Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Birds of Appetite: The Spiritual decline of University Education

The current vogue for 'mindfulness' in education and elsewhere is a warning - as Thomas Merton would observe - that vultures are hovering:
When there is a lot of fuss about "spirituality", "enlightenment" or just "turning on" it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse (Merton, "Zen and the Birds of Appetite", p,ix)
The corpse might be given many names: 'culture', 'environment', 'politics' perhaps. I don't think it really matters because whatever corpse is there exists because of an ecological catastrophe, so whichever label we attach is merely an aspect on a systemic whole: so the choice of aspect is simply an entry point. My entry point is 'education'.

From the educational entry point, what has died is our ability to fulfil what Leavis calls:
"The need [...] to find a way of saving cultural continuity, that continuous collaborative renewal which keeps the 'heritage' of perception, judgment, responsibility and spiritual awareness alive, responsive to change, and authoritative for guidance" (F.R.Leavis, "'Believing in' the University", in "The Critic as Anti-Philosopher", p177)
Corpses, of course, are a sign of transformation. As in Christianity as much as in the Tarot, Death is a sign of a new beginning. There is space to hope (in fact, hope is all we have left) - but what we have now is precisely the picture painted by Leavis of culture under threat.

In terms of hope, Merton's is a call for the non-corpse of Zen. This is a thought worth hanging on to. It signals the impending importance of the apophatic (Merton uses the word) - the absent, the not-there.
Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the "nothing" the "no-body" that was there, suddenly appears.
I've found myself reading Merton and Leavis together. Leavis represents a deeply conservative and reactionary stance towards education, although it is a version of 'conservatism' which has disappeared: this is not the market-obsessed conservatism of Thatcher, Blair or today's Tories. It is a conservative attitude to knowledge which would be dismayed at what conservativism now seems to stand for. There's much in Leavis which I'm uncomfortable with:
I heard Mr Thorpe's opening address. His first sentence was: 'The Liberal party is in favour of comprehensive schools'. The sentence was brief, and he said no more about education. It's not for that alone that I resolved, there and then, not to expose myself to being counted in future as a loyal backer of the Liberal party.
This seems straightforwardly reactionary. But then I read the following passage - which in a way is similarly reactionary - but I stop to think that he might be right.
There's no redeeming the democratic mass university.The civilization it represents has, almost overnight, ceased to believe in its own assumptions, and recoils nihilistically from itself. If you believe in humanity at all you will know that nothing today is more important than to keep alive the idea of the university-function - the essential university-function and what goes with it: the idea of an educated public.
When I was at the University of Bolton, there was a snobbish attitude among the elite that Bolton wasn't a proper university. This upset me, not least because I knew that the part of Bolton I was in - which was an internationally-leading centre for educational technology research - was better than any other centre of its kind in the UK (it had beaten Cambridge to win the contract to advise on technology standards, and had earned the University millions in external funding). And there was an egalitarian spirit in Bolton which sought to educate those for whom University was otherwise inaccessible. All Universities are both terrible and excellent in different parts.

But then came a wave of managerial idiocy, driven by ego and greed (and a truly dreadful man) which instilled fear and cruelty into the ethos of the place. A nasty bums-on-seats mentality took over - and with market reforms to education in the UK, it was now very expensive to place one's bum on a seat. The closure of my department was not the most cruel thing it did ( The injustice sticks like mud, even if the mud doesn't stick to those responsible. Of course Bolton isn't a University.

But in Leavis's terms, nowhere is a University any more. The business ethos has taken over, driven partly by a financialisation process which has turned the whole thing into a financial product. Businesses have a cruel, greedy and ego-driven ethic - is it surprising to see this replicated in education? Dog eat dog, I guess - except that dogs are too sensible to eat each other.

In his essay on 'Believing in the University', Leavis does not want to be pessimistic. He defends himself against charges of Blakean utopianism in his arguing that University can be a 'new Jerusalem' (this despite the fact that Blake saw the Universities as the Dark Satanic Mills!). Leavis reacts to the pessimistic tone set by Ian Robinson who says "as long as the genuine search goes on and the belief in the university... is firmly held, one may survive as a university teacher even after the catastrophic and unmitigated defeats of the post-Robbins era". [Actually, what struck me about this quote from Robinson is the fact that Robbins was seen so dismally, when in our post Browne era, Robbins is usually presented as a moment of enlightenment in education!]

Leavis's optimism draws, as does much of his literary work, on D.H. Lawrence:
"life is travelling to the edge of knowledge, then a leap taken. We cannot know beforehand... It is a leap taken, into the beyond..."
"It is no use trying merely to modify present forms. The whole great form of our life will have to go. And nothing will really send it down but the new shoots of life springing up and slowly bursting the foundations" 
Leavis accepts his own limitations ("I have never been naive enough to suppose that a pattern devised by me would - could - be embodied by revolutionary reformers") but then explains his optimism:
But even in this part of the total passage Lawrence doesn't imply that the springing of 'new shoots of life' absolves him (and us) from all responsibility.[...] He [Lawrence] goes on and completes the paragraph with this: 'And one can do nothing, but fight tooth and nail to defend the new shoots of life from being crushed out, and let them grow. We can't make life. We can but fight for the life that is in us' 
When I think about my experiences at Bolton, it was the crushing of the life that was in me which nearly killed me (on losing my job, I struggled emotionally more than I have ever done before in my life in a way which was terrifying to me and my family. I wasn't the only one). What crushed the life out of me was the cruelty, injustice, blindness, selfishness and idiocy of a regime which is still in charge of the University, unchallenged, defended by the Establishment and which has successfully brushed aside many attempts to challenge it (like these:

But Leavis is right. The hope for education and for society is that we fight for life in us. And the life within us has never been under greater threat. It is not a fight for degrees, certificates, status, professorships and so on - those things will only lead to disaster. It is a fight for the human spirit against forces which seek to destroy it. 

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