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University: ‘an experiential black hole… sucking all of human value from all I had known and everything I was…’

February 13, 2012

I think universities are rotten, venal places and so does Simon J. Charlesworth, the author of A Phenomenology of Working Class Experience. He is scathing about higher education and nowhere more so than in the acknowledgements section of his book. There he refers to the ‘corruption and bankruptcy’ of English universities and of his own time in higher education, he says it was ‘an experiential black hole for me, sucking all of human value from all I had known and everything I was’. Now, that’s pretty damning.

Charlesworth’s book is an interesting attempt to address the silence, muteness and inarticulacy that surrounds contemporary working class life and experience. It’s a bloody complex book and a difficult-read for a silly media studies student like me, so for now I just want to highlight how its author sees universities as being complicit in that silencing.

Working class people, Charlesworth claims, ‘require intermediaries in the realm of culture to relay their condition’. The Labour party would have been part of this process before it turned it’s back on the working class, so too were the trade unions, now declining in power and influence. But universities also once played an important role in working class culture and politics and I’m sure Charlesworth has in mind here select figures such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams. There are surely others, less well known, whose working class experience informed their intellectual lives; who created an interface between the academy and working class men and women through adult education or who moved through tertiary education and returned to serve the communities they’d come from. Charlesworth isn’t explicit about any of this, so I’m surmising, but it is clear that he considers a crisis of funding as having all but curtailed the production of working class intellectuals. He goes on:

with the massive changes to the field of the English university system, particularly the emergence of clearly defined routes through working class sectors of tertiary education on to vocational degrees at lower-end universities, there has emerged a hierarchy of courses and universities that militate against the kinds of nurturance that the production if genuine working class spokespersons requires. As the system has been massified, so too the grounds for personal links that would allow for the recognising of genuine cases, a kind of informal ‘positive discrimination’, have disappeared as working class students have found themselves negotiating a system that, whilst allowing for greater rate of survival, has achieved this, at the cost of a devaluation of their qualifications. Importantly, while working class people are involved in higher education for the first time, most are being trained rather than educated in the traditional sense.

Some might find Charlesworth’s language blunt and problematic here – ‘lower-end universities’, ‘genuine’ cases and spokespersons – but he’s substantially right. Despite the rhetorical commitment to widening participation, university is an atomising experience, marketing itself on the promise of individual social mobility and educational attainment in the interests of competitive advantage. Equally, the skills agenda, vocationalism and employability, all presented as ways of improving the individual prospects of those from students ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds, have simultaneously corroded class consciousness on campus.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 10:16 am

    the nepotism in media studies would make for a good comedy show… clusters of dodgy lecturers/researchers in bad leather jackets with badly executed tricky hair cuts,with little or no experience beyond the canned reality of a uni,spouting forth overbaked theory about the world beyond it…a world they’d never have the moxy to inhabit.

  2. Rab permalink*
    February 13, 2012 10:45 am

    How do we feel about mustachioed, denim-clad, media lecturers, who are just glad to have any hair left at all, never mind hair that is arranged into complex, gravity defying shapes… loads of previous life experience… none of it good, wholesome or apparently useful in current position… looking for a theory to over-bake that will explain everything therefore removing any requirement to ever think again… would prefer not to inhabit this world but one that looks more like Blackpool in the 1950s?

    • February 13, 2012 12:49 pm

      why can’t they just give the students the crayons and tell them to make sure they finish something….hang it on the wall…and then clear up after themselves.this would surely be the best idea…i know one lecturer who came out here and told me how some of the students…university students… couldn’t even spell seems like polytechs to me…so why not just hand out the crayons…the best way to get a feel for any critical thinking anyway is with repeated use of the crayons.years and years of the crayons.

  3. Rab permalink*
    February 13, 2012 2:24 pm

    I see we’re of one mind on the use of crayons. Away with their iPads and tablets…

  4. February 15, 2012 6:57 pm

    A genuine question: why were polys turned into universities in the first place? (I was asleep when it happened m’lud, or possibly I’ve just forgotten)

    & what, in view of what has happened to (non elite) universities since the change, do you retrospectively think about the idea of having two different sorts of higher educational institution, one with a more vocational bent. Would the previous system have avoided or constrained the tendencies Charlesworth writes about? Would it have made it worse? Or would we still be facing much the same picture?

  5. February 16, 2012 12:34 am

    “black whole”?

    • February 16, 2012 11:14 am

      Oh, balls!!! Fixed it now. But your comment will remain like a stain to remind me…

  6. February 16, 2012 11:12 am

    Hi Charlie,
    The answer to the your first question is: I have no idea. if you were asleep when this was happening, well, I wasn’t even aware that there was any such thing as polytechnics in those day and university was way beyond the world I inhabited. They could have blown up the Polytechnics and I wouldn’t have noticed.

    What about the idea of two different sorts of HE institution? I don’t know. But I think I know why I don’t know! Because I haven’t a clue what we’re educating people for. I know why I think education is important, I just haven’t been able to figure out the thinking of successive governments. So before we started doing anything to our educational institutions I’d like answers from the-powers-that-be to the following questions:

    1. What do you mean when you talk about academic subjects? What is a vocational subject?
    2. What do you think is more valuable (or what do you think should be held in greater esteem) – academic qualifications or vocational ones? Or do you regard them as being of equal worth? Do you see these as mutually exclusive choices? If so, why? And if not, then what is the relationship of the vocational and academic, one to the another?
    3. Why are some academic subjects more credible in your eyes than others? On what basis do you make decisions about what are ‘soft subjects’?
    4. Do you know what sort of skills children and young people will need in the future? If you do, would you tell us and why don’t you plan accordingly? If you don’t, why and how do you expect children and parents to make rational decisions about what courses to invest in/study at school and university?
    5. How much faith have you in the free-market, via the commercialisation of higher education, to produce the sort of graduates the economy needs? Do you know what sort of graduates the economy needs? Does it matter if you know or will the market produce them of its own volition?
    6. Why do we insist on the formal education young people?

  7. Tom permalink
    February 16, 2012 11:52 am

    I graduated from Uni (a poly no less) in 2008. I hated students then and I hate them now, for many, many reasons.

  8. February 16, 2012 12:18 pm

    Hi Tom,
    Alas, I’m not allowed to hate them. I can despair is permissible but outright hatred is not allow in the lecturing profession.

  9. Mikey permalink
    April 5, 2012 4:38 pm

    Hello sufferers,

    Does anyone these days like the idea of going to a University as a place to acquire the beginnings of a broad education?

    If “No”, then don’t go; educate yourself “informally” (to use a phrase), as my father did

    If “Yes”, stay alive, keep your eyes and ears unstopped and learn how to listen

    Well, (using my favourite quote from him, and in my best Willy Rushton voice) “I did (go) and it’s a lot of fun”. I gather my liking for ideas is not fashionable, but the experience propelled me towards working on a series of medical conditions which affect life expectancy. Not very gritty and socially realist, I realise, but not bad for a farm labourer’s grandson, and more useful than the “contribution” of some of our “Minsters of the Crown”, in my view.

    There; target practice!


  10. April 9, 2012 7:38 pm

    Target practice (2): with regard to the atomism at the heart of widening academic participation that Rab refers to, did the left itself not lose something valuable when it allowed individualism based on the preservation of self-esteem and personal claims against others (in the name of human rights) to outweigh the potential of society as the condition for human fulfilment? Am I getting old, or does the philsophy of conservatism have something to say to us here?

    I’ll rephrase that: I AM getting old, but does the philosophy of conservatism … etc.?

    • Mikey permalink
      April 10, 2012 10:59 am

      Hello All,

      Who decides (and how) what will fulfil someone else? Are we to accept that “society” tells us what we should LIKE to do? If so, how will we set up the opinion polls this will require? When will we bring back the rope?

      What is wrong with doing a socially useful job because it gives a strong sense of self worth? Did you ever meet a human being totally without ego?

      My reading of evolutionary biology suggests that nature works very hard to create new and unique individuals all the time, and that any measure of (any of) their attributes, physical or intangible, will plot out as a Gaussian curve. Nature itself provides the variation which ensures that some feel like socialist (or religious) self sacrifice and others the mirror postiion opposite on the curve – with most us in between.

      A great society would give best chance for all to find their mark – sustainably, and that last point is the reason for heading off the more antisocial tendencies that inevitably arise from the continually shuffling gene pool. We cannot afford fascists of either end of the spectrum, nor fanatics who feel justified in threatening others for not agreeing with them. There is potential for population collapse.

      And that’s why there has never been a Great Society (even LBJ ran out of cash for it); I will settle for a good society, and just keep sticking my oar in for moderation, knowing that it will not always be heard.

      I looked up, among other works: “Disgust Sensitivity and the Neurophysiology of Left-Right Political Orientations.” By Kevin B. Smith, Douglas Oxley, Matthew V. Hibbing, John R. Alford, John R. Hibbing. PLoS One, Vol. 6 No. 10, October 19, 2011., and note one of Hibbings’ conclusions – that it’s no good getting angry with the other guy because he’s further left or right than you, because he’s hard wired and so are you. This certainly ties in with my observations of two daughters being born, and thier differences in beahviour from the first breath. The followed each other through primary and secondary education but are still very distinct.

      Accepting that nature shuffles genes to make us different is unacceptable so long as you find something wrong with people being different, I suggest that a good society simply deals with actual behaviour which is harnful – and leaves the interior world to the one who has to live with it. No need for manuals and manifestos which will always find fault with the majority who then have to be punished or “re-educated”: just laws and customs which sustain the tribe and reward those who want (through their nature) to do a good job for it. This will not be orderly or smooth in any anthropomorphic sense, but neither is the rest of nature. The Hindus worked that out rather a long time ago.

      In the end, philosophies are all attempts to make sense, even when it is beyond us. As well as making physical tools, philosohy – fashioning mental tools – is what we humans do most uniquely.

      I have increasingly asked myself why I became a Trade Union activist. There was no Leftist tradition in my family, and my parents worked hard and with result, rather than being suppressed in any way. It came from being bullied at a young age, with many excuses – notably that I used “long words”, as the son of an engineer might well do. I was determined this would not be repeated on my watch, so to speak. If that is a “bad” reason to represent real workers, what is a “good” one. If being kind hearted is a “bad” reason to work on human health and sometimes teach medical students, what is a “good” one? Does it matter if the job gets done with quality?

      If egotism is “bad”, then do away with all competitive sport (especially professional), as well as the panoply of business law that encourages one to succeed by the failure of another. Does this leave the world recognisable as any civilsation we know about? And if you think it does, how long did that one last?

      Even “Goodness” varies, and attempts to enforce it are all violence on the individual. We are stuck with bad behaviour. The only question is, what shall we do it about it, those who have the courage?

  11. April 10, 2012 11:24 am

    It’s not that there is or even will ever be a ‘good society’, it’s that society is a ‘good’ (albeit one that can be used badly or for ill purposes). The left has in my view given up on that potential, yet without it the left is nothing.

    Individuals are either patronised as inherently good (the “I am the best authority on me” kind of rubbish) or are seen as so weak that they need ever-increasing therapeutic interventions by or sponsored by the state, including dumbed-down or bogus academic courses as a means of boosting their self-esteem. Society is seen as inherently oppressive not potentially liberating. This sits very comfortably with the aggressive, competitive and acquisitive individual fostered by market relations.

    In both cases the customer is told or led to believe that s/he is always right, and his or her relation to others and to society more widely is founded on claims against them not duties towards them. This is deeply corrosive of society and thus its capacity to develop and heal itself, quite apart from making collective action almost impossible.

    • Mikey permalink
      April 10, 2012 6:27 pm

      Dear Peter,

      Thanks for expanding your arguments. Now I understand, I see I agree with all of that. And I second your analysis that society favours the bullying hustling types it approves of (and so supresses others).

      I keep coming back to the way my Dad (a moral but not religious man) expressed the Golden Rule:

      “How would you like it if someone did it to you?!


  12. Rab permalink*
    April 10, 2012 12:53 pm

    Welcome Peter. Hello Mickey,
    OK, I’m well out of my depth on the issue of genes and when it comes to human rights, there are other contributors here much better qualified to talk on the issue. But here goes… I’m not sure that human rights are the same as personal claims. A human right by definition is surely something we at least aspire to extend to everyone: otherwise it’s not a human right, it’s a privilege. I don’t think higher education is a human rights issue. I’m not aware that the left has ever framed it in those terms. The previous Conservative government seemed to see universities as a way of massaging unemployment figures. I belong to the generation that benefited from that – generous mature students grant and fees paid for. New Labour tried to coral people through universities in the belief that more education would result in greater social mobility and prosperity. It achieved neither. Now we have austerity and the aggressive commercialisation of higher education; to what end, I’m not sure.

    Also, did the left abandon the idea of society in favour of a purely individualist conception of the human subject? Maybe New Labour did, but I’d never ‘accuse’ New Labour of being Left.

    To centre the debate on universities, at the moment we have a model of higher education that can conceive of learning only in terms of individual investment and competitive advantage in the job market. The idea that education is a social good has been thrust aside. This isn’t being done because it will make education better. It won’t. It can’t, since education is intrinsically social and even conservative, in that it’s got something to do with passing on the repository of human knowledge to the next generation (to put it crudely). Good education encourages a critical relationship to that repository. But, in my own experience, there is neither interest nor confidence in the idea of knowledge any longer. The very idea of education is being increasingly dictated by economic interests that, as far as I can tell, despise education.

    Have a look at this clip of Caroline Walters, Director of People and Policy at BT speaking at the the Whole Education Conference. She talks shite for almost half an hour – blah, blah blah, technology, blah, blah, blah, globalisation… but what she says is indicative of the sort of discourse that is influential in education, certainly in my experience. I meet people like Walters regularly. If you dare to challenge their view of the world, they get very, very upset. They will call you names. Shout at you in public. And then approach you after the meeting and try to make-nice. Oh yes. You’ve got to watch them…

    • Mikey permalink
      April 10, 2012 6:52 pm


      Sorry Mate! I thought we were talking about society back there.

      You said something that’s pure gold: –

      “education is intrinsically social and even conservative, in that it’s got something to do with passing on the repository of human knowledge to the next generation (to put it crudely). Good education encourages a critical relationship to that repository.” ***

      AbsolUTEly! I used to beseech students NOT to agree with me – but know why not. Education means to draw someone out from the smaller self that entered the room so they walk back out a few inches taller, and it’s all about the last sentence in your quote.

      Regarding human rights: the only thing a Tory ever said I agree with is that a right must go with a responsibility. We each have a responsibility to behave in a civil way to each other, which includes giving them space for expression – short of being uncivilsed towards someone else. That’s where having courage to form judgements comes in.

      My point on genetic make up and how it varies so, is that this is a scientifically observable phenomenon. Any political theory that ignores this is no longer a topic for serious debate (or University courses), any more than Popes discuissing the wisdom of God in putting the Earth at the centre of the universe after Gallileo. I covered this because it was depressing to see the dead response I endured at TU safety conferences and the like, and this made me realise that genetics just isn’t felt to be convenient to some versions of socialism.

      Science deductions vs political theory……………no contest to me. Socialism needs to be interpreted for the 21st Cent., not the 19th.

      My answer to the Caroline Waters brigade is to play a game of seeing how many deep ideas I can put together in short words – and repeat their ideas back to them in that manner. I got plenty of practice at the University..

      Cheers, Mikey

      Mikey (No ‘c’)

      ps If you can come up with a quote that good [*** above] you’re clever enough, Rab.

      I ALWAYS take the view that science is eminently understandable. Sir Michael Faraday held that anyone who lectured at the Royal Institution should be able to do so in the English language without recourse to symbols. That may not be possible 200 years on, but the principle should be remembered. The problem to understanding of science is most scientists, I fear, and a Sun and Mirror like tendency to “goof out” as the Americans put it. It’s no more difficult than e.g Law.


  13. April 12, 2012 5:01 pm

    Dear Both,

    I agree with much about the purpose of education, the government agenda in HE and the atomisation it encourages and fosters. Also that a political/economic end has been peddled as a right (note that there is no commensurate ‘right’ to a job, or at least a job suited to the nominal level of qualifictaion achieved, as 60 million-odd British MA-graduates will find in a few decades’ time).

    Re rights, I’m all in favour of human rights like the right not to be punished or discriminated against unfairly, to receive justice etc. etc., but the trouble is that human rights – often positive ones – are increasingly used to make mischievous or self-serving claims against others for individual, corporate or political ends. Admittedly, there is no shared definition of ‘justice’ but maybe that’s just the point: it’s a social conversation not a legal test case that should determine such things, and even then they remain provisional. How then should we have that conversation?

    Also there are bullshit rights out there. I got into all sorts of trouble (including with the Welsh Assembly Cabinet Minister for Young People, whom I’d challenged at a conference, so I know what Rab is saying about Walters) for pointing out that the ‘right to be happy’ which the Welsh Assembly Government was selling to young people in one of the glibbest charters I’ve ever seen, wasn’t a right at all, since no one could perform the corresponding duty to ensure it was upheld. Who would I sue if I my cat died and I was upset about it, since my ‘right to be happy’ had clearly been breached? How many well-meaning professionals, counsellors, pet-loss therapists, mentors, youth workers and social carers would they be prepared to send after me if they were to carry out the duty to honour my ‘right to be happy’ that they had imposed upon themselves? But they were peddling this half-baked aspiration to young people, and probably still are! So rights, if we are to make them concrete and worth asserting (or denying) have to be more than aspirational: they must be do-able or conceivably do-able, and with the will and power as well as the consent to make them real.

    Re rights and responsibilities: this raises another issue. ‘Rights & responsibilities’ as favoured by New Labour and everyone since is a shallow conception of rights and just about the only thing they ever nationalised, since the idea originated in tacit and informal understandings between people, not as a contract with the state that can be tested at law. It now amounts to no more than, “you behave and we’ll give you formal rights and entitlements [whether you have them already or not]”. Any feaudal lord of the manor would have been OK with that! Actually responsibilities (to society, loosely understood as your fellow man) do in my view precede claims against it, but not in this superficial and limiting contractual way.

    I’m not sure I’d accuse ethical socialists (so beloved of people like those at Civitas!) or perhaps Marxists of abandoning society in favour of the individual subject (though I’m getting out of my philosophical comfort zome here) but it is certainly common among people I know who like to think of themselves as left-wing, as well as underlying a lot of post-modern thought, much of which would also make the claim.


    • Mikey permalink
      April 14, 2012 3:58 pm


      When I said a Right is the inverse of a Responsibility, I meant that you forfeit rights the moment you expect someone else to behave in a more civilised way than you are prepared to commit yourself to. You don’t earn this against some tick box list – there ARE NO BOXES, and I did not mean anything so condescending as allowing some apparatchik *(or Lord of the Manor) to ‘grant’ them to me. neveretheless, any society must, in practice, ask for better behaviour from its citizens that it knows it will get – or it goes bust or otherwise cannot defend itself.

      New Labour were in shorts when this was first put to me. I cannot agree that it is a shallow idea, as it poses moral choices all the way – unless you think that orthodoxy (whose, why?) is higher than personal responsibility, making our only duty to read the text and decide which page we should be on. Thinking your way through moral choices is a higher duty than to any state or social power. Powerful ones, in the end, want you to stop thinking for yourself.

      I never claim to be Left Wing (just thoughtful) and do not regard the descritpion as some accolade I must earn. I think for myself and then (occasionally) see what words I can come up with that might describe that position – purely for my own amusement. My “Right” to be and do all of this lies in the fact that it does you no demonstrable harm, unless you count possible annoyance as harmful. the alternative world to free discussion is one of set piece speaches – and the show trials start the week after.

      A “right to be happy” really would be lightweight. Having once had depression I want, rather, a “right to be who I am without interference, no matter how much anyone may see it as for my own good” – accepting that this runs out if I lash out at someone. the alternative is a “right to go against my own better judgement beacuse others think that good for them”. Again: what authority do these others have?

      Why should Nanny be entitled to wag a big finger in my face – and “who watches the watcher?” to make sure they are acting properly? Can we not trust ourselves to act well?


  14. April 14, 2012 8:00 pm

    Hi Mikey,

    I mostly agree with you. I was careful to say that I think the conception of rights and responsibilities is shallow as currently understood (i.e. as rewards for good behaviour or toeing the line) and agree with you that it implies wider and deeper moral choice than it is given credit for. I think my problem is that so many people seem to approach rights either using the shallow New Labour ‘rights and responsibilities’ jargon or simply seeing rights as political tools with – in my view – anti-social results. (I’m a youth worker and therefore meet people broadly within ‘human services’ whatever they are – teachers, social workers, community workers and the like.)


    • Mikey permalink
      April 15, 2012 10:43 am


      No apology necessary.

      Since they “offered” me early retirement, I’ve watched an awful loot of TV back numbers and learned a hell of a lot – things like The Ascent of Man come to mind. I have just watched the episdoe cocnerning Gallileo and his suppression by the Inquisition.

      In context of Dr Carey’s recent outburst in which he maintained that Christians are now under attack, I am minded to deliver the following sermon. I am sure this will interest Peter also.

      I spent 30 years plus in a science teaching dept, having tea room arguments with hyper rationalist people: incredibly clever and lacking (as such people do – including me, at times) a degree of social sensitivity. The stance I found myself taking with them was often one of defending moral philosophy, which (unncecessarly often) is bound up with religious beleif. This was not in defence of religion but of “giving a damn”.

      And then – and then – we have the grand parade, with Gallileo at its head, of those whom the Cristian Church has condemned for thinking a forbidden thought. Of course, Christianity is hardly unique here – yet its first speaker is depicted as merciful and forgiving.

      At the same time, science leads people into doing what Robert Pirsig called “the logical thing, even if it isn’t any good” – with the word Good in a grand sense. Both Hitler and Stalin quoted Darwin as part justification – and Stalin had a tame “scientist” invent the pseudo techniqies of “Agrobiology”, whose practise starved millions.

      It’s a hard and narrow ridge path a moral person must follow; many times, rationalaity is not enough to guide us, yet we must be on guard against blind belief. I try it, even so.

      If socialism works to the acceptable benefit of the majority, follow it, but the minute it condemns those who think forbidden thoughts (let alone have different skin), we must be prepared to drop it and find a new path. that’s hard, but history show what happens when we do the orthodox thing every time. I am not at all cnviomnced that the human race can be perfected, and nature will, in any case, upstage our tiny plans, and I’m glad of that. A way of being that is more humane than not will satisfy me, and I’m still working on it.

      When the Church can demonstrate it will never again condemn unothrodoxy, I can be friends with it. The same goes for Science and the political establishment.

      Meanwhile, I am enjoying discovering new things for myself, rather than holding my breath.

      Rab; is it raining whwere you are in the field?

      Cheers to both, Mikey

    • Mikey permalink
      April 15, 2012 10:50 am

      Hi Peter,

      But you’re clearly minded to think deeper than many of them. So, unless your work involves a tutor role of some kind, use the energy on pursuing your thoughts, rather than trying to change theirs.

      I don’t ever remember my Dad telling me to “do as I say; not as I do”. It was always, “You don’t see me doing that”, or “How would you like it if someone did it to you?”. That was many years ago, now, and it stands re-examination every time. I seldom like cliches, but there is a good one here: “Be the change you want to see”. Love it! It hits blind orthodoxy for 6, because you really have to commit, and that means it really must arise from your own thoughts.

      By the way, coming from a family involved entirely with education or caring (my own – not my parents’, I mean), I am glad you and Rab are carrying the flag.

      Cheers, Mkey

  15. Rab permalink*
    April 15, 2012 8:37 am

    Sorry Mikey and Peter,
    I’m an awful host. I’m in the field researching at the moment… Well, I say ‘in the field’… I’m actually sitting on my arse most days watching endless DVDs of old British dramas and sit-coms. It’s work of sorts.

    Normal service, soon.

    Sorry for getting your name wrong Mikey.

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