temporal gyrus, the anterior temporal poles, and the temporal-parietal junction.

The parahippocampal cortex has been identified as playing a role in REM sleep, in that it allows the sense of movement, emotion and affective salience to emerge (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 687).

Furthermore, in both film viewing and REM sleep, the fusiforim gyrus, which is useful for face recognition, has been found to function.

While circumstantial at best, it might be possible to suggest from this evidence that mainstream film viewing does function cerebrally in a manner akin to dream, especially because the movement associated with the parahippocampal gyrus is illusory in both cases.

Krueger et al suggest, contrary to much sleep research, that sleep is not dependent upon prolonged wakefulness, but rather upon synaptic use.

That is, ‘exposure to rich environments’ can increase the amount of REM sleep that we have (Krueger et al 1999: 124).

It is not entirely clear what they mean by a rich environment.

Since I do not typically fall asleep in mainstream films, we might conclude that these are not such ‘rich environments,’ for example. In spite of the rapid movement and motion in mainstream films, we could argue, that such films do much work for audiences and that they do not force the brain to work harder to comprehend what is going on. In fact, the ease with which we can understand mainstream films would in this case suggest that they are ‘simplified’ (and not ‘rich’) versions of reality (even if such ‘simple’ scenes also stimulate our attention through continued visual and auditory renewal/stimulation).

However, the greater levels of direct stimulation involved in mainstream cinema would suggest some ‘richness’ – and that it is the relatively ‘unrich’ environment of the cinema during art house fare that encourages us, or at any rate me, to sleep.

My point is not here to resolve this conundrum, even if all types of cinema might be said to constitute some sort of hallucinosis, in that we see objects that are only images, but which we might on a certain level take for real, as we do a dream during our experience thereof.

Rather, my point is to say that while cinema might be akin to a shared dream, in that it can induce similar thought patterns across multiple viewers in similar regions of the brain as fire during sleeping, it is the cinema that does not involve such synchronisation of viewers’ brain patterns that is more likely – if I am anything to go by – to induce sleep itself.

Since humans are collectively involved in a world that is always affecting us, it is hard to separate when its influence ends, if at all. If we were to cling to the notion of a subjective self, however, who wanted to think for itself, then we might conceivably argue that sleep is the time when, paradoxically, given that we have little motor control over dreams and do not remember NREM sleep, that our thoughts are most ‘our own.’

That is, we function (more) ‘offline’ when asleep than during waking, during which time our thoughts constantly are being shaped by the world around us.

If Hasson et al’s research is anything to go by, then mainstream film might well bring humans together (we ‘correlate’), but it increases the probability of humans all thinking in the same way, perhaps by virtue of the simplified version of reality that mainstream cinema has to offer.

This is not to say that mainstream cinema will make automatons of us all (unless it already has).

It is to say, however, that films that do not impose images upon us, but which allow us actively to explore the image in our own way (less intersubjective correlation, more ‘art house’) might naturally induce in us that state of maximised (if never absolute) ‘independent’ thought, which is sleep.

The fact that we must search through these environments, rather than have information delivered to us in an obvious if stimulating manner, might even make them ‘rich environments’ that naturally tire us, because we must process individual (new?) thought patterns and associations that we have created for ourselves rather than had imposed upon us.

In this sense, perhaps sleeping during a film is not only an honour for and a compliment to the film in question, but it is a gift from the film to encourage independent thought, it is an act of love in certain senses.

Anthropologically speaking, humans do not always sleep just anywhere and with anyone (even though inebriation, among other altered states of consciousness, might lead us to believe that we do).

And yet, humans do feel the need to sleep with someone, even if this so-called ‘need’ is cultural.

Indeed, the act of sleeping with another human, which often is synonymous with the act of love, is perhaps the most intimate relationship that two humans can have.

In Being Singular Plural (2000), Jean-Luc Nancy argues that humans must recognise the fundamental ‘withness’ of their existence.

That is, humans do not lead lives in which they can objectively observe each other, detached in their observations, but instead we are always at all points with each other, leading a relative existence, in the sense that we are always only ever coexisting, and that, indeed, there is no existence without coexistence and communcation.

Nancy writes:

“‘to speak with’ is not so much speaking to oneself or to one another, nor is it ‘saying’ (declaring, naming), nor is it proffering (bringing forth meaning or bringing meaning to light). Rather, ‘to speak with’ is the conversation (and sustaining) and conatus of a being-exposed, which exposes only the secret of its own exposition. Saying ‘to speak with’ is like saying ‘to sleep with,’ ‘to go out with’ (co-ire), or ‘to live with’: it us a (eu)phemism for (not) saying nothing less than what ‘wanting to say’ means [le ‘vouloir-dire’ veut dire] in many different ways; that is to say, it says Being itself as communication and thinking: the co-agitatio of Being.” (Nancy 2000: 92-93)

Picking apart this passage, Nancy offers communication as a means of exposing oneself, of opening oneself up to the other (and elsewhere, Nancy [2008] has written about how exposure is part of the cinematic experience, as we are ex-peau-sed to the skin (pellicule) of the film).

To open oneself up in this way is like sleeping with or going with: co-itus/coitus as part of this communication.

Paradoxically, it takes sleeping with someone else, that experience in which we are most ‘ourselves’ because ‘offline’ (even if never fully so), in order fully to ‘communicate’ or expose oneself to the other.

It is to accept and to be accepted by the other, a level of thought in which we are not the detached, thinking observer that Descartes proposes as the mind split from the body, and which finds expression in his cogito ergo sum.

In an age in which neuroscience has tried to overthrow the sway under which Descartes’ most famous phrase has held us (see, for example, Damasio 1994), because for neuroscience there is no detached thought/mind-body dualism since we are always only ever embodied, in that our ‘higher’ conscious processes stem from and cannot live without our so-called ‘lower’ viscera and emotions, then it would seem that we must abandon the mind-body dualism.

However, this does not necessarily mean that we must abandon the cogito entirely.

Descartes first proposes je pense, donc je suis as one of only three things about which he can have no doubt in Discourse on Method (Descartes 1998 [1637]: 53).

He refines this phrase in Principles of Philosophy (2009 [1644]: 17), where he argues that we might well imagine that there is no God and that we have no body, but that we cannot doubt our minds, because thinking determines that we must have a mind.

Descartes goes on to define thought, or cogitatio:

“By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it: and, according, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.” (Descartes 2009: 18)

If thought and the mind are precisely embodied, Descartes’ definition of cogitatio would seem misguided.

However, if, as Nancy explains to us, we remember that cogitatio is derived from co-agitatio, which etymologically speaking means to act, move, or do with, then even cogitation is always already a phenomenon done with others (and, after Damasio, with one’s body).

With regard to cinema, we might remember that there is a paradox in that to sleep/to do with another the thing that arguably requires the least ‘withness’ is in fact perhaps the most intimate or the greatest exposure than one can make of one’s self.

This paradox is logical, since if we are only with others, then one’s most ‘detached’ self is precisely that which is least ‘with’ others – i.e. self-hood is only defined with others, and so that which is most un-other-like about us, our sleeping self, is paradoxically that which is most unique to us; we are most ourselves when we are least ourselves.

Furthermore, this paradox is mirrored by the fact that to cogitate, which Descartes uphold as the highest indicator of the mind’s separation from the body, is in fact only ever a thinking with, both with our bodies and with others.

The cogito is in fact a co-agito.

Sleeping in the cinema, in which we are ‘most ourselves’ becomes in this way a communion with the film.

Many humans sleep alone, within spaces that are familiar to them. Perhaps it is as much the space of the cinema as with any particular film that we feel so intimate and safe that we can allow ourselves sleep.

That I do not sleep during blockbusters leads me to believe that I probably do not trust blockbusters; their fast movement may be arousing in terms of being attention-grabbing, but they also enervate me, making me alert and worried that something is about to happen.

The art house film, meanwhile, is a friend, or a lover, with whom I feel safe, and in a space that feels safe to me.

Since it exposes to me those things that are more intimate and meaningful than does the blockbuster, then I expose to it that which is most private in my life, my sleeping self.

We go together in a strange coitus, a co-agitatio akin to that of cogitation in the real world (and which perhaps we might differentiate from the egocentric survival instincts that the explosions of the action film seem to encourage).

I feel safe in the cinema perhaps because of familiarity, making it not a ‘rich environment’; but while a blockbuster may grab my attention, it does not necessary entertain me.

Art house films are the richest environment in which, or better with which, I think (I co-agitate) the most; blockbusters are not wholly ‘brainless,’ not least because the mind and the brain are embodied, and we can and often do have very visceral responses to blockbusters, which in turn can induce new, richer thoughts.

But the phrase ‘brainless’ is not unuseful in getting to the root of our relationship with blockbusters, of differentiating these simplified versions of reality with the complexity of art house films.

I love cinema, but if my willingness to sleep with art house film is anything to go by, I feel happiest with it.

I am promiscuous in my cinematic tastes, responding to and interested in many of the different experiences that cinema can offer; but I am happiest with the slow, thoughtful films, that sometimes even allow me to think ‘offline’ for a while, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Cinema has long since been associated with dream, and yet sleeping in the cinema is typically thought of as being a negative experience, a sign of boredom.

Cinephiles, together with cognitive studies of cinema, seem predominantly interested in visual and aesthetic pleasure, and in attention and arousal.

And yet cinema can indeed send audiences to sleep.

Contrary to the ‘boring’ and ‘slow’ film argument, this can in fact be the most intimate relationship one can have with a film, even if paradoxically it means not even ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ the film (though we can still sense its presence).

To sleep with a film is a sign of cinephilia.

Brown, William (2011), ‘Resisting the Psycho-Logic of Intensified Continuity,’ Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 5:1, pp. 69-86.

Damasio, Antonio (1994), Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, London: Vintage.

Descartes, René (1998 [1637]), Discourse on Method and The Meditations (trans. F.E. Sutcliffe), London: Penguin.

Descartes, René (2009 [1644]), Principles of Philosophy (trans. John Veitch), Whitefish, Mass.: Wilder Publications.

Hasson, Uri, Yuval Nir, Ifat Levy, Galit Fuhrmann, and Rafael Malach (2004), ‘Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision,’ Science, 303: 5664, pp. 1634–1640.

Hasson, Uri, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmayer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin and Davd J Heeger (2008), ‘Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film,’ Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 2:1, pp. 1-26.

Hobson, J. Allan, and Edward F. Pace-Schott (2002), ‘The Cognitive Neuroscience of Sleep: Neuronal Systems, Consciousness and Learning,’ Nature, 3 (September), pp. 679-693.

Kauppi, Jukka-Pekka, Iiro P. Jääskeläinen, Mikko Sams and Jussi Tohka (2010), ‘Inter-subject correlation of brain hemodynamic responses during watching a movie: localisation in space and frequency,’ Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 4:5, pp. 1-10.

Krueger, James M., Ferenc Obál Jr, and Jidong Fang (1999), ‘Why we sleep: a theoretical view of sleep function,’ Sleep Medicine Reviews, 3:2, pp. 119-129.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (2000), Being Singular Plural, trans. R.D. Richardson and A.E. O’Byrne, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (2008), ‘Claire Denis: Icon of Ferocity’ (trans. Peter Enright), in James Phillips (ed.), Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 160-170.

Swinton, Tilda (2006), ‘Film: State of Cinema Address, 49th San Francisco International Film Festival, 29 April 2006Critical Quarterly, 48:3 (Autumn), pp. 110-120.

No dark sarcasm (three)

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

The previous two blogs, then, serve as a prelude to this final blog, which of course must look at the New College of the Humanities and the emergent surrounding discourse.

If I have argued in the previous two blogs that we should not abolish Oxbridge at all, but simply recognise that Oxbridge-centrism leads to misconceptions about higher education in the UK, then I am naturally dubious about an institution that is being mediated as creating ‘a rival to Oxbridge.’

In these days of free enterprise, anyone should be allowed to make money in the way that they see fit, provided, of course, that it is legal (and even then a lot of people still make money – and lots of it – illegally).

Many, if not all, UK universities are currently trying to come up with ways to make more money in the face of government cuts (although they might well be doing this even if there were not government cuts).

These schemes include the development of short courses, diplomas, and various other educational packages in various/many academic disciplines, which typically might create a market out of local potential part-time students, who will pay for a diploma and thus help to fund the university.

It is hard to be enthusiastic about creating more teaching for oneself in an age when one might already feel that one does quite enough already, thank you.

However, the reason that I mention this is that, in their own way, universities are not necessarily charging their students more to keep afloat (since undergraduate fees have been capped at £9,000 for domestic students), but they are coming up with ways of getting money from other, temporary students in order to create some economic stability.

And of course out of a sense of pedagogical altruism.

If this is what is happening widely already in higher education institutions, then, particularly in these market-driven times, it is perhaps only a small leap for higher education institutions to privatise themselves. That is, to free themselves from the burden of having to develop smaller money-making schemes that run constantly for the sake of charging students enough money that the institution can forego entirely its government subsidy, and instead just crack on on its own.

Charging £18,000 a year, this is precisely what the NCHum is doing. Sort of.

The NCHum is an interesting concept. Regardless of the ‘celebrity’ academics that will teach there, presenting obligatory modules on applied ethics, scientific literacy and logic and critical thinking seems a sound idea. Having one-with-one tutorials also, as mentioned in my first blog, has benefits for students. Preparing students for the world of work, another NCHum promise, is also fine. It is not as if other universities do not already try to do this.

There are some gray areas surrounding how the college will run, though, that do give pause for thought.

Firstly, the college will offer degrees from the University of London and it will provide students with access to University of London facilities, such as teaching spaces, libraries and so on.

Since the University of London has acquiesced to this, presumably they feel that this is sound business – a kind of outsourcing of various courses that otherwise it might have been unwieldy to put in place.

However, what this means with regard to which students can have access to which resources and at which times remains to be seen. Will the students at NCHum, as a result of their higher outlaying of money, get preferential treatment over other University of London students when the time inevitably comes that they are after the same resources?

Logistically speaking, I query the university’s claim that ‘all applicants’ will be interviewed. This will be a time-consuming process (and one that Jones in my first blog feels discriminates against those who have not had preparation for the interview, even if I – and Canfor-Dumas and Glancy – feel that this might not necessarily be the case). Given that this will likely be very time-consuming, I wonder if it is really true, then.

Furthermore, although this is a ‘soft’ point to make, it is unlikely that many of the ‘celebrity’ staff members will be doing the nitty gritty of one-with-one tutorials week-in, week-out, meaning that what access one has to the ‘great minds’ teaching at NCHum will be limited at best.

Besides, just because NCHum places 14 high-profile academics in a single, small institution does not mean that those academics are either great teachers, or that other institutions do not have as many, if not more, at least in terms of raw figures, prominent academics across their disciplines.

Indeed, by the time British academics have reached the post of professor, they are all pretty eminent and will undoubtedly have vast swathes of knowledge to pass on, even if their work has not led to TV shows and interviews because it is not ‘sexy.’

Terry Eagleton has argued that the education at NCHum will be not necessarily be as open-minded as all that:

“The new college, staffed as it is by such notable liberals, will of course be open to all viewpoints. Well, sort of. One takes it there will not be a theology department. It is reasonable to suppose that Tariq Ali will not be appointed professor of politics. The teaching of history, if the work of Dawkins and Grayling is anything to judge by, will be of a distinctly Whiggish kind. Grayling peddles a Just So version of English history, breathtaking in its crudity and complacency, in which freedom has been on the rise for centuries and has only recently run into trouble. Dawkins touts a simple-minded, off-the-peg version of Enlightenment in which people in the west have all been getting nicer and nicer, and would have ended up as civilised as an Oxford high table were it not for a nasty bunch of religious fundamentalists. Who would pay £18,000 a year to listen to this outdated Victorian rationalism when they could buy themselves a second-hand copy of John Stuart Mill?”

However, even though I reproduce this paragraph in full, it is not as if many universities do not have departments that are characterised by a loosely unified outlook on the world. Perhaps in an outmoded fashion, but I am thinking of ‘Marxist’ campuses from the 1970s and 1980s, or even today, when many universities might spit, for example, on Milton Friedman so much as hear what he has to say were he to turn up to (let alone be invited for) a guest lecture.

In the same way that I have criticised unthinking Oxbridge-centrism in the previous two posts, there seems to be a vague logic of NCHum-centrism underlying Grayling’s talk of the New College (although he does of course have a new college to try to sell).

A Telegraph article says the following:

“The college claims to offer a ‘new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK’ and will prepare undergraduates for degrees in Law, Economics and humanities subjects including History, Philosophy and English literature.”

Law, economics, history, philosophy and English literature. This is not a list that inspires thoughts of a ‘new model’ of education. It is not, for example, as if NCHum is offering an innovative course in the logic of the digital world – a course that might take in elements from sociology, media, geography, economics, politics, philosophy and history all at the same time (and which might make a good course).

In other words, Grayling seems to be bigging up something as innovative that many universities would call ‘business as usual.’ Indeed, in a witty article in the Standard, some former colleagues at UCL feel that Grayling is not only not offering original courses, but that he has even purloined modules from them.

Furthermore, with 14 celebrity staff members and a small handful of others named on the website, it strikes me that there may not be much choice in modules at NCHum. I’ll return to this below, but even if students get excellent one-with-one tuition on a weekly basis, it strikes me that – at least in these early stages and before the university has had a chance to grow – the model of education here is pretty much a top-down one, as opposed to the bottom-up quest of inspiring to learn that many other universities try to offer.

This may seem a frivolous, or indeed a poor, point to make: “get some discipline in them, that’s what these youngsters need.” But then again, this also suggests that the NCHum already/so far has something loosely approaching a one-size-fits-all ethos that does not necessarily tally at all with, in Grayling’s own words, what it means to be human today.

I note, by the way, that NCHum is not offering film. This is a pity, because with some film expertise, be it in criticism or production, they might well have been able to produce a video for their site that does not cut Grayling off mid-sentence at the end of his introduction to the college.

In the same Telegraph article, Grayling is quoted as saying: “Our ambition is to prepare gifted young people for high-level careers and rich and satisfying lives.”

The use of the word ‘rich’ is almost certainly intended in the sense of ‘diverse’ and ‘full’ – but it also betrays the central ethos behind the institution – and which is my only real beef with it – and that is its commercial-mindedness.

Grayling and his colleagues, being smart people, will no doubt be aware that we are living in times in which ecology plays a major part in our thinking. He will also be aware that while there is plenty of seeming evidence to suggest that we must pay urgent concern to our environment and become better citizens, this discourse is also the product of various processes, including the spread of ideas via the media. Grayling’s colleague, Richard Dawkins, calls them ‘memes.’

It is not that our planet is not in trouble; but Grayling’s appeal to ‘humanity’ bespeaks a sense of opportunism, in terms of how he wields the term, that is timely. It is a canny riding of the meme wave. How can I be so cynical, you might ask?

I am inclined towards this cynical interpretation of his words (that is, I don’t believe him), because this is also a university that is preparing ‘rich’ people, to use Grayling’s other term.

Rich people can be responsibly rich. Just because historically it has been the relentless pursuit of riches that has led to, among other things, colonialism, widespread global poverty, slavery, and war (although this is not how Grayling’s other colleague, Niall Ferguson, reads history), this does not mean that it will not always be so. In fact, to give Ferguson his due, it is hard for us to know whether the world would be any more or less civilised without the ascent of money. But at the very least there is a tension between pursuing humanity and pursuing riches.

Maybe Grayling is indeed hoping to prepare a group of super-enlightened students whose ‘high level careers’ in fact help to bring about the redistribution of wealth and opportunities. But the hierarchy implicit in ‘high level careers’ does not bode well.

I criticised Owen Jones in part one of this blog for seeming to love Oxbridge, while at the same time hating it. His logic seemed to be that you have not proven yourself excellent if you have not been to Oxbridge, perhaps even that only Oxbridge people can be excellent.

And yet, this logic of exceptionalism is something to be guarded against, or wary about: maybe enlightened people are paradoxically exceptional by not succumbing to the logic of exceptionalism. They are perfectly, adequately, perhaps even exceptionally intelligent, but they simply do not want to go to Oxbridge; they perhaps do not want to be bankers or lawyers or management consultants; maybe they want to be park wardens, gardeners, electricians – who knows? Or maybe they simply do not want to go give up on many of the things that they believe in (‘happiness’) in order to do well in the world (or, perhaps more accurately, to be seen to do well in the world).

Once one does well – or is seen to do well – it must be difficult not to believe that one is not doing well. If other people can see that I am doing well – and tell me as much, then I must be doing well, or so the logic goes. It’s not that these people are not doing well, nor that they should believe necessarily that they are not doing well. But I am saying this to propose that I can understand why people ending up believing in their own exceptional nature – be you AC Grayling or one of his students.

The twin forces of luck and fate – luck in that you were in the right place at the right time; fate in that you were the kind of person whose chances of being in the right place at the right time were maximised from birth – get quickly forgotten. It was all the exceptional person’s doing – or so it is to be believed. History is full of great men (sic.).

However, exceptionalism does not tally that easily with humanism – which, at least for me, implies a sense of democracy and the kind of concepts that the French put in their constitution. A ‘new Oxbridge’ based on the logic of exceptionalism takes us away from the logic of humanist togetherness…

The pledge to help students to understand humanity, then, seems to work only for certain humans. This much is affirmed by the price tag of the university, which, as mentioned, is £18,000 per year.

Indeed, while part of me would want to teach at the NCHum, and while part of me would also want to study there, it is the price tag that is the real kicker.

Not because I cannot afford it (although I cannot). But because this college privatises education.

Privatisation is the retreat from the public. More particularly, it is a retreat from the common – the common wealth, the common good. The private wealth, the private good – well, we have had logicians and economists who have argued that these things are in fact the path to the common wealth and the common good.

And it is people (like Milton Friedman) whose private-based policies have led to the increasing rates of disparity in economic wealth that the world has seen accelerate over the last three decades plus.

Privatisation is to embrace solipsism. It is to deny that we are in this world together, and it is to fall for the notion that one is, or must be, exceptional. Exceptions tend not to believe that their exceptional status is illusory; they also tend to forget that it is only thanks to the tacit permission of others that their exceptional status can come into existence in the first place.

Possibly greater levels of privatisation will lead to a common good – because the majority will be able to take no more and will remind those that have that they only do so because of the people who have not (and because the people who have not – sometimes out even of kindness – let them).

With regard to NCHum, then, we might look at a BBC article, which quotes UCU general secretary Sally Hunt as saying the following:

“While many would love the opportunity to be taught by the likes of AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins, at £18,000 a go it seems it won’t be the very brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance. The launch of this college highlights the government’s failure to protect art and humanities and is further proof that its university funding plans will entrench inequality within higher education.”

In other words, the privatisation of higher education, which the creation of the NCHum seems to signal, might well, even in spite of scholarships on offer (i.e. in spite of ‘exceptions’), lead to the acceleration of the creation of a two-tier education system that has as its pre-existing counterparts the private and public sectors of secondary and primary education.

An article from the London Review of Books, already mentioned in one of the previous posts, quotes Jonathan Cole, the former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, as writing that

“in addition to fee inflation, a major contributor to the increased cost of higher education in America stems from the perverse assumption that students are ‘customers’, that the customer is always right, and what he or she demands must be purchased. Money is well-spent on psychological counselling, but the number of offices that focus on student activities, athletics and athletic facilities, summer job placement and outsourced dining services, to say nothing of the dormitory rooms and suites that only the Four Seasons can match, leads to an expansion of administrators and increased cost of administration.”

This is from an article that I read before the announcement of NCHum, and which was arguing that British higher education should not look to the American Ivy League as its model.

In the face of the creation of the NCHum, the students better get their dollar’s worth. But more important is the fact that if one institution will go private, then perhaps others will follow, and only those institutions that can afford all of the above ‘services’ for their ‘customers’ will stand a chance of surviving, which puts in peril the hopes of many students who may find themselves unable to go, or at least put off from going, to university for financial reasons.

The NCHum is seemingly a private institution backed by some London investors. Do these investors get much say in the curriculum? While Grayling says that he wants his students to develop critical thinking, might these backers in fact want the institution to develop a certain kind of brain that will be good for [a certain type of] business as the students graduate into jobs at these self-same firms that sponsor the institution?

A friend who used to work at Lehman Brothers once told me that their HR team did not bother to look at candidates for jobs who have a PhD or equivalent. The reason he gave to me was that, unless the PhD was in maths or economics, the chances are that the candidate would think too independently. Lehmans, allegedly, preferred to hire younger graduates whose minds they could mould according to the Lehman ethos.

Then again, rather than standing as anecdotal evidence for the fact that banks only want a certain ‘type of brain,’ this might explain why Lehmans went bust…

Finally, Howard Hotson in his LRB piece explains that “the American company that owns BPP University College – which David Willetts granted university status only last year – recently lost its appeal in the US Supreme Court after being found guilty of defrauding its shareholders and is under investigation by the US Higher Learning Commission for deceiving students about the career value of its degrees.”

Earlier I explained how there is a system of peer review, external examination and various other mechanisms that mean that universities in the UK have to work together, even if they are also in competition for limited resources.

The privatisation of education (which can also lead – as happens in big pharma and the like – to the production of only a certain type of knowledge, which is based on a particular agenda and ideology – and which does not, in spite of pretenses – have any or much ‘objective’ truth status [what is truth?]) means that institutions can (presumably – although I want to be corrected if I am wrong on this score) ignore the edicts of colleagues from other institutions. They can, as BPP did do, defraud shareholders and, more pertinently, deceive students about the value of their degree.

In the current climate, it is hard to be sure which degrees are ‘value for money,’ not least because so much of that value must rely on the perceptions of the students themselves.

Evidently, the company that owns BPP has also been caught out – so there are mechanisms in place to stop this from happening – in the USA, at least. However, this does only point to the possibility that a lack of transparency via privatisation might inevitably lead to some form of corruption – with higher education being the ultimate loser.

Maybe all I must conclude is that I wish NCHum luck. In the prisoner’s dilemma that is the current state of higher education, you pushed the button to get the bigger reward first, which in some circles is the logical thing to do.

In a world in which we are together, though, and in which the emergence of humanity is tied to the origins of virtue, as much as it is to the (deeply misunderstood?) selfish gene, then humanity is our common wealth – not some of it, but all of it.

If I expressed fear that the real problem with higher education is not Oxbridge but that people who are already rich typically end even richer, then perhaps Oxbridge, and even the NCHum, offer nothing to the rich kids that can afford to study there that life would not offer them anyway (more riches). In this sense, if NCHum takes in rich kids to churn out adults that will get richer, what have they really taught anyone?

Taking in students more democratically – now so hard to do in the age of top-up fees – and encouraging students from all manner of diverse backgrounds to become better humans, more together both in themselves and in the world, to encourage them to learn not just new things, but new ways of learning, new ways of thinking, the likes of which we have not even begun to conceive – this might well be priceless and real value for money.

No dark sarcasm (two)

Blogpost, Uncategorized

As a follow-up to the last blog, I should now like to address a second article, which was a follow up to Owen Jones’>posting.

Alex Canfor-Dumas provides, with Josh Glancy, a riposte to Jones also on, and in many ways it is a perfectly reasonable exposé of some of the logical shortcomings that I also found in Jones’ piece – namely that it cannot help but loving Oxbridge in spite of the fact that it also wants to abolish it.

However, Canfor-Dumas, like Jones, also succumbs (inevitably, perhaps, because he is studying there) to some Oxbridge-centrism.

He concludes his piece as follows:

“Beneath the privileged veneer of drinking clubs and anachronistic formal clothing, Oxbridge provides an exceptional educational experience that is both available to and embraced by students from a wide range of backgrounds. There is an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement. Britain needs more, not less, of these qualities. Oxbridge is not perfect, but it is here to stay – and rightly so.”

“Exceptional” cannot but find its way into the article come its climax. For the myth of being exceptional is what keeps Oxbridge alive. Woven into this understanding of Oxbridge, then, is an apparently unquestionable value attributed not to what should be general, but to that which is ‘exceptional’ or ‘out of the ordinary.’

In my last post, I explained how there are grounds to argue that Oxbridge is not particularly exceptional – and I’d like to pursue this further here.

For, Canfor-Dumas (and Glancy) end their post by saying that Oxbridge has “an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement” – and that the UK needs more of this!

What this statement implies is that Oxbridge is the only beacon of academic excellence in the UK – and that the other 150-odd higher education institutions can go hang themselves. Apparently (if I can take this interpretation further) they somehow do not encourage (I’m not sure I want to use the word ‘glorify’) academic achievement. This is the preserve of Oxford and Cambridge, whose good example should be followed.

So… what are those other 150+ institutions doing? What are they doing with all of those really smart kids that do not even want to go to Oxbridge? One would fear somehow that those other institutions (and I take it that mine should be included here) are not only not encouraging academic excellence – but that they are even stifling it.

Since I work at a higher education institution that is not Oxbridge, I have to take exception to this. And since neither Canfor-Dumas nor Glancy brings this matter to much light in their article, I shall endeavour to do so here.

In my last blog, I wrote about how students tend to be proud of their alma mater, no matter who she is. Of course, Oxbridge students are no different – so Oxbridge-centrism is as natural to Oxbridge students as egocentrism, or the ability only to see things from one’s own point of view, is natural to humans. We can read, see, hear, and feel many different things, but since we only ever have our own bodies through which we can filter the world, we will always only ever experience the world for ourselves.

I am partial to a recent advert, or ‘manifesto’ as its producers call it, for Bacardi rum. Not only is this because I like Bacardi, but it is also because, simple (simplistic?) as its message is, it says that we are all together, and that we should act not in a solipsistic manner (I enjoy the idea of cutting up white headphone leads) but together.

Even though this is an advertisement (though perhaps significantly an advertisement for a substance that is what we might call mind-altering when consumed in enough quantity), I want to agree with its secondary ‘message.’ If its first message is ‘buy Bacardi,’ which people can take or leave, its secondary message is, as mentioned, that we are all together.

Thinking in terms of togetherness, or ‘withness,’ then, is what I want to explore here in terms of higher education. What is posited in both Jones and Canfor-Dumas’ postings is the sense that it is to Oxbridge alone that the burden of excellent education must fall.

This is simply not true, as the 150+ other higher education institutions in the UK testify. We can therefore rework the Oxbridge-centrism that Canfor-Dumas and Glancy (cannot help but?) display when they write, as I shall repeat, that: “Oxbridge provides an exceptional educational experience that is both available to and embraced by students from a wide range of backgrounds. There is an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement.”

In its place, we can say that higher education provides an excellent educational experience that is both available to and embraced by students from a wide range of backgrounds. There is throughout higher education an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement.

I have replaced Canfor-Dumas and Glancy’s use of the term exceptional here with the term excellent. I have changed this precisely because Oxbridge is not exceptional in pursuing these tasks. It is perfectly normal for Oxbridge to pursue scholarship and original thought, but that is because all higher education establishments pursue these goals – and Oxbridge is included among these higher education establishments.

I am a lecturer in film. You can, as far as I am aware, study film at Oxbridge – both at undergraduate and graduate levels. However, the opportunities to do so are relatively limited: it forms part of Modern Languages and English degrees. That is, you can do the odd module on film. What is more, Oxford for one has a Master’s in Film Aesthetics, while there are in British film studies academia a number of lecturers who did their doctorates at Oxford or Cambridge.

I don’t want to rehearse in great detail why I think film is a legitimate course of study, since this is not my point here.

Briefly, though, I think it is of pressing importance to study film and audiovisual culture more generally because they are such all-pervasive phenomena in our screen-filled world. These media often do not encourage us to question what they show to us, nor their legitimacy as a whole. Instead, then, university (and school) courses in film and media offer us with the opportunity to encourage critical thought with regard to film and media.

Critical thought itself is a valuable commodity – while understanding how and why images and sounds work in terms of creating meaning is also of great value to those who precisely wish to have, for example, a recognised brand in the world.

As such, not only is the study of film of some cultural urgency (because it dominates so much of our attention and, by extension, our thought), but it also endows one with skills that transfer well to all aspects of life, but, for the sake of placating anxious students, in particular the business world/the world of work.

To take an example: some people, Margaret Hodge included, have argued that to study film and media is to undertake a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course. That a term from the media (‘Mickey Mouse’) is used to define such courses demonstrates quite clearly the extent to which we freely and unthinkingly use media terms in everyday discourse. That is, so pervasive is, in this instance, Mickey Mouse, that we use it to dismiss such courses, while to couch the criticism in these terms reasserts the precise validity of needing to think through what Mickey Mouse is and what influence he has had on our society.

I can imagine that a thorough analysis of Mickey Mouse alone would have to take in the following, if not more: the history of art, particularly animated drawing styles; the history of film; sociological aspects of what a mouse means; psychological and cognitive aspects, in terms how and why the image is pleasing to have the popularity that it does; a theoretical understanding of mass media, such that we can work out how the image of Mickey has become globally recognisable; an economic history of the deals that similarly have allowed Mickey to become dominant as a global brand. And so on.

I arrived at film from a background in Modern Languages and then in Philosophy. Even though I want to turn my back on neither of these subjects, and in fact feel that it is truly important not only to maintain an interest in these, but to expand my interests further outwards, I find that film is the culmination of more or less all subjects and disciplines.

The reason that I give my personal journey towards film is to posit that I see it not as a lesser field of enquiry than the more traditional subjects that I studied before it. The range of approaches that one could take to Mickey Mouse alone also suggests that to study film is to have to take on a massive amount of information that in fact by definition transcends, or better incorporates, many academic disciplines. And therefore that while film might be considered a ‘soft’ topic in some corners, it is in fact very hard.

Indeed, while some film scholarship admittedly does not help itself in terms of being accessible and ‘relevant,’ many students find film in particular a disillusioning object of study – precisely because it is not as easy as they thought it was going to be! As is often the case, that which on appearance seems most ‘natural’ and ‘easy’ is in fact the most complex thing.

And the reason that I want to make this point is to bring us back to the discussion of Oxbridge-centrism raised earlier. If one cannot study film in any great detail at Oxbridge, at least not really until post-graduate level, and if you are convinced that we should spend more time studying film and audiovisual media more generally, because they are dominant in terms of shaping how we understand and interpret the world, then Oxbridge probably not where you want to go to study your degree.

We could knock Oxbridge for not providing a full undergraduate program in film – but this would be counter-productive, because it would re-affirm that it is only when Oxbridge does something that it is truly ‘valid.’ As if UCL were not responsible for pioneering the study of English literature; and as if Birmingham were not a true pioneer of Cultural Studies (also not really available at Oxbridge).

Better than knocking Oxbridge, though, would simply be to recognise that all higher education institutions – even if with economic incentives working somewhere under the surface (they have these at Oxbridge, too) – encourage critical and original thought. And going to any or many universities can help provide students with the means to develop their capacity for critical and original thought.

Let me put this another way. Film is, for me at least, of vital importance for us to study. Not only can you not really study this at Oxbridge at undergraduate level, but even if you could, you might as well go where the teaching is the best that you will receive in the UK. I will sound arrogant when I say this, but part of me means it: if you want to receive the best tuition in film in the UK, maybe even in the world, then you might as well come to my university, Roehampton, to learn with me. It is not that my students miss out on Oxbridge, then, but that Oxbridge students miss out on me.

Naturally, my egocentrism here is obvious to the point of easy ridicule. But it serves to illustrate the Oxbridge-centrism that clings to the idea that Oxbridge is the be-all and end-all of higher education.

I have not met everyone working in film studies in the UK, but after a fairly aggressive few years of conference attending and networking, I can say that I know a good representative crowd. Rarely do I find among them academics who would not hold their own in more or less any academic forum, particularly on their area of expertise (of course).

I don’t know who is the ‘smartest’ of them all (which is not at all the same as being the best teacher, anyway), but I find the absolute vast majority of these academics to be smart – certainly smart enough to challenge me and, I guess, a good many if not most 18 year olds. And this is regardless of the institution at which they teach.

In fact, I know a good number of the Oxbridge staff members who teach film studies. They are all smart, too; but, again, not necessarily more or less smart than a lot of other people at other universities in the UK.

Having a doctorate is basically a necessity nowadays to be an academic; those few academics who do not have a doctorate are typically quite senior and the product of an era whereby some students went straight from undergraduate study to higher education teaching. Back in the ‘cowboy’ days of the 1950s and 1960s, this might have been possible. But not nowadays. And even these academics are smart, too, even if they don’t have the requisite qualifications.

The reason that I mention this is that you cannot just get a doctorate like that. You must present your work to a panel of academics both from your institution and from at least one other. The idea is to ensure standards across the board – be you from Oxford, Cambridge, Roehampton (my employer), or Worcester (my hometown).

As such – at least in theory – smartness, while not necessarily being equal, at least meets what is perceived to be the minimum requirement not just at Oxbridge, but at all higher education institutions.

What is more, all universities have external examiners and peer review panels made up of academics from other institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, who judge standards of teaching, as well as procedural and structural standards. These are also designed to ensure parity across all institutions.

It is not that we should think about which academics are best, then. If you want academics to nominate who is best, then each academic might as well nominate themselves (as I did above). Rather than ranking themselves, though, academics might be better off remembering that they are in this together.

Contra Canfor-Dumas and Glancy, then, we should have good faith that all academics are doing their best; they are all – perhaps with some exceptions (though arguably at Oxbridge as much as anywhere else) – good at what they do; and they all take pride in doing it.

Besides which, none of this has yet included the students, who will respond to different teachers in different ways and at different moments in their life. As such, who can know who is the ‘best’?

Well, we can all apparently know who is the ‘best’ – because we live in a country that obsesses over league tables and the like. What is more, academics take part in a particular process called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now redubbed the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The National Student Survey (NSS) also judges which university offers the best student experience – and produces a league table with the results.

With these and other surveys taking place, there is in fact a cacophony of results, with each university (naturally) bigging up those tables in which they do well, while keeping hushed about those in which they do not.

This article suggests that the RAE and the REF apply different enough criteria that the same institutions during the same period of time can have quite different scores. How we are supposed to know which is the best way of measuring the ‘best’ is surely difficult. I look at such surveys with some scepticism.

In spite of this, one might still contend that Oxbridge are excellent because they do well in many of these surveys across the board. There must be some reason that they manage always to do well…

History no doubt plays a part here. When you happen to be several hundred years older than many of the other universities in the UK, then the accumulated wealth, procedures, facilities, and, for example, collections of materials (I mean books in libraries, etc), do of course help when comparing this to other institutions.

Oxbridge are excellent universities. I am contending, however, that their excellence is not unique to them. This article suggests, among other things, that the UK in fact has the best academic system worldwide when we consider not just the top universities but the top 300 or so. Our money goes further and gets better results than American universities when we take into GDP, league tables, and various other factors.

Bizarrely, the rest of the world does not feature much – suggesting some possible (likely?) Anglo-American-centrism in the tables that the article analyses.

However, I mention it to say that if we factor in time/history, then the UK universities do even better. Or rather, Oxbridge of course does well, but perhaps not as well as it should do in terms of the advantage that its age simply has/should give to it.

What might also be interesting is how these results would read when compared with the socio-economic status of the average student at the university. This is a slightly different question to the fees structure, but I’d be interested to see both which universities cater for the richest kids, and whether those universities offer significantly better results for one’s sterling.

However, the focus here is to say that academic excellence is not confined to Oxbridge, excellent though Oxbridge is. Even if academic excellence were confined to Oxbridge, as seems to be Canfor-Dumas and Glancy’s take on things, the ‘Oxbridge ethos’ of encouraging academic excellence everywhere could presumably only be put into practice by recognising, encouraging and nurturing the development of other academic institutions. It would be folly to think that one could provide the entire nation’s higher education in just two provincial cities.

To this end, it is only logical that Canfor-Dumas and Glancy extend their argument not to abolish Oxbridge, by spreading the academic love around the UK more generally.

Fortunately for the two authors, this has already happened. What could happen a bit more in recognition of the achievements and aspirations of other universities, though, is a loosening of perception that only Oxbridge counts.

Instead of such Oxbridge-centrism, which is reflected by the media’s obsession with Oxbridge more generally, we might see that excellence that takes place everywhere. The excellence of smaller universities that, in spite of the material and historical disadvantages that they have, still pull their weight.

All universities are together in pursuit of excellence – both in terms of the staff members and their research and in terms of encouraging students to do the same. It is an act of solipsism – though one to which we are all susceptible – to feel that one is the only person really working hard here. As an act of solipsism, one feels one ought to cut those white headphone leads and tell them that we others are here and we are doing our best, even if in slightly different ways.

As an act of solipsism, believing that other universities might not want to or simply are not encouraging academic excellence is also an act of bad faith.

One can understand why there is bad faith around: resources for universities are scarce and becoming only more so. In this climate, we distrust others, since they might well be scheming to get as much back from as little investment as possible – the academic equivalent of the welfare scrounger.

Furthermore, scarce resources mean that those who have them guard them jealously – part of their reasoning naturally becoming that somehow they deserve those resources for some cosmic reason often attributed to their exceptional nature.

Good faith, however, believes that others can and will do their best – and that they should not be unfairly treated as a result. It believes that we are all in this together. And if we recognise this much, then maybe we will be able to encourage the excellence, or even to realise the potential, not solely of a/the few, but of the many, perhaps even (as an aspiration) of us all.

No dark sarcasm (one)

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

I have been reading a number of things about higher education in the UK recently – which stands to reason as a result of recent changes in fee structures and the like. And, of course, as a result of the creation of NCHum, set up by AC Grayling n’ chums (sorry), and due to open in Bloomsbury in 2012.

I think this blog is about some of the fuzzy logic that seems to exist – for me – when discussing these issues.

Let’s start with Owen Jones’ posting on about how Oxbridge should be abolished.

Oxbridge is well known as a preserve of people whose parents are from wealthy backgrounds and who will more than likely end up wealthy themselves. In spite of the university’s efforts, the (lack of) diversity in the student body is not particularly changing, says Jones, in part because rich kids can prepare more easily for the entrance interview as a result of the fact that they are rich.

I would be disappointed if any school did not offer help to students in preparing for university – or any – interviews – and I don’t see how money makes that much difference. Except, perhaps, that one can buy ‘better’ preparation…?

There are no stats on this, so forgive my speculation, but I suspect that more people ‘waste’ their money on pursuing such expensive preparation by not getting in to Oxbridge than there are state school students with supposedly no preparation who apply and are accepted. To be substantiated, of course – but the point is to query precisely what role money might play in this process.

Jones points out that he met thickos when he was studying at Oxford – and that he’s met smart people outside of Oxford. Aside from the fact that neither of these things should surprise Jones at all – if, that is, he wishes to retain the habit of imposing judgments on people according to what he perceives their abilities to be – this only suggests that Jones suffers from the Oxbridge graduate’s snobbish sense that it is almost impossible for non-Oxbridge people to be smart.

And yet Jones also writes this:

“Many bright young people from comprehensives simply do not want to go to Oxbridge, because they don’t want to spend their university years stuck with those they fear will be arrogant, braying, overprivileged youngsters who may as well have grown up on a different planet. That might be unfair, but that’s certainly how many feel.”

Whether or not the above conceptions of Oxbridge actually are unfair in terms of what Oxford is like, this paragraph does further mystify the point of Jones’ article. He seems to be reprimanding Oxbridge for not attracting (exceptional) students (from ‘normal’ backgrounds), while pointing out that such students/would-be students don’t want to go there.

Concentrating on the first half of this equation, then, Jones seems to be saying that it is a pity for people from ‘normal’ backgrounds not to be going to Oxbridge. That is, despite wanting to abolish Oxbridge, there is a deep-seated belief in the article about Oxbridge’s superiority over other universities (in the UK). That is, Oxbridge here does offer something exceptional to which a more diverse body of students should apparently have access, but they don’t – so Oxbridge should be abolished.

And yet, if many bright students actively do not want to go to Oxbridge, but instead go to other universities, then presumably these other institutions get a fair share of brightness. That is, if brightness is spread democratically throughout the British or any population, then it is not necessarily the brightness of the students at Oxbridge that makes it exceptional.

In this respect, one should not care what university one goes to – or even if one goes to university at all. Smart people are smart people and that is all there is to it. Or rather, everyone is smart in their own way. One does not need Oxbridge to validate this, and it is not unfair if Oxbridge does not validate this.

Jones, however, seems to suggest that everyone who does not make it to Oxbridge somehow seems to have missed out. And yet, whenever I step out on to the street and I see people wearing hoodies, shirts, and all sorts of other garments that speak of their alma mater, I see a huge range of institutions walking around the streets of London and elsewhere. That is, students seem proud of their alma mater no matter who she is. Not everyone is walking around thinking that they ought to be wearing Oxford or Cambridge stash. So perhaps Jones might refrain from his Oxbridge-centrism in believing that there are only two universities in the UK.

I do have some sympathy for Jones’ argument, but that sympathy must be based on the perceived fact that Oxbridge does offer something different to other universities, a difference that can also at times be perceived as ‘better.’

Not going to Oxbridge does not prevent people from succeeding. Not going to university, in fact, does not prevent people from succeeding – no matter how we define success, even if the prime measure of success tends to be financial.

However, given Jones’ mention of the history of Oxbridge and its record of producing British and world leaders in all domains of existence, then it is hard to deny that something different is there.

What is this difference?

Oxbridge students work notoriously ‘harder’ than students at many other institutions. For example, they must produce the amount of work in a fortnight that many other students have to produce in a semester. I therefore suspect that Oxbridge encourages not just time for reflection, which can often be offered as a justification for university tout court, but it also enforces hard work, pure and simple. Not an aptitude, but the acquired habit of hard work, then, might be a measure of this supposed difference.

There are issues to explore here about what ‘hard work’ means, though. Producing more work does not necessarily mean producing better work, even if practicing the ‘art’ of essay writing and other forms of assessment almost certainly does lead to improvements in quality. Practice, then, is key.

However, spending longer on fewer essays is also a form of practice – a form of making good that which one has time to make good, rather than rushing off essays at a rate of two per week (or whatever it may be). In this sense, I genuinely believe that all universities encourage (if not so much enforce) their students to work hard. This, then, is not for me the ‘difference.’

Oxbridge typically has students attend lectures, seminars and tutorials. These latter can in particular see students work in ‘groups’ of as few as one person with one tutor. This kind of personal attention might also set Oxbridge apart from many other institutions.

However, I am inclined not to believe this. This is not because students do not benefit from one-with-one tutorials. I think that they do – although I also think that students can benefit in different ways from group sessions in which they exchange ideas amongst each other.

I believe that this does not make Oxbridge that different, however, because many universities in fact offer – at least to those who ask for them (and many do) – one-with-one sessions for their students. Staff members feel hard pushed to decline calls for private tutorial sessions because they know that the student is paying. So in some senses this is something that other universities offer.

(Note that I am guarded here: ‘in some senses’ is supposed to suggest that there are at least more similarities between Oxbridge and other institutions than there are differences.)

So, if Oxbridge graduates dominate the halls of power within the UK and further afield, in a manner far more significant than any other university or set of universities in this country, then what leads to this is again something else.

At a wedding (in Oxfordshire) this weekend, I was ushering vehicles to the official car park with a friend when one of the guests drove past. My friend knew this person (I did not), and he told me that the guest had performed poorly in his A Levels (two Ns) – the reason this came up being that it was way back at school that my friend had last seen this person.

The poor A Level results had (resits taken for granted) not prevented this wedding guest from turning up in a relatively new BMW that almost certainly will remain beyond my means for many years to come.

This is anecdotal evidence at best, but obviously being the kind of person that Owen Jones would probably find a bit dim had not prevented this human being from going on to make – or at least give the appearance of making – a decent living. (And being able to appear well off requires a fair amount of money in and of itself.)

Talking later on to this person, however, it became apparent that he was what many people would call posh.

I have recently felt at times that I have made a grave mistake in going into higher education as a career. I have friends – not least the other usher with whom I was directing cars to the wedding car park – who have made swathes of cash that will to a high degree of probability elude me until I breathe no more.

Since I am in a society that measures success so emphatically by wealth, it is hard not to be affected by its logic – and in this sense, I fear that I should have made money as a lawyer or a management consultant – because I simply cannot keep up now with the high-spending lifestyles of many of my friends, who become non-friends because I cannot afford to see them as regularly as I would want to.

The reason that I have introduced this aside about money is that the wedding guest was – according to available reports – not academically that sharp, but he was – from the evidence presented to me – from a relatively wealthy background.

The reason for this bracketing aside about the wedding, then, is to say that what sets Oxbridge aside is not strictly its structure of education, because I have argued that its structure of education is not necessarily that unique, and therefore not that different from many other institutions.

Without going to Oxbridge, this wedding guest has (I am arguing here) made lots of money. What he has in common with many successful Oxbridge graduates, then, is a wealthy background.

Brains help you to make money. But brains are not necessary for making money. What best helps people to make money is having it in the first place. It is not that Oxbridge students are particularly more clever or particularly better prepared for the ‘real’ world, then. Or this is what I am arguing here. What many Oxbridge students have, though, is a wealthy background.

Abolishing Oxbridge will not change a system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Oxbridge could offer more scholarships to more students from poorer backgrounds. Some would no doubt benefit from this by being ‘better off’ in later life – but mainly because of the connections they will have made or can make with those who are already from wealthy backgrounds.

This kind of ‘exceptionalism’ (by which I mean that those students who follow this route would be ‘exceptional’ people, and therefore already divorced from the ‘unexceptional’ rest) does not help to change a system that is inherently conservative, in that money is what you need to make money and to gain access to the corridors of power.

But this system of wealth breeding wealth would continue unabaited whether Oxbridge existed or not. Oxbridge is simply a symbol, then, of one’s pre-existing socio-economic status. If you want to be a part of the wealthy classes, then why not try to get in at the university level and go to Oxbridge?

However, while Oxbridge might help (as might many, if not any, other university degree), being from a ‘lower’ socio-economic background will be the main hindrance from achieving wealth. Perhaps many Oxbridge graduates make more money than they might have without their degree, but the real issue at stake is that those who already have power are the ones who gain/retain power.

Exceptionalism does not redistribute power; it simply confirms its being confined to certain spheres (those who already have it); there might be slight changes in the personnel in possession of power, but power is still the jealously guarded preserve of the few. Given that brains are evenly distributed – as proposed earlier – power and brains do not correlate to each other, nor even link up causally.

I’d like to explore one more aspect of our system of conservatism. The truth of wealth breeding wealth is systematically hidden from our population – not least because of its enormous emphasis on exceptionalism, which gives the illusion that everyone stands an ‘equal’ chance of gaining access to it.

Given the lack of encouragement to make this realisation (that power is not distributed evenly), it is not surprising that many youngsters – or even older people – do not win much power. In fact, we are systematically encouraged to accept everything as it is now.

Unsurprisingly, then, kids of 18 years of age do not necessarily know that there is a game of power, nor even how they will play it. Without knowing that they are being played, then, many continue through life – perhaps until expiry – without ever realising that they were supporting the increasing grip on power by those who had it already. The majority of people are not empowered – and a major part of their disempowerment is not even realising it.

The above is not to say that, after Jones, everyone should apply to Oxbridge; one cannot burden two, or even 150, higher education institutions with the task of redistributing power.

Nor is the above to say that abolishing Oxbridge will redress this (im)balance of power.

Oxbridge, or rather various of its alumni like Jones, should stop wringing their hands with the higher educational equivalent of white man’s burden, whereby only Oxbridge can save higher education and if it cannot then higher education as a whole should be damned.

Students wear their university brand and love their alma mater whoever she may be – and they are correct to do this. It shows that people care about their higher education and what it can offer, and those few people who believe that you are no one if you weren’t at Oxbridge can go forth and multiply.

All universities (as I shall argue in the next part of this blog) are by and large equal. What university you go to, or that you go to university at all, is not going to make or break you – even if all university experiences tend to be immensely formative for those who undertake them.

What makes and breaks you is how much you have already. Oxford University hoodies and t-shirts are sold all over London and further afield – while stash from my current employer does not feature too highly in the tourist shops around town. This stash is bought by tourists not because of the brains they have or do not have, but because of the aspirations to power that such a label implies. It is a show of money, be it real or proclaimed, as much as a BMW is.

All of these ‘fake’ Oxbridge graduates who wear the t-shirt but never actually attended the universities reveal a truth, then, about the universities themselves: they are a brand, a spectacle of power, that helps to convince other people that more power should be given to those who already (seem to) have it.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a complex issue, the full complexity of which I have not got to grips with here. But if Oxbridge is the icon, then the real deity is power itself. Closing Oxbridge would not change anything; power would simply rebrand and perhaps relocate. Convincing the world that this power is there for the taking, that it can be distributed evenly, perhaps, with or without Oxbridge’s existence, is the real task of higher education.