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Studied ignorance

Khalid Morrison thinks that universities are teaching their students to be thick

The blank generation: generation X, a generation that has no opinions, a wide-eyed stare and just lets the world go by. The sort of people who pensioners look at and mutter, 'God help us if there's a war'. But this is not just the youth on the dole with no prospects, or the youth working in dead end jobs; these days the term blank generation is applied to university students too.

Universities are supposed to be the places where great minds are forged, where great minds clash and ideas fly like sparks. Today they are more likely to be places where minds gently rub together, and the odd seepage of an idea leaks out every now and then. Universities are now places where a certain vacancy has been made into an art form. Academic circles are no longer dynamic, but have a vague, eccentric quality to them.

You too can enter the select academic establishment. Over a period of three years you too can learn the art of speaking and writing at length yet saying nothing. The blank generation is not just drinking in the White Lion, it is drinking in the Nelson Mandela bar - recently renamed the Frankie Howerd Centre.

You can get yourself a degree by learning to express a lack of any original thought. Your tutor will guide you in the art of not thinking, you will sit through endless seminars where the conclusion will always be that there are no answers and the world is far too complex for us to understand.

On entering the university you will be subject to the rules of the groovy dimension, where there is no right or wrong and holding a strong opinion is something of a faux pas. Universities teach you not to think, in an educated manner.

The first year of my history degree had a compulsory unit entitled, 'What is history?'. It's the sort of course that many students are likely to encounter in the first year - 'What is English lit?', 'What is philosophy?' and so on.

The 'What is history?' course was something of an eye-opener. The main thrust of the first lecture was that the endeavours which had been made in the past to use history as a tool to create a brave new world had failed. Nonetheless, we could still glory in the new Historicism, the art of recreating the past.

What the lecturer was saying was that studying history is now about no more than evoking the past, whether in written form or as one of those history theme parks that provide fun and entertainment for all the family. New Historicism is what brought us London's latest tourist attraction, 'the plague' at the Tower Hill Pageant: you can see and smell it for yourself.

The accepted school of thought in my college is that you can recreate the past but it is no longer legitimate to draw conclusions from your study. History has become an art form with no real purpose; yet history has a special place in academic circles because of its great unfathomability.

The general trend in academic thought is that the more vacant and non-committal a discourse is, the more erudite it becomes. University lecturers today have fallen in love with irrationalism as a get-out clause for the lack of a dynamic in contemporary thinking. Or, as the Kent university modernity course guide has it:

'If it is true that the spatial, temporal and representational frames of modernity are altering in important ways then the kind of self that could "carry" these experiences will clearly be more or less radically transformed by them.'

At the same university law students are asked in examination to 'consider the concept of the Other and Otherness within the construction of the legal order and assess the parallel cultural forms in understanding the nature of legal culture'.

The first rule of this otherworldliness is that there are no rules. An exercise given as part of the discourse analysis course at the University of North London invites the student to look at two news reports. One describes the exploits of Afghan 'freedom fighters', the other, the acts of Irish republican 'terrorists'. Apparently the right approach when reviewing these two extracts is to point out the inconsistency of the media's treatment.

As for a discussion on whether the nature of either group is freedom fighter or terrorist...well, that is out of the question. You see everything is relative and who can say which opinion is right or wrong? Freedom fighter or terrorist? Who knows?

The academic establishment has turned the ridiculous into the sublime. The more ridiculous a theory, the better it appears to be received. It is very difficult to be in awe of lecturers who create vacuous courses and have nothing to say for themselves. Try expressing a forthright opinion in a seminar and watch your lecturer begin to squirm. In a time when Derrida can get a doctorate at Cambridge, the ability of a lecturer to assert his superiority is greatly diminished. Students who call their lecturer's bluff can often watch his status disappear in a puff of smoke.

Many academics are no more able to make sense of the world than Norman Lamont. Their special ability is to stretch such nonsense to a course or even a book. This skill is what is being taught to what are meant to be the best young minds in the country.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992

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