Monday, 6 June 2011

Can Dawkins teach?

‘A group of well-known academics are setting up a private college in London which will charge students £18,000 a year in tuition fees’ – the opening line of a piece by Terry Eagleton in the Guardian today – and there’s a hoo-ha about it, of course, because not only does it touch on some topical politics (student protests against the fees; what and who are universities for) but there are culture-celebs involved (i.e., the names the lit festivals all want: Dawkins, Grayling, Ricks) and there are fearsome sums of money. Add some sex and this will run.

Can Dawkins, Grayling, Ricks et al teach? A different skill entirely from writing books, from being an ‘academic’. Do they have any teaching qualifications? I’m just asking. I’m curious, but not to the tune of having to pay £18K a year to find out.

Sometime in recent decades it was decreed that tertiary education should be available to far more people than before (good). Sometime in recent decades the whole education system became so infected by business-management models that it has largely become a production line (bad). Sometime in recent decades the basic model of learning – a relationship, intimate and mutually challenging, between teacher and student – has become something that happens, if it happens at all, despite rather than because of the institution in which it takes place. The new private college is one response to this. The flak it’s attracting is largely to do with the fees, with the perception that on-the-whole generally respected and gifted leftish people are selling out; but what’s really depressing is the lack of other alternative education models being tested, ones that aren’t essentially businesses. (Plenty of other depressing things too: the continuing and largely unchallenged privileges of the public schools and faith schools; the billions spent on the Olympics, a three-week event, contrasting with the meanness towards education in a country that is still one of the richest in the world (6th out of 181 in the first GDP listing on Wiki)).

I write this because today I talked with a Royal Literary Fund man about my application to become a RLF fellow – which involves going into a college for two days a week to talk to students about their writing. You have a room; it’s one-to-one; a student knocks on the door and comes in and you talk to them about how best they can put what they want to say into the form of an essay (or poem or story or any other form, it doesn’t have to be course-work), about how they can discover through writing what they didn’t even know they wanted to say. It doesn’t cost the colleges a penny, it doesn’t cost the tax-payer a penny, it doesn’t cost the students a penny. It’s brilliant.

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