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SUMMER

19th August


point Caroline would mention to her clients that I was just visiting and the inevitable the question would be asked, "And what do you do for a living?" One retired accountant who lived in a mansion overlooking the Baie des Anges provides a good case study. His house was like a scene from JG Ballard's novel Supercannes. At his poolside, bathed in the special glow of the Riviera sun, he decried the Labour government's aim to increase the numbers of school leavers going into higher education. "There's no point kids doing degrees that are going to make them unemployable. I read in the Telegraph that there are graduates who can't get on training courses to be plumbers." His other chief target was the profusion of "Mickey Mouse degrees like media studies and surfing studies". His sons were studying at redbrick universities "where they study proper subjects like law and architecture". When he asked the inevitable question I told him I taught courses in sociology and urban studies and the atmosphere cooled immediately.

My anxiety about these matters might not be so unique. There is little self-consciousness about being an intellectual in France but in England it sounds fanciful, affected, or even just plain foolish, to foster such an ambition. Everywhere in public life there is the imperative to consume, to judge value from the point of view of a consumer - 'is this value for money?' Appeals to the importance of understanding as a process valuable for its own sake seem very weak in the current climate. To

 


my mind, universities are at their best when they are places where minds are allowed to wander, be it through the labyrinth of high theory or in the lowly task of making the familiar strange. This concern may not be shared but it seems important to stop being afraid of arguing for the vocation of thinking.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once commented that it was healthy for intellectuals to be made to feel like a fool routinely. He had in mind that this could inhibit the inflation of academic self-importance. Humility certainly has its uses but this does not mean being shy of arguing for the intellectual life. Critical thinking needs protection from those who would reduce it to a currency traded on the open market of job opportunities. In August every year I take my turn sitting at the clearing desk and interview desperate applicants trying to find a university place. My last question is always what they think education is for. Most mention investing in their future or that a degree will help them get a better job. Every year there is a surprise. Last summer a young woman came to Goldsmiths for an interview for the BA sociology course. Her grades were terrible and mostly in science subjects. I asked her my question. "My parents wanted me to be a doctor and that's why I did all those subjects. I hated them. To me a university degree is for a broader sense of possibilities and for the freedom to make up my own mind about what I want to be interested in." She got her place. The pragmatists who want to get people

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SUMMER -


24 August