Don’t be a robot! Think for yourself!

From The Critic:

A few years ago, I wrote a short biography (for purposes of internal family consumption) of my great grandfather. Born in 1892, he went to work in the brickfields at the age of 12. He then served in the Royal Navy, where he was shot at on the beaches of Gallipoli, sunk in the North Sea and ended up in Crimea for the Russian Civil War. Afterwards, he got a job as a platelayer on the Tilbury Docks. He became politically active around about the time of the General Strike, joined the Communist Party and was instrumental in getting a fellow traveller selected as the Labour candidate and then MP for Thurrock. He became acquainted with people like Fenner Brockway, a leftist intellectual, and V.K. Krishna Menon, who later became independent India’s Defence Minister.

One of 15 children, he was brought up in the direst poverty imaginable. He mistakenly hoped that the Royal Navy would be more bearable than the brickfields. He soon realised his mistake: this was a time when birching was still allowed in the Navy. His life was a (literally) bloody struggle, and he only found some degree of comfort when he got married and his father-in-law managed to get him a relatively decent job on the docks. Being a platelayer, later a wagon examiner, was a slightly better paid and less tough job than being, say, a stevedore.

When I started to write this little bit of amateur family history, my grandfather (his son, now 91) — who hero-worshipped his father — gave me all the papers and other materials he had relating to him.

Amongst these was a large box of periodicals, magazines and pamphlets. As well as a White Russian propaganda paper that he picked up when he was in Odessa in 1921 during his naval service, many old souvenir copies of the Daily Worker (including one from the day that Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space), pamphlets on disarmament, “the labour question” and suchlike, there were many copies of leftist periodicals such as Labour Monthly, World News and Views and, most numerous of all, Plebs magazine. Plebs was the official organ of the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), a workers’ educational organisation with close ties to the trade union movement.

By turns both serious-minded and irreverent, with spiky cartoons and anti-capitalist jokes, Plebs facilitated an astonishing range of educational opportunities. Readers of Plebs were encouraged to learn subjects ranging from socialist and Marxist theory (naturally), to history, economics, psychology, English, mathematics and so on. Day schools, week-end schools, teach-yourself books and correspondence courses were all offered at affordable prices. Each edition would contain suggestions for new books to read, a large book review section, and adverts for all kinds of booksellers and pamphlets.

The NCLC movement saw education and reading as the path to a better and more hopeful world, encouraging workers to think independently and understand the world as it really was. The slogan of its correspondence courses — “Don’t be a Robot! Think for Yourself” — catches the spirit of the whole movement well. Considering that most of the readers of Plebs (at least, the ones lucky enough not to be unemployed) continued to work long hours in tough jobs, the fact that they chose to use what little extra income and time they had to educate themselves and improve their minds is a testament to their grit and determination.

My great-grandfather also got heavily involved in the Esperanto movement. Esperanto was (still is, to a small band of enthusiasts) an artificial language invented in 1887 by a Jewish eye-doctor from Poland, Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. A sort of simplified and regularised generic romance language, the idea was that it could function as a common tongue for the entire world, reversing the primal sin of the Tower of Babel and helping to spread peace, love and global understanding. It was enthusiastically taken up by left-wing idealists like my great-grandfather, who taught it to himself: my grandfather still has his Esperanto dictionary and copies of The British Esperantist, the official magazine of the British Esperanto Society. He named his bungalow in Grays “La Espero”, which means “Hope” in Esperanto.

Browse the pages of Plebs, and what strikes you immediately is an enormous sense of energy, confidence and agency. The NCLC had been created because working class people demanded it (they rebelled against the more staid offerings of Ruskin College Oxford to set it up). It was by and large run by trades unionists and other working men, many of whom would have faced genuine deprivation and struggle. Their hardscrabble lives made them utterly determined to assert their own dignity and educate themselves, on their terms: they had no deference whatsoever to established educational institutions. Their whole attitude towards the establishment, of whatever kind, from the bespectacled lefty lecturers at Ruskin College to the Tories running the country, was: balls to the lot of you, think you’re better than us? We’ll bloody show you: we can think and write and educate ourselves, thank you very much, without being spoon fed by the likes of you. In short: “Don’t be a Robot! Think for Yourself”.

Contrast this to the attitude of many on the left nowadays, to whom the hollowed-out corporate behemoths that are modern British universities are unquestionable redoubts of authority and status. Never mind that most humanities and arts courses consist largely of being taught to mindlessly imbibe the syllogisms and dogmas of poststructuralism and critical theory with considerably less critical engagement than the priestly scholars of the Middle Ages would have been expected to absorb the axioms of scholastic theology. Never mind that modern universities have completely lost their historic ethos of scholars governing themselves through deliberative collective structures and are now instead ruled over by middle-managers, HE departments and accountants, with all the respect for academics of an imperial governor dealing with recalcitrant natives.

No class has ever shown more deference to official qualifications and the authority of credentials than modern progressives. You can see this in the nasty undertone of much Twitter rhetoric, where people with lots of letters after their name love to lord it over those who haven’t spent three years soaking in Foucault. I have a doctorate, and believe me, brandishing it in such a way as to suggest that your opinions are fortified by an impenetrable wall of unimpeachable truth and expertise is laughable: I am qualified to speak about 18th century British politics, but not necessarily much else. This doesn’t stop the “I think you’ll find that actually I’m Doctor Bloggs” brigade from suggesting that it is unimaginable impertinence to challenge them. What such people would have made of the proletarian autodidacts who read Plebs, one can only imagine.

Yes, I went to university, but in many ways, I have received more education since university than during it — and I went to Cambridge in the before days, pre-decolonisation and the imposition of other such tedious orthodoxies. What did I do at university? Read a lot of books, think about them and write essays. All I needed was a reading list, and I was away. How much use was “contact time”? In some ways it can help, but in others it can constrain: inevitably university teachers spend a lot of time trying to help the indolent come up to a basic level of knowledge. They wish to teach a relatively narrow range of topics that they know well enough, which means one often has to make one’s own way anyway. Much of the mystique of a university education comes from the need of the institutions, and those who teach at them, to justify their own existence and bolster their status. Ignore the blither, and the value added — particularly with ever larger teaching group sizes — is nowhere near as big as universities would claim.

Nothing is more modish or conformist than academia. Trends — “material culture” one day, “the new political economy of capitalism” the next — come and go. Many academics are constantly trimming the wind to suit the whims of funding bodies, who suddenly decide that their priority is “queer epistemologies” or anything that can claim some tenuous link to climate change. The social background and assumptions of academics are incredibly narrow, which inevitably influences what they teach and research.

Link to the rest at The Critic

PG is a sucker for a good rant.

4 thoughts on “Don’t be a robot! Think for yourself!”

  1. I ended up at Yale just as the end was getting going (’75) and my major had nothing to do with my (Math) goals heading in. When my original plan failed, I decided that since I was there, I might as well “get an education”. (This was fine with my sponsoring alumnus father who didn’t expect his daughter to make a tech career and earn a living anyway…)

    So I did. What that consisted of, for me, was intros to a lot of dead languages (I was allowed to take low-demand graduate courses in things like Egyptian hieroglyph), and excuses to sit in on courses (in damn near anything) by dead-famous academics (Harold Bloom, Donald Kagan, Thomas Gould, etc.) and many of my colleagues did the same — you wanted to take a course for the man, not the subject. Such men as: John Findlay, John Frecerro, Derek J de Solla Price, Cleanth Brooks, William Wimsatt, Norman Holmes Pearson, Charles Seymour… It didn’t matter what the topic was – they could make anything interesting, including the workings of academic disputes over subject content as well as professorial politics.

    No one undergraduate could sample them all, but (in my circles) the word spread and the collective experience did us all good. We had no idea that “après nous, le déluge” was really going to sink the whole going concern of higher education in the US so completely.

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