What’s the point of University (or any) education?

by Charles on May 21, 2019

I’m an academic at the University of Oxford. At the moment Oxford is full of nervous, be-gowned students doing their exams. They’re all concerned about getting a good degree. But why?

I’m copying below a blog post of mine from a few years back, originally published on the University of Oxford Practical Ethics website. My views haven’t mellowed since it was originally written. Far from it.

Here it is….

Several times this term I’ve staggered out onto Oxford station, cramped and queasy from Cattle Class, and seen packs of sleek suits ooze out of First Class, briefcases in their hands and predatory gleams in their eyes. ‘Let’s go hunting’, one floppy-haired account manager said to his confederates. They climbed into cabs, which they saw as safari Land Rovers heading to the bush, and went off to a panelled room in some college.

To that room, lured by canapés and Mammon, lots of undergraduates will have come. Fizz (far more expensive than the students would ever buy themselves, but not of a standard that would be tolerated in the hunters’ own Esher homes) will have been waiting on silver trays. Vol au vents will have been smilingly circulated by bought-in labour (or possibly by the hunters’ own menials, in their best suits, slightly creased from travelling with me in Cattle).

There will have been some smooth smooching by the top brass, and some gushing by last year’s intake from Oxford, and then perhaps a nice little PowerPoint (conjured up by those clever people in HR) to go with the smoked trout, with headings like ‘Prospects’, ‘Clients’ and ‘Fringe Benefits’. Then more fizz, more delicious lines like ‘You sound just right for us’ (how sweet that ‘us’!), and the confidential handing over of the business cards.

Next year, some of those students, in new suits, will be making the journey up from London, to the same panelled rooms. Then they’ll be doing the gushing thing. Quite a few of them will be philosophy graduates.

This denotes a woeful failure by their tutors. There is no serious philosopher – not one – from any time or any place, whose conception of the Good Life encompasses the life of a Goldman Sachs director or a partner at a big firm of City Solicitors – let alone the life of one of their lieutenants.

Philosophy is a practical subject. Someone who writes the most dazzling essays on the Good Life and then goes off to work for a merchant bank has failed woefully. That failure needs to be recognized. There are, broadly, two ways of recognizing it. Both should be implemented without delay.

First, the students need to be targeted directly. A place at any institution regulated by the Financial Services Authority, or at one of the Magic Circle law firms should mean an immediate reduction by one notch in the class of degree awarded. There’s an argument for making the reduction more than that in the case of intellectually first class students: someone who has a First Class understanding of Aristotle and still jumps into bed with a bank is arguably more culpable- and more truly ignorant – than the 2:2 Aristotelian. But perhaps that is too radical. Certainly the incentives should work the other way round too. A student who chooses to go off and make yurts in the Black Mountains should gain a grade.

The institutions are canny. We’d have to recognize that, with such a system, they’d hold back on their offers until after graduation. And so there must be provision for retrospective reevaluation of degree results. Five years is probably enough. Any student who became employed by one of the institutions at any time up to five years after leaving Oxford would lose the grade.

Second: there should be a rebuttable presumption that any philosophy or Classics tutor (there’s a case for other subjects too, but slowly, slowly) who has a student who goes off to work for one of the evil institutions should lose half a paper per lost student in the next REF. The loss could be avoided if the tutor proved that he or she had made strenuous efforts to discourage the student from signing on the dotted line. Likewise, the tutors of yurt-makers should gain half a paper.

It sounds brutal. But it would make philosophy a serious subject again.

Leave a Comment

Previous post: