A few days ago, the British philosopher A. C. Grayling announced that he’s set up a private college charging £18,000 a year for preparing students for the University of London’s International degree program. I think that’s a more or less accurate description of what this New College of the Humanities proposes to offer: it’s not a degree-granting institution, but an independent training centre for those wishing to obtain a University of London degree while not being a student at any of the University’s constituent colleges (King’s, UCL, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, Royal Holloway, etc.). In essence, the New College is a glorified distance-learning school. But it’s private and very expensive. The announcement triggered a wave of anger and outrage, at times delivered with histrionic fervour, and a counter wave of right-wing shoulder-slapping, much of it smug.

Some of the criticisms seem to me quite pointless. The notion that the New College is plagiarizing other people’s course descriptions and outlines is obviously a bit wrongheaded: the New College has almost no courses of its own. It teaches those courses in which the University of London offers exams. This may not be perfectly evident from the College’s website or from the early media coverage, but it doesn’t amount to intellectual theft.

I also couldn’t help but feel that some of the attacks were delivered from within rather fragile glass houses. For instance, it’s a little rich for Terry Eagleton, of all people, to attack Grayling’s “star” professors for holding appointments that involve “extremely modest amount of lecturing.” “Somehow,” Eagleton writes, “it’s hard to imagine these guys rolling in at 9am and teaching for 12 to 15 hours a week, which is what you do in the real Oxbridge. Prospective students should talk to these professors’ travel agents and insist on obtaining photocopies of their diaries.” Eagleton himself, of course, has a job that has him teaching no undergraduates at all, postgraduates for one week a term, and “occasional 1-to-1 tutorials” with PhD students by prior arrangement only. Check out his schedule here — including details on how to get in touch with his “travel agent.” I suppose he knows what he’s talking about.

Understandably, much of the coverage has focused on the fact that Grayling’s training centre is a private institution (in a country where virtually all universities are public, including the most ancient and elite ones), and that it’s proposing to levy tuition fees twice as high as the maximum those public universities are allowed to charge. It’s an institution apparently designed to perpetuate the rift between private and public education that bedevils the British school system, a college that will grant greater access to those with money than to those with none (even if they have the brains to get in). It puts a price-tag unaffordable to the great majority of Britons on what purports to be a top-level education, reaffirming the abiding influence of an ancient class structure that refuses to die. (That about 7% of those admitted will get in for free does little to alleviate any critics’ concerns.)

More bizarrely, those praising the idea seem to focus on the very same things the critics find disturbing. Boris Johnson, in a piece I was initially determined to read as satire, lauds the notion of a “Rejects’ College” designed for students whose parents can afford an elite education but who failed to gain admission to an Oxbridge-level university. Toby Young encourages Grayling to keep fighting the good fight — “Because we’re right and they’re wrong” — but he’s vague at best when it comes to saying what exactly they’re right about, or what they’re fighting for. Private higher education as such?

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t find the notion of private institutions of higher learning repellent in itself. Having studied and taught at both private and public universities, I much prefer the latter, but I can see at least some of the advantages and attractions of the former, and I don’t think private educational enterprises need necessarily be dramatically inequitable in their admissions policies. While I do think that Grayling’s project sends the wrong signal at a moment of unprecedented crisis for the English (and perhaps the UK’s) education system, I don’t disagree with the idea of setting up an elite private college in principle.

That said, the New College still strikes me as staggeringly ill-conceived. It doesn’t in fact offer the goods it advertises, and as it is currently designed, it cannot compete with actual elite institutions of higher learning.

For one thing, there’s the title. “New College of the Humanities.” Putting the humanities not just front and centre but in the very name of the institution seems promising: finally a break from the relentless focus on the dreary STEM subjects. In practice, however, the “arts” play an almost negligible role in Grayling’s scheme. Of the 14 so-called stars, exactly one specializes in literature; 3 are philosophers; 3 historians. The rest are scientists or social scientists — economists and lawyers. The order of the list of courses on the college’s website reveals a similar bias: Law and Economics top the list, with History, English literature, and Philosophy bringing up the rear. Modern or ancient languages are nowhere to be seen. The focus of the entire enterprise appears to be stridently Eurocentric (or more properly speaking, Anglocentric). And its vision of the humanities is dominated less by the sorts of things humanists tend to favour — freedom of thought, inquisitiveness, relentless skepticism, rigorous argument, open-ended inquiry and debate, thinking and writing to no purpose other than the furthering of understanding and the questioning of old certainties — than by the kind of purpose-driven real-world thinking that emphasizes “links with potential future employers, and establishing links with new companies” as well as “learn[ing] professional skills that will set you apart.”

The “diploma courses” the college offers hardly stress the centrality of the humanities to its mission. Modules in “Logic and Critical Thinking” and “Applied Ethics” would surely be part of any decent philosophy degree, so it’s unclear what their purpose is in an institution supposedly dedicated wholeheartedly and exclusively to humanities instruction anyway. On the other hand, “Science Literacy” and “Professional Skills” are modules that may be useful in themselves (and in the case of the former, may speak to the college’s interdisciplinary approach) , but their place in an allegedly humanities-focused college is at least questionable.

I don’t mean to suggest that humanists ought to ignore the sciences. But I would expect a place like Grayling’s to stress that science doesn’t have all the answers: that we in the “arts” can contribute to the conversation in ways scientists can’t. Having a compulsory interdisciplinary element doesn’t have to detract from that core mission. But it’s a question of emphasis. And when four of the so-called star professors of this New College of the Humanities are in fact scientists, I wonder whether the college can actually live up to its name.

So, on the one hand, we have a supposedly humanist enterprise that is in fact dominated by the sciences, by law and economics. On the other hand, we have a set of “stars” that shine rather less brightly on closer inspection.

Of the 14, one is younger than 55. Here are their birth years: 1931, 1933, 1941, 1942, 1944 (x2), 1946, 1949 (x2), 1950, 1954 (x2), 1964 (I couldn’t find Adrian Zuckerman’s date of birth, but he’s at least 60, too). Over half these professors would have had to take mandatory retirement in many jurisdictions. I don’t want to be ageist. But an eminence gris is not the same as a super-star. An elder statesman (I’m being deliberately gender-specific) is rarely at the top of his game. Thinkers in their late 50s and 60s are not typically as keen and hungry for new ideas and new approaches as younger researchers — they can, after all, fall back on a lifetime of ideas and convictions. What Grayling has assembled is not a group of people redefining their fields: if anything, they’re the defenders of the status quo. Age, of course, isn’t the sole factor in this. Niall Ferguson hasn’t conducted any original archival research since the 1990s, even though he’s the youngest of the bunch. He may be a public figure, but he can hardly pass as a serious academic historian anymore.

As far as my own subject goes, Christopher Ricks is a well-respected if very senior academic who’s been doing his own thing for a very long time. He’s produced some very smart and even influential readings over the past fifty years. But he’s never been an innovator, he’s never come close to founding a new school of thought or a new way of approaching literary study; he’s about as old-school as anyone working in the field today. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It does take all sorts. But if I were to pick the most likely candidates for “the most exciting innovation in Higher Education in a generation,” Ricks wouldn’t enter my mind.

And that, ultimately, is my most serious objection to the entire enterprise. Not only is the college not as focused on the humanities and their value(s) as it pretends to be, it also broadcasts a message of innovation while committing itself to an almost radical stuffiness in structure, curriculum, and personnel. Proposing to lead the next generation of humanists, Grayling has assembled a team representative of past generations of academics, some of them humanists. One of them is a woman; one of them isn’t white.

This college and its “professoriate” is a good twenty years removed from what the humanities are now, from the figures and ideas leading the fields that dominate humanistic inquiry, and from the questions and concerns that matter. But since it’s charging £18,000 and since some of its figureheads regularly appear on TV, it must be an elite sort of place. It isn’t. It’s out of date, out of touch, and largely out of ideas.

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2 Responses to Grayling Hall: Oh, the Humanities

  1. Holger Syme says:

    Good points all, Andras. Sure, I was being a bit polemical about Eagleton — but that’s his native mode, so it seems to fit the subject. His current appointment isn’t exactly like the professorial positions at N-CHUM. But I think you’re also being a bit too kind to him: a job that requires presence on campus for a week a term is a highly unusual and extremely comfortable situation, and while that doesn’t disqualify him from commenting on other people’s work arrangements, it does make him look a little disingenuous, at least in my book.

    You’re absolutely right about the profit vs non-profit issue.

    Re. age: maybe. Except that Grayling is selling N-CHUM (who came up with that URL?) as a hugely innovative pedagogical experiment, and in my experience internationally renowned academics of advanced age aren’t the most likely to explore new pedagogical methods and ideas, especially if they’re working without grad students. It’s not that I don’t think the “stars” will have things to say that undergrads might find interesting — it’s that I think younger scholars that are still actively engaged in finding totally new things to say will be more interesting, more challenging, and ultimately better for those undergrads — especially for a crowd as overprivileged and invested in the way things are as N-CHUM is likely to attract.

    I don’t quite buy the parasite argument with regard to the University of London — I suspect the CHUMs are paying dearly for classroom space and library access. I’d certainly be shocked if the University didn’t see this as an opportunity to raise revenue. But you’re right about the college sponging off the “professoriate’s” home institutions. I wonder how long those will turn a blind eye (some of the “stars” are only giving a single lecture the first year because they don’t want to “rock the boat” at Princeton, and I think this may be indicative of trouble ahead).

  2. andras says:

    While I share the sentiment, I disagree with several of your specific arguments.

    I think you are wrong about Eagleton: he is specifically NOT there to teach undergraduates – so why blame him for not doing that? He is a prof there to make postgraduate training happen – now, the quality of that training is whatever it is, but you will surely agree that such work does not tend to require the kind of day-to-day presence the instructors undergraduate institutions should be able to provide. (I repeat: regardless of what we think of TE’s performance as a supervisor of D Phils.) Grayling Hall, on the other hand, will be an undergraduate institution and nothing else.

    About the private vs. public issue: I agree with you about private institutions being potentially, and indeed often, good schools. I think this aspect of the discussion is defined by a category confusion. The real problem with Grayling Hall is not that it is private, but that it is a for profit institution. You have attended both private and public schools – but no for-profit institutions of higher education, I am sure. And while a not-for profit private institution (especially one with a considerable endowment) may be driven by some vision of a greater good, a for profit is probably driven by an entirely different set of considerations.

    About the age issue: I of course agree with your point that “thinkers in their late 50s and 60s are not typically as keen and hungry for new ideas and new approaches as younger researchers” – but again, this is going to be an undergraduate institution and nothing else: how crucial are new approaches and new ideas to a good undergraduate education? You would be right if this thing was billed as a top-notch grad school. But for an undergrad school, I think whatever Pinker and Colley and Fergusson consider as interesting and novel is probably going to work just about fine. Don’t you think?

    Which does not mean it would not be better if there were more young people involved – it would be much better: but this is not the right argument.

    Finally: I think the problem with Grayling Hall, beyond it being a for-profit, is that it is a parasitical institution, which lives off of the resources of the U of London and, more importantly still, of the intellectual resources and research facilities of the schools where these people made their name and will continue their research (they will not all retire from their current institutions, will they?)