For all those young people waiting in trepidation for their ‘A’ level results and looking forward to the new horizon of university life and the intellectual challenges ahead, good luck. And, if I may, could I offer you some advice?|
Honestly ask yourself this question: am I intellectually prepared for the challenge of a university education - that is, am I prepared to have my prejudices and preconceptions about what is right and proper in the world rocked, ripped away, challenged to the core? Because if you are not prepared for this challenge, if university to you is a three-year pleasantry to confirm what you already think (with a ‘top-up’ bit of knowledge thrown in to make it worth the hall fees), then my advice to you is: don’t bother. You will waste three years when you could be earning a good wage. And, to be frank, a university education will be equally wasted on you.
I give this advice following the bizarre case of photography lecturer Simon Burgess reportedly recently in Surrey local press
What seems to have happened is that Burgess, who teaches photography at East Surrey College, introduced a student to the work of self-professed ‘gender terrorist’ artist Del LaGrace Volcano. Volcano’s work, you may remember, featured in Sex and the City when Charlotte became a boy (complete with moustache AND well-placed sock). The student was working on a gender and sexuality project. A complaint that the work was pornographic and unsuitable for students has apparently been received by the college. As spiked’s Nathalie Rothschild points out, with all parties playing their cards close to their chest ‘the details around the case are not clear’
. However, it has been reported and seems pretty certain that the college is conducting a thorough internal inquiry and that Burgess faces disciplinary action.
We may not know the exact circumstances of the Burgess case but we do know the trend. From classroom to lecture hall, the curriculum, particularly in relation to arts and humanities, has become prey to anodyne ‘appropriateness’. Let us be clear about this: in higher, further and secondary education ‘appropriateness’ is the refuge of scoundrels – bureaucratic, cowardly and know-nothing scoundrels at that. In 2007 I wrote a blog that baulked at the suggestion by the National Assessment Agency that 11 – 14 year olds should not study Othello because they could not handle the issues of racism and sexual jealously in the play. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/mar/28/dontkeeptoughbooksfromtee It was an appalling, spineless, philistine suggestion then, as it is an appalling, spineless, philistine suggestion now. Where does this stop? Can we only teach what students want to hear, only hold up a mirror to their own reflections, and air-brushed reflections to boot? We may as well teach in a vacuum.
The ideas that confront students in our institutions of learning should challenge, should change the individual in the world. Nothing that is human is alien to me, should be the watch words of a liberal education. I studied a course on extreme literature and film with Linda Williams
and Geoff Ward
when I was in Liverpool.
We read Henry Miller, Georges Bataille, Anaïs Nin and William Burroughs. We watched films such as Peeping Tom, Blue Velvet and Videodrome. Some of this course material was shocking. Some could be classed as pornographic. Some of it (go on, try The Story of the Eye) was hard to stomach. But I am eternally grateful that I had excellent tutors with the guts to teach it. These texts and films made me think long and hard about how individual imagination pushes against the limits of society and how society pushes back and shapes the individual’s imagination. It gave me an appreciation of the distinctions and connections between fantasy and reality. It shook up the safe suburbs of my world.
So, all of you about to embark on further study, if come the autumn a lecturer should hand you a book you don’t like the look of, that you think might offend your world view, do yourself a favour. Open it up and open yourself up to ideas and images you may find offensive, but which may change the way you see the world.