Saturday, 5 July 2014

A Dolls House University

It's graduation season! Cue the absurd paraphernalia of cap-and-gown, the parading of privilege and the fundamental declaration of difference between those of 'learning' and 'rank', and everyone else. Veblen (in 1899!) reminds us of the pernicious, class-ridden foundation of it all - even in modest institutions which aspire to grandeur - as this serves the interests of elites:
"it is also no doubt true that such a ritualistic reversion [in aspiring universities] could not have been effected in the college scheme of life until the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the propertied class had gone far enough to afford the requisite pecuniary ground for a movement which should bring the colleges of the country up to the leisure-class requirements in the higher learning. The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitively become leisure class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration."
The parading of rank is now a cynical advertisement for lining pockets of the wealthy: "You too can join the priestly ranks - providing you pay your fees!"

Rank and privilege dominate not only the relation between the institution and society, but within institutions too. Nothing new here, except that scholars have now become functionaries (effectively 'assessment operatives') to be commanded by elites. At a University near me which suffers a particularly nasty case of managerialism, I understand that the VC lined up all academics in full garb in the centre of town (a three-line whip!). Having had them stand around for nearly an hour, he proceeded to inspect the troops. He would stop occasionally, picking on individuals who couldn't do much about their situation (there's only so much one can do lined up in fancy dress!) "Your cap is not quite straight," he said to one, reaching out in a deliberate invasion of personal space, to adjust it: "there it looks better like that!"; to another senior manager who was surrounded by his staff, "Oh! Hello - I didn't think you still worked for us!" This was followed by a ceremony where the de-facto honours system of 'honorary doctorates' saw awards made to political allies and celebrities (good for media coverage) followed by a gala dinner with semi-naked dancing girls, prompting at least one family to walk out in disgust: it all amounted to the VC saying to all assembled guests "I can do what I want".

This unfortunate institution appears to be a "Dolls House University".

In Ibsen's revolutionary play "A Dolls House", the fundamental pathology of the situation that Nora finds herself trapped in is the "sense of entitlement" expressed by her husband. In the Dolls House University, it is an appalling sense of entitlement that infects university management. But Ibsen's play is about hope: eventually, somebody tears up the rule-book, just as Nora does:
NORA [...] But our house has been nothing but a play-room. Here I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I used to be papa's doll-child. And the children, in their turn, have been my dolls. I thought it fun when you played with me, just as the children did when I played with them. That has been our marriage, Torvald.
HELMER. There is some truth in what you say, exaggerated and overstrained though it be. But henceforth it shall be different. Play-time is over; now comes the time for education.
NORA. Whose education? Mine, or the children's?
HELMER. Both, my dear Nora.
NORA. Oh, Torvald, you are not the man to teach me to be a fit wife for you.
HELMER. And you can say that?
NORA. And I- how have I prepared myself to educate the children?
There are still plenty of relationships like Nora's marriage. But the fundamental rules apply eventually: behind any abusing relationship is somebody's sense of entitlement, and eventually this leads to breakdown.

Education is all about relationships. As teachers, we believe we can change peoples' lives by talking to them. It's true - but only under circumstances of care, responsibility, courage, freedom and trust. The pursuit of knowledge is not something that can happen in a dolls house. When one person feels entitled to manipulate everyone else, any possibility for anything good to come out of it dies. The dolls house might attempt splendid looks, but the vacuity of the display, the shallowness of the dancing girls, the puffed-up men and women in ridiculous costumes, the manic organist and the discordant trumpets all signify something sordid and festering.

Nora's courage is an example to everyone.

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