Terence Blacker: Why are so many academics so miserable?

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The Independent Online

For those of us who once took the gentleman's route into Cambridge, the fuss surrounding university interview techniques will have come as something of a revelation. In those days, a few basic qualifications – passable background, knowing how to chuck a rugger ball, a grounding in Latin grammar – gained access to a rather easy entrance exam, and that was more or less that.

I took an exam in history and was accepted, in the form of a brief congratulatory letter, to read English. It seemed slightly odd at the time and, looking back, I suppose some sort of clerical error may have caused a T Blacklock, candidate for English, to lose out to me, but it seemed impolite to question the university's judgement.

Now, apparently, there are interviews at which dons are allowed to sneer, show off and introduce their victims to the academic world in an appropriately snotty way. Three years ago, the case of Tracy Playle of Basildon hit the headlines after, at an interview at my old college, she was mocked by Dr Eric Griffiths, who suggested that, being called Tracy and coming from Essex, she would be unlikely to see Greek letters as anything more that squiggly lines.

Now even the toffs are complaining about Cambridge and Oxford interviews. Tutors tend to adopt an "intimidating, superior and aggressive" attitude, according to a survey conducted by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The tenor of interviews was frequently "rude, abrasive and arrogant", and dons were in the habit of trying to put off candidates with various games-playing techniques – one, for example, lay on a sofa and pretended to be asleep during the progress of an interview.

"So now we're frightening the upper classes after upsetting the poor devils from comprehensive schools," the Warden of New College, Oxford, Alan Ryan commented, wearily rebutting the allegations. "The truth is that it is a rough life and we had all better get used to it."

In one sense at least, Professor Ryan is right. Life in academia can indeed be rough. Dons have never been famous for their grace or manners but, over the past 20 years, a new sourness has become evident on campuses and in quads. Often it has seemed as if those who have chosen the path of learning as a career are quickly consumed by a sense of personal dissatisfaction which finds expression in rudeness and arrogance.

Why are so many academics miserable? What causes their social dysfunction? The question is now so urgent that one of their number should surely be working on a PhD thesis to cast light upon it.

There is a money problem, of course. Lack of funding has dragged universities into the marketplace and, in addition to the many areas in which they feel rivalrous, dons now have to compete for students. The need to be published has become more urgent, so that one of the traditional attractions of academic life, paid idleness, has been lost.

Another perk to disappear is the opportunity to sleep with undergraduates. So pervasive is the terror of being caught in bed with a student that a shelf-full of novels, notable by Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, John Updike and Jonathan Franzen, has dealt with the theme. Yet clearly, cruelly, students themselves are at it like alley-cats. Gloomily, tutors and lecturers turn to one another, but professional jealousy takes a terrible toll on these affairs, which soon degenerate into disappointed, middle-aged bickering.

No wonder that when a nervous 18-year-old, blooming with hope, potential and the capacity for pleasure, enters the interview room, a certain edginess, a rather unattractive resentment, quickly become evident. Candidates should be encouraged to relax on these occasions, and to take the bullying of sad academics as a compliment.

terblacker@aol.com

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