Thomas Docherty: 'AC Grayling's New College for the Humanities betrays us all'

If AC Grayling really wanted to defend the humanities, he would fight for them within the public sphere, argues Thomas Docherty, in response to the professor's piece for The Independent

AC Grayling's New College for the Humanities (NCH) has occasioned much vituperation from its detractors. We should begin, though, from agreement. In these pages last week, Grayling defended the NCH on ethical grounds as a response to a political situation. As he indicated rightly, the British university system has suffered from what he called "chronic underfunding over decades". The NCH, he claims, is certainly not the thin end of a wedge of privatisation, but a response, well behind the curve, to an existing "part-privatisation" of the sector, evidenced by our enforced dependence on overseas fees. It is indeed the case that, for years, humanities in Britain have been regarded with ill-disguised suspicion, verging on contempt, by successive governments. Humanities are seen to lack the brash aggression and Apprentice-style crude "competitiveness" that is admired and regarded as normative, economically and socially. So, humanities are now explicitly under attack, most especially in our universities. The 2010 Browne Review took this prevailing negativity to its most radical conclusion: the state would withdraw all interest in humanities and funding for the teaching of those disciplines should cease. Thus, the earlier, vaporous musings of Charles Clarke, when he casually dismissed medieval history as a private hobby, find material realisation in a philistine report – and government policy – that exacerbates an increasingly difficult situation. Grayling's case, then, rests on an ethical principle in which he is simply trying to provide a quality education at an advanced level in a situation where these things are endangered. By his own account, however, the ethical action does not exist in a neutral space: it is a response to government policies.

Yes, the humanities face a major problem; but it is not simply one of funding. More fundamentally – and this is what Grayling's abstract ethical case occludes – the issue at stake is also that of the value of the public sphere and of the role of the university in enhancing democratic participation in the extension of justice and of human freedoms within the realm of the common wealth of the nation. Our problem might be cause for despair, especially since those who should be defending the university – Universities UK – have rolled over into postures of the utmost betrayal-by-compliance. Grayling's response to the predicament, however, is not really governed by despair. His response is actually a part of that betrayal-by-compliance. He is not the "thin end of the wedge" of privatisation, for NCH is already privatised marketisation in action. Instead of staying to fight for the humanities as an essential determinant of our questions concerning the common wealth of values, Grayling and his partners decamp. That treachery is precisely what is wanted by David Willetts and Vince Cable as they divest government of fundamental responsibilities towards the shared public realm, preferring instead a market of atomised and supposedly "free" competition. Competition, though, is concerned with mere price, not with embodied values; and, not only does it reduce values to prices, it also drives prices up while driving quality down, in higher education, just as in the health service.

Government wants us to regard the university as a royal road to immediate and guaranteed financial gain for the atomised individual; an institution where the totality of our humanity is recognised only by consumption and where all human transaction is conducted as buying and selling. The university is to exist for profit. Grayling excuses his absent celebrity professors by saying that they are not faculty but partners. Their commitment here is not to the service of teaching, but to the success of a business or company designed for profit. NCH could have been designed as a charity or as a not-for-profit institution and could have taken its place in our system much less controversially. Here, again, the political determinations of an ethical issue are important. By choosing this moment and by choosing the for-profit route, NCH gives solace to those who, for ideological reasons, are attacking the public sphere and the ideals of public service. It enters celebrity culture, where his partners are not teachers, but brands enlisted to help sell an education figured as an expensive commodity. In some ways, the NCH curriculum could be interesting (its interest has already been demonstrated, of course, as it comprises already existing successful modules, designed by teachers who commit themselves to increasingly heavy daily workloads within their institutions).

Its distinctiveness lies in three "extra" compulsory modules for all students. Is such a degree impossible within the existing University of London prospectus? Why not persuade colleagues to advance such high-quality programmes, leavened further by inviting his celebrity guests to teach? Well, we know the answers: the NCH student will follow a module in science literacy – for profit. She will take a module in logic and critical thinking – for profit. This is all topped up with a module in applied ethics (oh, irony) – for profit.

It is this for-profit motivation that operates like a disease, threatening the wider enterprise of general university education in the present political context. The situation is indeed dire. Grayling claims that he does a service by providing places for students whose places have been usurped by "full-fee" overseas students.

As a piece of philosophical sophistry, this is not far removed from the patriotic-scoundrel logic of prejudice that reviles foreigners for "coming over here, taking our jobs". As he knows, overseas students are "off-quota": they displace no-one. So, then, they are accused of causing "overcrowding". One senses an increasing desperation after all in Grayling's case.

In the end, we are all betrayed by NCH. The humanities are primarily about questioning ideological conformities, about the possibility of inventing new futures by critiquing, even opposing, the presiding norms within a society. This is all the more vital when those norms are crudely determined by ideologies that reduce humanistic values to priced commodities and that have little time for the extension of justice or democracy.

Grayling and partners, in their betrayal-by-compliance, support an ideological higher-education policy that lacks democratic legitimacy.

Thomas Docherty is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick

Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all faied
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
people
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

£100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Year 4 Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?