In 1690 the philosopher John Locke famously wrote that:
The candle that is set up in us, shines bright enough for all our purposes.
What he did not add was that such luminosity carries one of western culture’s most ancient prejudices: that not all are deserving of access to the light.
The candle that shines has many names but let us call it the light of higher education. So named, might one with some justification question whether universities, at this current moment, are proving to be suitable custodians of this most precious gift?
Keeping the fire
The tradition of western higher education has long held the view that the light is nourished by wonder. For Aristotle, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan, wonder at the order and arrangement of the natural world stimulated philosophical and scientific enquiry. For Cicero such wonder was the light in which shone the nature of the gods. Rene Descartes called wonder the first of all the passions. And the biologist E.O Wilson speaks of an inherent and inherited sense of wonder and fascination for features of our wild ecology.
But wonder in university education is threatened with becoming highly selective. Those courses that are not compromised by their students’ lack of cultural capital and its impact on their future levels of employability will not have to replace the experience of wonder with the experience of work. Those courses that widen participation to the least well-off students are to be held accountable to their social class. Any course that cannot attract financially advantaged students, in order to stave off possible closure, will have to replace the light of the candle with the teaching needed to meet the metrics of employability.
Undeserving of wonder?
This is the logic of a very ancient prejudice. Those deserving of the light of wonder are those whose cultural capital enables their “high-value” courses to offer it. Those undeserving of the light are those whose lack of cultural capital leaves their ‘low-value’ courses vulnerable to closure by way of employability metrics. The “low-value” course is the one that dares to light the candle for those that the market deems undeserving. Once again, social class defines what kind of higher education people as of economic right deserve.
If Locke’s candle is to burn bright enough for all our purposes, then it must shine a light on this ancient prejudice of the deserving and the undeserving that is still being played out. The spirit of Socrates that enflames the candle does not belong to some. It belongs to all. It often drives students to want to go to university, to study the questions that hold their mysteries, whether that be the miracles of engineering and medicine, or the injustices of human ignorance, greed, and cruelty. It is the inspiration to read, to study, to write, to compose, to perform, to think for oneself, to enter debate and argument with others, to find out what one thinks worth fighting for in life, and then to commit to lives that uphold the accompanying values. And with all that, comes the lifelong battle for integrity that will undoubtedly unfold.
Pulling up the ladder
The deserving, who have feasted on the light of wonder in university education, now sell an impoverished vision of higher education to the undeserving, holding them hostage to the loans they require while pretending to protect them from the light that, clearly, they will not need in the lives they are likely to lead. Any claims to raising the expectations of the less advantaged are dissolved by the low expectations of the educational nature of the courses deemed suitable for them. Defining such students as customers is not, as Government claims, for their protection against low-value products. It is deliberately and cynically to limit what they can expect from higher education. It is an impoverishment of their hopes and expectations of university, just as it is of universities themselves.
This cynicism will be more fully demonstrated if and when changes to the funding system, in particular, reducing the repayment threshold for graduate loans, are implemented. It will further spread the inequality that already exists whereby graduates that earn more pay less over a shorter period whole graduates who earn less pay more over a longer period. Again this penalises financially and intellectually, those who pursue the wonder of higher education from the social class that should really limit its aspirations to taking degrees that are a direct training for jobs.
Taken together this impoverished vision of higher education for the last well off complements an impoverished vision of society as a whole. The philosopher Luce Irigaray, having reminded us that “the living being has need of wonder to move,” speaks too of the dangers that now attend the absence of wonder in social life. To the culture of surveillance and metrics, we might heed her warning: Unless there is wonder ‘doesn’t the machine unceasingly threaten to destroy us through the speed of its acceleration?’ Unless there is wonder can we look at and contemplate, “the machine from a place where it does not see us?” And in regard to questions of racism and misogyny and the relation to the natural world that energize so many future graduates, unless there is wonder, unless we can be surprised by the other, then we only reduce the other to ourselves and judge them accordingly. Martin Luther King presciently warned in 1947 that education “which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”
Some of us will not easily accede to the mean-spirited intrigue of this prejudice regarding the entitlements of the deserving and the undeserving. Some of us will try to preserve the wonder that all students deserve in their higher education. This will mean giving potential students the full picture of what a higher education is about, in contrast to that of the OfS and many universities. But it will be difficult. Poorer students may not easily agree that a wonderful higher education is worth their time or money. Yet, deep down, people still feel wonder about their individual and social existence. And students still hope that this can be part of what a university education is all about. Perhaps the candle shines brightest at the darkest times because it shines to no end than to express the universal human entitlement to the wonder of mystery, questioning, and critical understanding.