There's no such word as Kant

16th February 2001 at 00:00
THERE is a sharp little sitcom on Radio 4, Absolute Power, with John Bird and others playing a firm of venal, boozy PR consultants.

In last week's episode they were commissioned by government to rubbish the reputation of universities, in order to soften up the public for a plan to turn them into business schools. But at the same time Bird found himself offered a job by a cabal of philosophy tutors, trying to sell the idea of philosophy degrees to modern youth. I have to say that the campaign they came up with was nothing short of brilliant. On pop radio stations, sneery young people said things like "Why shouldn't we ask the big questions? Who says we can't?" and on TV there was film of commuter trains full of wobbling blancmanges. And every time the tag-line: "Philosophy - because THEY don't want you to!".

It was hypnotic. It keyed into the inner-rebel in all of us. It made me want to go straight out and score a tab of Wittgenstein. Government is trying to head us off asking the hard questions, is it? Hah! Get on down with Uncle Plato! Respeck!

It set me subversively wondering whether we are not, perhaps, rather too keen on enfolding the pill of knowledge with spun-sugar, and coaxing the young towards it with futile little chirrups of encouragement.

Throughout history one of the most powerful engines of learning has been the sense that it is a treasure; and treasures, in the real world, are guarded. Think of the Victorian and Edwardian girls who fought like tigers for admission to higher education and to science; think of the relish and the glee of those early women doctors overcoming snubs and outrage to enter the dissecting-room, or of the song the Oxford Home Students sang when they won their fight for admission to lectures: "Joy, joy, joy, joy, the battle is won! No more deprived and oppressed, we may argue and learn with the best!" etc.

Or think of the Africans living at subsistence levels, rejoicing in the single cow which represents the wealth and health of the whole family, but setting aside just enough of her milk every week to sell to pay the school fees for at least one of the children. Or the countless lonely, determined figures behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains who in the 20th century risked their freedom to teach themselves English off the World Service, and listen to a freer orld.

It is rare now for a British child to get this exhilarating, hunter-gatherer perspective on learning. You see it happen here and there: when a child denied music goes away with a half-broken guitar and defiantly learns the elements from a friend. Or when, as in my own schooldays, a cadre of bright sixth-formers rebels against the inadequacies of a school subject and breaks out. I fondly recall the revolution led by three of our scientists at the convent, where at the time biology in particular was execrably badly taught. They struck for the right to go down and share proper classes at the local boys' grammar school (gasp!).

When I last heard of them one was a professor of genetics, one a doctor and one an opthalmologist. Perhaps they would all have progressed just as much if they had been spoon-fed; but perhaps the little battle sharpened them up a touch. When you sweat blood for something, you value it.

Just what the moral is in all this woolgathering, I do not know. I hesitate to recommend that we should try barring the school gates or only permitting the best-behaved children to taste the wonders of maths. But it is interesting that when you look at the one area where shortage and tension are part of the educational experience, a definite sharpening-up does take place.

This, of course, is university entrance. We all know the kind of 18-year-olds who are happy to settle for anywhere recommended in the PUSH guide as having a vibrant club scene and comfy halls, and don't particularly mind which course they take because they'll "probably change anyway", and the main thing is to have a degree on your CV, right? But we also know the kind (I have one on my hands right now) who focus furiously on one course and one set of tutors, doggedly refuse to take no for an answer and insist that they will keep on punting, until out of weariness the chosen institution lets them in and damn well teaches them.

And who's to say that the fight is not a good thing? Perhaps it's worth a try. Go on, throw barbed wire round the literacy hour, hold this week's physics class behind a moatful of hissing serpents, and have Mr Blunkett announce that from this day education will only be available to holders of the first 10,000 successful scratchcards. They'll be hammering on the door and rioting to get in.

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