Peter Cook once said that nobody had actually read Don Quixote, and though Cervantes might have written it, even he couldn’t be bothered reading it as well. When I heard Cook say this, it relieved me of a great responsibility, that of reading Don Quixote. These days I try never to read any book that weighs more than a brick, but it’s very easy to fill one’s own bookshelves with books that should be read, rather than books that one wants to read and might enjoy.
I still haven’t read Don Quixote, and don’t own a copy so I’m never tempted to try. Gathering a library of books together can be a bit like creating a new family. Biological families, as most of us have hopefully found out, just aren’t enough. Putting together a family of choice that doesn’t in some way replicate the family of origin can be tricky. You can end up accidentally marrying one of your parents (‘You’re just like my mother!’) or squabbling with friends over a variety of objects you’re highly attached to in the same way you used to argue with your brother over who got the GI Joe and who got the Action Man. In the same way we can end up with libraries of books that we hump around for all kinds of reasons other than we enjoy them.
Learning that families of origin aren’t enough is a bit like learning that literary canons aren’t enough either. In the same way that developmental theories tell us all the ways in which we have screwed up, literary canons can tell us all the ways in which we can’t write or should write. Literary canons are always evidence of a political frame-up. A few years ago I was given a complete set of 54 nicely bound hardbacks published in 1952 by Encyclopaedia Britannica, snugly fitted in their own customised bookshelf, called Great Books of the Western World. Great Books begins with Homer and ends with Freud. It was edited by a team of heavyweight American professors who all seem to possess very unlikely names, as though they are characters in pre-war American fiction: Stringfellow Barr, Clarence H. Faust, Alexander Meiklejohn, Joseph J. Schwab, with a series of advisors that includes Walter Murdoch, who died at 96 after having a university in WA named after him, and was notable for a number of things, one of them apparently being a defence of the proposed outlawing of the Australian Communist Party.
The list of volumes in Great Books includes 15 Greeks, nine Romans (including one Roman African), two Italians, seven Frenchmen, 14 Germans, two Spaniards (one of them Cervantes), 20 Englishmen, three Americans, one Dutchman and an Austrian, and is proceeded by an introductory volume called The Great Conversation, which contains sentences like, ‘No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West …’ and so on. The ‘most important question in the world’ says Volume 1, is ‘Can everybody get an education in the liberal arts?’ In the unlikely event that someone has read none of the selected texts, says the editors, The Great Books come with a suggested reading guide, noted in great detail, to be completed over a period of ten years. Year One begins with excerpts from Plato, Aristophanes and Plato, and Year 10 completes the odyssey with William James, Marx, and Freud. Either the distinguished professors had a delusional view of the interests and capabilities of American readers, or people were considerably more literate 60 years ago. As 20 percent of American teenagers are now reported to be unable to locate the US on a map, and 60 percent of American adults believe that Creationism trumps the theory of natural selection, to go from contemplating Marx to mediaeval ignorance in half a century is quite a shift.
When the Great Books collection was published just a few years after the Second World War, it was seriously believed that they contained everything in Western thinking that was worth knowing. Great Books was not just a ‘Best of’ collection, it was a Utopian world-changing project, and just as significantly an imperial one. The introductory volume contains a list 29 pages long of the project’s financial supporters (David Ben-Gurion, Westinghouse, Standard Oil) and the institutions to which sets of Great Books would be gifted (Rapid City Air Force Base, University of California, Chicago Lying-In Hospital). After ten years of reading the Great Books library, you would presumably become a paid up member of the elite group carrying the flame of human knowledge. For a century though science had been On The March, and in their attempts to battle the overwhelming tide of technological materialism they saw swamping them, the editors of the Great Books also included texts by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Faraday. They acknowledged the immense discoveries and invention of technocracy, but they preferred their science pre-1900. Technology, that had once seemed like a kind of magic – humanity had gone from balloons to jets in 50 years – was now, after Hiroshima, carpet bombing and so on, starting to seem a little demonic.
All the Great Books are naturally written by men, and men who were university-approved. There are three Americans deemed worthy of choice: Melville, James and Thomas Jefferson. The American contribution consists of novel about a whale, an early book of psychology and the Declaration of Independence. In other words, texts of Really Big Ideas. We may not have written much, the Americans seem to be saying, but we have written about is Big, Really Big. Whales, Psychology, Democracy. You might think it’s a long way from Plato’s Republic to Marx’s Kapital, but that’s just peanuts compared to Jefferson and Melville.
Of course this very big whale of American utopian imperatives was already well on the way to dominating the planet, from the gutter to the stars, and American psychologies and versions of democracy have saturated the cultures of nearly everyone on earth. These days in the US the term ‘liberal’ seems to have become synonymous with ‘terrorist’, ‘traitor’ and even ‘Nazi.’ Literature has about as much to say to ordinary Americans – and most Australians too – as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The dream that the editors of Great Books had of an intellectualised American populace, continually discussing the Great Questions raised by continual pondering on literature and the liberal arts seems about as realistic as Star Trek. But interestingly, the professors of yore saw the essential vehicle for the realisation of that dream as a universal system of free education. The idea that access to education would depend on the size of mum and dad’s income was anathema to them.
So wherefore now the University, the liberal utopia? The announcement of AC Grayling’s private university, the New College of the Humanities (NCH), managed to both convulse me with laughter and disturb me at the same time which is something of a unique achievement. In his legendary book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings attacked the discourse of excellence which has come to dominate academic practice, exposing it for the seedy grasping venture it is, claiming a context-free world where values can be bought and sold, to paraphrase Orwell, like so many pounds of cheese.
About ten years ago I presented a paper at an education conference in Melbourne where I attacked the appropriation by elite private schools, those in Melbourne in particular, of a radical experiment in early childhood education that had been developed by the Communist municipalities in northern Italy after World War 2. Given that I delivered the paper on the premises of a Melbourne private school, you can imagine that it didn’t go down very well. The main objection that I received to my arguments was that ‘all schools should be like us and have our resources’. A political discussion wasn’t just out of the question, it wasn’t even possible to generate the context in which to have one. ‘Politics’ was all that nasty shouting that other people did who weren’t as fortunate as us.
The academic staff of the New College of the Humanities, which sounds like something created by the Jedi, comprises such celebrity academics as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Ricks and Niall Ferguson. Educationally it sounds as dead as FR Leavis. Philosophy taught by AC Grayling, history by Niall Ferguson, and literature by Christopher Ricks doesn’t exactly set one’s imagination on fire. Whenever Dawkins appears in my field of vision, I usually turn to Terry Eagleton’s demolition of Dawkins’ hilarious book The God Delusion. That cheers me up immensely. Christopher Ricks, a life-long Bob Dylan fan, wrote one of the worst books you’re ever likely to read on Dylan, excruciatingly pretentious, dull and written with all the verve of Annette Funicello’s movie dad grooving it with the kids on the beach. As for Niall Ferguson, words fail.
So many humorous images come to mind when I think of the NCH, I’m spoiled for choice. I have a picture of the NCH staff common room as something like the first-class passenger lounge of Brunei Airways. Or maybe it would be more like a well-tailored version of the wizard’s staff room at Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University, sans humour, funny hats or orangutans, but probably with similar levels of entitlement, pomposity, self-parody and so on. Or perhaps it would be like the common room at Hogwarts school but without a Master of the Dark Arts to liven things up. Anyway, check out the NCH website, for proof positive that the ‘professiorate’ of that institution have no sense of humour, and even less sense of the ironic. Whenever you read ‘New College of the Humanities’ try substituting ‘Unseen University’, or ‘Temple of the Jedi Order’, or ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’. Like substituting the lyrics of the theme from Gilligan’s Island with those of Advance Australia Fair, they all work spookily well.
Actually the staff list for the NCH reminds me of the line-up for the New York Cosmos football team. The Cosmos became famous in the late 1970s for paying stars such as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer truckloads of cash to come to the US and sign up for the Cosmos bench long after they were past their use-by-date. It’s tempting to think of the NCH like that, as the place where has-beens and loudmouths lucratively pension themselves off long after everyone else has become tired of hearing from them, and are paid to wander around in mid-field, as it were, talking at great length about all the fantastic goals they used to score, and will again once they just lose a bit of weight and stop drinking.
Of course to anyone associated with universities over the past few decades, the NCH comes as no surprise. Bill Readings was ringing alarm bells in the early 1990s and his book has proven to be somewhat prophetic. The language of excellence has swept the board so that we rarely hear any challenge to it. It’s probably only a matter of time before we see an Australian franchise of the NCH. Many universities have invested in new faculties of excellence, of ‘innovation’ over the past decade or so. Excellence has come to equal Innovation, which has itself appropriated the term Creativity, which has become code for ‘finding new ways of raking in money’. As one university of my acquaintance slogan’d it, ‘Creativity is the new currency’. And it’s instructive, or depressing, take your pick, to imagine an Australian version of the NCH. My guess is that there would be academics falling over each other to sign up, and in any existing university department it wouldn’t be too hard to pick the likely candidates.
Universities have become politics-free zones. Of course there’s the ‘politics’ of character assassination and career ruthlessness in which university faculties have traditionally excelled, but that’s not what I’m referring to. Readings pointed out that it was often the academics of the Left who supported the university’s manic drive for excellence, and who were most committed to the academic project, as though some essential truths were contained within the walls of a university, just as the editors of Great Books of the Western World thought they were the standard bearers for universal enlightenment, or Jedi knights consider themselves guardians of the Force.
Of course having AC Grayling as your lecturer comes at a price: eighteen thousand quid, to be precise. Each year. That’s the thing about excellence, it’s apparently not free, and it stands to reason that the more you pay the more excellent your education will undoubtedly be.
The NCH has about as much credibility as a place of learning as the Cosmos had as a football team. But of course it’s the political import that is disturbing. As the Cosmos were a kind of marker for the beginning of the disintegration of international football into a meaningless parade of superclubs owned by corrupt plutocrats of one kind and another, so the NCH might be the marker of the final parcelling out of universities as reservations for the elite and the celebrated. Now all the NCH needs to cement its place as a weird parody of liberal education is the Creative Writing degree. I call for nominations for Head of Faculty.