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Remembering academia's golden age.

THE Millbank riot last November brought it all back. A mob of raging students, driven by a principled refusal to pay for their education, trashed the building that is home to the Conservative Party and much else in London. They were protesting against the decision by the Coalition government to increase the costs of higher education and the large debt they would have to repay once they began earning. One young zealot cast down a fire extinguisher from the top floor which narrowly missed extinguishing a policeman below. History seemed to be doing a replay of 1968 and the events of May which brought the French Government to its knees. And felled the grand academic settlement of the sixties.

What a fortunate era for academics peaked in May 1968! Higher education had surfeited on a decade of State-fed enrichment, following the Sputnik sensation of 1957. The shock-waves travelled round the West, with a couple of immediate conclusions. First, Russian, the language of the future, was to be advanced. University departments of Russian were set up, so that teachers of Russian could fill language departments in secondary schools. Second, higher education was to be hugely expanded. Since no plausible distinction could be made between arts and sciences, all shared in the expansion. The party, a grand Western phenomenon, was on. A golden age dawned.

Nowhere was the party livelier than in the States. I saw something of this at the end of the great decade. The best viewing was at the annual MLA (Modern Languages Association) Convention held always a few days after Christmas. The MLA is a combined job and publishing fair, a huge event where academics pursue their careers and other intrigues. As I passed by the publishers' booths, I was often stopped and asked: 'Do you have a book on your stocks?' 'Well, as a matter of fact, I do'. 'Oh, good. Here's my card. Would you like to come to our party tonight?' And I would say, Til try. But I've promised to go to the Oxford at 7, and the Norton is at 8. But I'll look in if I can'. These Trimalchio-like feasts were not to be slighted. In between came smaller departmental parties. Americans like to set up their own bar with Jeroboams of the hard stuff, and demure supplies of mix. They don't do sherry.

It really was like that. And campus life reflected the glories of the era. A young ABD (his dissertation All But finished) would, at the great universities, receive job offers in the mail without even applying. A friend, just out of Yale, told me that he was getting offers from the likes of Nebraska (I'm sure you'd like it here'). That was for a dissertation on Aldous Huxley's novels. Largesse was spread thickly over a department. I remember the Growth Grants. These were made, by a munificent State, to all faculty members who would file a grant for a project that would advance their career development. It went like this, crudely: suppose your work would be advanced by a greater knowledge of the Italian Renaissance. You applied to spend some time in the summer in Florence and Rome, looking over the Italian Renaissance on the ground, having crossed the Atlantic on the Leoncavallo or Michelangelo. The grant was for a fixed $ 1500, and the Chairman would sign off the application at once. Problem: the Associate Chairman of the Department of English came round urging faculty to apply for the Growth Grant. Apparently the Department was underachieving its quota. People wanted to play golf, or work on their next book, or simply relax after a stressed-out session. Taking up a free $1500 was beyond their horizon.

It was Paradise, and in those palmy days not at all difficult to enter. I remember one friend who, at the start of the decade, was finishing his PhD on Arthur Symons, a lesser star of the 1890s. Like other aspirants, he planted his flag on a patch of terra incognita and claimed it for himself. Applying before the MLA Convention, he secured interviews with six chairmen and got offers from three. The details have stayed with me. The offers (tenure track) came from Little Rock University ($6,000), The College of William and Mary ($5,000) and the University of North Carolina ($4,500). My friend chose North Carolina, as the school with the best reputation. He went on to thrive. With him came a huge invasion of American graduate schools in the mid-'60s as a way of escaping the Vietnam draft. One could easily get 'graduate deferment' and sit out the war: influx matched expansion. Tenure itself was readily granted, for the large intake of Assistant Professors meant that they flooded the Personnel Committees. When the vital decision was to be made, two concerned members of the committee would take each other out to the corridor, swear eternal allegiance to each other, and then come back to vote the right way. The ambitiosi always got a majority verdict. Those were good days.

And then came les evenements de mai, a Western not just French event. It was a clap of thunder. The downpour came 18 months later for the academic world, and became visible in the MLA at Denver, Colorado. The sinister Denver 69 falls on academic ears like the Field of Blackbirds on Serbs. Where there had been four jobs for three applicants, a spacious plenty, there were now three for four. Legislatures, prompted by resentful electors, had cut back on their university appropriations. Why should voters throw away their money on ungrateful students, and, worse, faculty that put them up to it? The fat years were over, and the beneficiaries of Growth Grants went into four consecutive years of salary freeze. There were other signs. One of the hot political topics of the day, pre-Denver, was a strong move to oppose anti-nepotism rules. These bore down on married couples--partners had not then been invented--who wished to work in the same institution, and indeed department. The authorities often disapproved and created rules to stop such combinations. After Denver, anti-nepotism was dropped, never to return. Couples were simply glad to have one of them on the payroll. As for publishing, books remained a necessity but not a profit. Few academic books now go beyond the library order of 400 or so. Academic publishing has slumped into permanent invalidity.

And here? Denver 69 was revisited on 15th November 2010. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, told the Girls' Schools Association annual conference in Manchester that many universities are virtually bankrupt and will be forced to close. Institutions that are not viable will no longer be propped up. 'If they were in the private sector they would be filing for bankruptcy. Many of those institutions could change and become further education colleges'. Those universities had been kept alive by blood transfusions from the bank of Westminster. The dream of higher education for 50 per cent of the population was laid to rest, and with it the career prospects of innumerable academics. No longer would degrees in golf course management and media studies be the way of the future. (Perhaps they never were. Informed insiders say that a degree in media studies has never led to a single job in the media.) All this had been seen coming, but Millbank, a few days earlier, had obviously been the trigger for Vince Cable to break the news.

Is it all over? As I write, there is still life and hope in British universities. The Government, in a massive misjudgment, has allowed universities to cap their fees at [pounds sterling] 9,000. Doubtless they expected a stately minuet, with Oxbridge leading the dance and the others following at decorous intervals. Not a bit of it. What followed is a Grand National charge to the first fence, with scores of universities, some of them lately polytechnics, charging the full amount. The University of Central Lancashire, home to the dreaming spires of Preston, has named its price: [pounds sterling] 9,000. The prophetic words of Captain Blackadder ('General Hospital', in Blackadder Goes Forth) have now come to pass. 'One of the great universities I suppose--Oxford, Cambridge, Hull'. All post the same admission ticket. Are we looking at 'The world's great age begins anew/The golden years return'? Or is this a bull rally in a bear market?

The next dream is hard to discern. Russian, of course, was quietly retired long ago. The demand was never there. Will Chinese be the new Russian? I cannot see Young England switching en masse to Mandarin. If German is too hard for them--and it is--they must find in Mandarin another dimension of difficulty. I think of De Gaulle's line on Brazil: 'Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be'.

As the current era recedes into history, it looks more and more like a Kondratiev wave, another academic boom that has ended in bust--or at least, a future bounded by colleges of further education. I am glad to have seen the earlier golden age, a kind of expanded 1914 summer. To those who were there, the two disputed senses of a great inscription apply: Et in Arcadia ego.

Ralph Berry spent most of his teaching career in Canada, but has also taught in New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and Kuwait. His many publications include The Shakespearean Metaphor and Tragic Instance: the Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies.
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Author:Berry, Ralph
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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