Without aspiration or elitism, university has become a breeding ground for unrefined lad culture

For those of us who studied literature, it would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them

Howard Jacobson
Friday 11 September 2015 18:51
Two lads drink beer in a pub
Two lads drink beer in a pub

When I think what shrinking violets we boys who went to university in the 1960s were – at least those of us who weren’t rowers or rugger-playing “hearties” – it’s hard to credit that the campus is so far declined into savagery that Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, considers it necessary to set up a task force “to stamp out violence against women and provide a safe environment for all ... students”.

A task force! Will that involve drones? Can so much have changed in 50 years? The environment in which I studied was so safe I thought I would die from the boredom of it. Which isn’t to say I’d prefer to be at university now. True, I didn’t go to one of the “rougher” places, where a little more of the laddishness complained about today might already have been in evidence. None of the obscenities of the uncouth North offended our hearing as we strolled along the Backs in the morning mist reciting Spenser. “Olly, Olly, King’s!” – shouted on the towpath during the May Bumps – was as threatening as language got, and then only if you weren’t at King’s. And because my college was for men only – some joke, calling us “men” – there were no women around for us to abuse, supposing we’d been of a mind to do so. Yes, we called them “totty”, but we would have died from embarrassment had the totty looked in our direction.

But the main difference between then and now is that we didn’t in those days (the hearties excluded) think of ourselves as “lads”. The very fact of our being at university marked us off from those who weren’t. We were less interested in the carnivals of the proletariat. We drank beer but looked odd in pubs. We either didn’t know or wanted to forget the rough and tumble of the street. We weren’t looking down on the pleasures of people who didn’t go to university; we simply didn’t share them.

Scared, were we? Perhaps. I had worked on the markets with my father before going to university so I possessed an apparent street-smartness, had access to a colourful costermonger vocabulary and tried passing myself off as a bit of spiv. But my contemporaries saw through me. At heart they knew I was as bookish and oversensitive as they were.

Looking back, I see that we resembled the young men D H Lawrence wrote about in Sons and Lovers. So many mother-centred Paul Morels, easily hurt, indefinite and shrinking. Sensitivity doesn’t necessarily make you easy to get on with. Many a woman has suffered at the hands of a Paul Morel. There’s more than one way of being brutal. But we never raised our hands to women. We could no more have date-raped than scored a try at Twickenham.

So where, since the campus no longer rings with their groans of excruciation, have men of this sort gone? Have they died out? Are they outnumbered now by hearties? Or is it that our expectations of education itself – what it is to study and be knowledgeable, what it is to be cultured, what it is to be refined, if you have memory of that word – have changed?

Lawrence’s description of Paul Morel’s passion for Willey Farm, home to Miriam and her family, made a deep impression on me when I first read Sons and Lovers at school. Paul “loved Miriam’s long, low parlour, with its atmosphere of romance, its flowers, its books, its high rosewood piano”. On Sunday evenings the whole family played charades, learnt songs and read aloud from Macbeth. Then there were the French lessons and the walks to chapel and the literary society. I didn’t want the chapel but I wanted everything else, and imagined that university would provide it. You could say it was an idea of being civilised – passion, companionship and learning in harmony – I hankered for. Love of a woman (I hadn’t yet heard of totty) would consecrate the books and the books would consecrate the woman.

It didn’t fall out that way at university for me or, I think, for many of my friends, but our studies still kept us in touch with the ideal. There is an abstractedness in learning – when we learn because learning itself absorbs us, not because we have an eye on a good job in the City or the media – that is a million miles away from the self-pleasing, time-consuming roguery of laddishness. In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them. I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there. And yes, I do know there were SS men who wept listening to Schubert. All that goes to show is that barbarism, left unchecked, can knock out humanity, which is all the more reason to check barbarism.

Could universities be more brutal places socially than they were because it’s no longer a shared conviction that knowledge and the steps we take to acquire it can humanise? Is it even possible that we have given up on the idea of being humanised altogether? Is the very word too fancy? We mistrust whatever isn’t egalitarian and look askance at people who appear to us to live in ivory towers, though an ivory tower is precisely what a university should be – an exceptional, aspirational, above-it place, a centre of “higher” interests and pursuits.

It can’t be that men are suddenly pornographic bastards. Left to their own devices, men have always been pornographic bastards. So we must have jettisoned what once restrained them – the conviction that knowledge is virtue, that truth is beauty, that sex is better when it’s mutual and, better still, when the parties to it pause occasionally to read a book together.

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