Les Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Les Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Why is academia important?
What I’ve always loved about the university is the way it creates a space for thinking and discussion, to explore the life of the mind. That quality has been precious to me, as a person. What I love about working in the university is that you’re constantly witnessing young people going through this transition to adulthood, where they’re thinking for themselves and learning new things, but also trying to decide what kind of a person they want to be. I’m really struck every year, at graduation, when you sit there on the stage and watch these young people—who you’ve taught and spent time with and sometimes had fraught discussions with—parade before you. Even for the most jaded and cynical professor, it’s a display of how far these young people have come in that 3-year period. It’s an incredibly formative and important period, but, actually, in the scheme of things, quite a short period of time.
What inspired you to write Academic Diary? What’s it about?
That precious quality inspired me to try and write a book, which was almost like a documentation of these bloodless revolutions of thinking that happen on any given day, in any classroom, in universities around the country. I wanted to try and write a book about the university, the importance of thinking, the transformative power of education, taking its inspiration from the small everyday realities of university life.
This was in the context of profound changes that have happened and are happening to the university, which I think threaten what is precious about higher education. The book is an argument for thinking and learning and writing and dialogue, for thinking together, in the context of those institutional changes in the UK, but also on a global scale.
And that’s where some of these books you’ve chosen come in. The first one you’ve chosen is by Mary Evans, and I suppose the title shows what it’s about, Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities. What is she arguing in this book?
I love this book by Mary Evans. It’s one that isn’t often referred to in the debate about what’s happening to the university now. What she is arguing is that university education is becoming increasingly commercialized and that we no longer think of universities as institutions of learning but as corporate entities that are selling education. What she reminds us of are the damaging consequences of thinking of education as a commodity to be bought and sold and consumed. She mentions a slogan from the student protests, that the more university education costs, the less it’s worth. There’s a corrosive aspect to thinking of students as customers. It undermines the potential for universities to be places to foster thought, and she captures it in the title: Killing Thinking. The changes to the university are mortifying the life that education at this level can foster.
But the book is focused on British universities. I did undergraduate here in Britain, but I also did a graduate degree in the States. There, the idea that you pay hefty fees is taken for granted at the undergraduate level. Do you think it’s necessarily a bad thing? I mean, it seems to work fine in the States. They seem to have a lot more money to foster learning.
It’s true that paying for your education has become completely normalized in the United States. It’s increasingly the case here as well. But the best critics in the United States—people like Christopher Newfield—show very clearly that the balance between student fees and what universities cost is always going to be one that can’t be squared. Increasing fees will never pay for what universities need, in terms of financial resources, to operate. The United States is interesting and challenging for us, but two points to make: the first one is that in the United States, the emergence of the fee-paying regime that students are accustomed to developed over a long period of time. There was also a long process whereby universities accrued assets through donations from alumni. Big expensive universities like Princeton, have a fantastic scholarship scheme that is entirely funded through the prior assets of the university.
“Treating students as consumers cheapens not only students, but it also cheapens teachers, lecturers and those people who are trying to foster an environment for thought.”
What has happened in the UK is that our universities became commercial enterprises at turbo speed. It was the pace of the change that, I think, is part of the problem. Although I still hold out for the vision of a university education that is a public good. If every parent in the UK thought that they had a stake for their children in a university education, maybe we’d be willing to pay for it through taxation. I still think that the idea of private debt as a way of paying for university is profoundly wrong.
You don’t think it helps focus the mind? If a student thinks, ‘oh God, I’m paying for this, I’d better go to my lecture,’ rather than thinking, ‘oh this is free, it doesn’t matter if I don’t do any work.’
I don’t think it focuses the mind in a positive way. My book was an attempt to offer a few field observations from the everyday life of a university. Yes, students do say ‘I’m paying for this so I’m going to go to my lectures.’ But something else is also happening, which I haven’t noticed others commenting on. The fact that students are paying for their education sometimes means they say things like, ‘I’m paying for this, so I’m going to choose not to go.’ Or ‘I’m not going to see my tutor. I’m paying for this, so therefore I can decide.’ It is a strange paradoxical flip, that, I think, is as damaging as that sense of, ‘I’m paying for this so I need to get a financial return on my investment.’ Education and thinking just don’t work like that.
So you think it is a bad thing for a student to be treated as a consumer?
Treating students as consumers cheapens not only students, but it also cheapens teachers, lecturers and those people who are trying to foster an environment for thought. I just don’t think that understanding can be traded and also bought in that way. It’s a very unhelpful way of thinking about the value of what learning can offer.
So you think UK universities could survive and improve if they got more funding, possibly through taxation?
Yes, I do. And it’s not that the universities aren’t thriving, they are. I just think that the corporate and commercial logic for higher education doesn’t work. It isn’t healthy, partly because it sidelines or diverts us from thinking about questions of public value. At the end of the day, that’s my own position. I think we need to have a debate about the public value of education rather than the pragmatic and commercial value of what a university degree translates into in terms of employment or financial return.
Do you want to say some more about the book?
I think one of the key things that Mary Evans argues in her book is that while every UK university is aiming for world-class status they are, paradoxically, becoming smaller minded and more narrow. This is because, as institutions, universities have become obsessed with audits and their levels of achievement in the National Student Survey or the measurement of research excellence. All of this, Evans argues, makes universities more ‘socially timorous.’
Also, unlike many other commentators on the contemporary university, Evans is brilliant on the gendered dimensions of campus life. There’s this brilliant and very funny deconstruction of the department ‘Away Day.’ As academic departments become more corporate the ‘Away Day’—attendance compulsory—has become the mechanism to define its ‘mission,’ plan strategy and boost competitiveness. It’s often held at a chain hotel where academics ‘invariably are welcomed by smartly dressed young women whose function remains that of the air hostess… to make men feel at home.’
Let’s go on to your next book, which is Edward Said’s book about the role of the intellectual in society. What do you like about this book?
For most people in the media, or the world of literature, when you mention the phrase ‘academic,’ it’s usually a figure of fun or an insult.
Yes, I remember giggling at an article in the New York Times, it must have been almost two decades ago but it sticks in my mind. It was written by somebody who used to be an academic and it reads something like, ‘When my colleagues use the word ‘academic’ it’s not a compliment — they mean irrelevant.’
I’m not trying, for a minute, to foreclose the fact that there are things we should criticize. There are versions of academia or the direction in which academia is going that trouble me. But I used to think that the plight of academics was to produce knowledge that was out of time, irrelevant, and not directly related to the current and pressing issues of the day. I used to think that the fact that it took so long to write a PhD thesis or an academic book was a profound weakness.
And you know what? I’ve completely changed my view. I think there is a value in the slowness of academic knowledge production and the quality of thought that is academic thinking at its best. Also, I think the fact that, in the spaces of the university, esoteric and sometimes very narrow interests can be taken seriously is a very healthy state of affairs. It produces diversity of thinking. It’s profoundly valuable to have a space to think about a broad range of topics, to think against the grain of conventional wisdom, and outside the parameters of what everyone else is so certain about.
So the reason I chose Edward Said’s wonderful book, Representations of the Intellectual, is that he argues very forcibly for the value of intellectual life. There’s an attitude in the UK, that if you call yourself an intellectual, or say you are concerned with intellectual things, most people think that’s analogous to something mildly indecent. Said’s book—which was based on his Reith lecture series—is a fantastic portrait of an intellectual life, and intellectuals at work. One of the things he says is that part of an intellectual’s work is the art of representing the world, of stylizing it, of understanding ideas and conveying them to people. That is one of the things that is so brilliant about Said. He then takes a whole range of intellectuals—from Simone de Beauvoir to Jean Paul Sartre to James Baldwin—and talks about them and their craft of representing the world and representing their ideas.
One of the things that really struck me is his argument that the true threat to the university is not financialization or commercialization of institutions, but professionalization. This is something that Mary Evans picks up on too, how the professionalization of academia means we are increasingly slaves to specialization. Narrow forms of knowledge have their place—they make things that seem esoteric valuable—but the consequence of that, for both Mary Evans and Edward Said, is a narrowing of the intellectual arteries. We develop specializations that might be ten miles deep, but are only two inches wide.
What Said argues for is a kind of intellectual amateurism. He thinks the intellectual today ought to be somebody who can range across interests and connect things. I think that’s really important. It’s not just about developing an expertise in the world of knowledge that is circumscribed and in a silo. Said’s vision of the intellectual is somebody who can be an expert in Jane Austen as well as speak to the geopolitical issues of the day.
Isn’t he also worried that an intellectual should be someone who speaks truth to power and that we see that less and less?
Yes, he argues that alongside specialization and professionalization comes a kind of timidity and conservatism on the part of intellectuals in universities. What’s great about the book and the figures that he chooses is that all of them actually are public figures. They are publicly intervening. He chastises American intellectuals for being too timid and concerned with the baubles of public recognition. If he were writing about the UK, he’d be making the same argument about the honour system and being elected to the British Academy.
Said was himself an exemplar of what he writes here. He was a public intellectual, concerned with the problems and issues of the day. He is speaking to those issues and addressing them and involved in that public conversation.
He’s a fan of Chomsky, right?
Yes, Chomsky is one of the people that he admires. One aspect of Said’s characterization of the intellectual is that the intellectual is a lonely voice. It’s a voice speaking truth to power, challenging and pushing the parameters of understanding and thought and the shape of received wisdom.
I noticed one of the Amazons reviewers said it was ‘one of the best books I have ever read in my life,’ which seems very high praise indeed.
I would agree with that. What he also does in the book—which I think is so important and interesting—is that he draws on Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the organic intellectual. Society always produces its own organic intellectuals that are fit to purpose. A marketing executive and researcher is an organic intellectual. The alignments and institutions of society produce their own kinds of organic intellectuals that serve those institutions. Whereas what Said suggests is that the intellectual should be a free intellect, asking difficult questions.
He also draws on the sociologist C Wright Mills. In one essay, Mills writes—and Said quotes this—that, ‘The independent artist and intellectual are amongst the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuine living things.’ Intellectuals should be on the side of genuine living things.
Let’s talk about book number 3 now, which is called The Great University Gamble. This is about the UK government’s imposition of huge cuts and market-driven reforms in 2010, is that right?
Yes. This is a book by Andrew McGettigan. The thing I really admire about Andrew McGettigan is that he is trying to understand the sensibilities of the political class that is driving these changes. Much of the defence of the university—and I would be as guilty of this as anyone else—is made from a kind of lofty commitment to a vision of what the university should be and the values that are precious that should be sustained. What McGettigan does, which I think is brilliant and much needed, is to try and get inside the logic of those who are driving the changes. It’s not—as some of my colleagues think, and I myself thought—that these changes are an attack in a straightforward ideological sense, that they are trying to challenge the power bases of the universities that are left leaning. What McGettigan shows is that those changes have been driven out of a commitment to students conceived as consumers. They are changes that are being made in the name of students getting value for money, transferable skills, and all the rest of it. What he does so brilliantly is to see how this conception of university education is completely shaped within that consumerist logic.
And what he then does is follow the money and develops a very powerful critique which more or less says that the numbers don’t add up. There won’t be enough in the way of revenue to sustain university growth over a long period of time. The fee regime which has been pushed through at speed involves the risk of what McGettigan calls ‘subprime’ degrees. The student loan-book will produce a long-term financial toxicity. There is a financial crisis written into the way in which these changes have been imposed.
The gamble that he identifies is that through market forces, large parts of the higher education sector will be exposed while the elite institutions will be protected and will ultimately flourish in the long run. But at what cost? It is our students who will ultimately pay for the ‘great university gamble’ that McGettigan exposes so well.
Is he an academic himself?
He is an academic, but he is also a very, very accomplished journalist. I think Andrew McGettigan is the best ethnographer of the changing university sector that we have writing today. He is a brilliantly attentive observer of what’s happening to higher education in the UK.
Let’s go on to your fourth book, which is The Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents. This is all about novels set in academia.
I love this book by Elaine Showalter. She takes the campus novel—of which there are many—as a social barometer of university life. She uses the novels as a way of trying to make sense of how the concerns of academics and university teachers have changed and shifted over time. The other thing that she does—which I think is just so brilliant I couldn’t help but steal it as an idea—is that she introduces this idea of ‘academic time.’ One of the things I love about working in the university is that the academic year has a kind of seasonal quality. We really are seasonal workers — though some people would say that that has been unsettled and changed, and that those seasons of academic or intellectual life aren’t quite as distinct as they once were.
Elaine’s book also made me much more alert to how academic or campus novels very often pick up on emerging trends before they’ve even become part of the educational debate. One of the books that she mentions is a book by Frank Parkin called The Mind and Body Shop. It is a fantastic book written in the 1980s about a privatizing and commercializing university, where the philosophy department is basically going out of business. So they develop this new, branded, version of the philosophy department called ‘The Mind and Body Shop.’ It sets up in the local community and does all kinds of rather unsavoury and off-colour things, involving the sex industry. It’s a wonderfully comic and playful story. But the thing that is so deeply shocking about reading Frank Parkin’s book now is how many of the things he predicted in that book have actually come to pass. There is a passage when he talks about how there will no longer be pensions for academics in this new world. I can imagine readers in the late 1980s thinking, ‘That’s obviously science fiction!’ Also, there’s lots of wonderfully funny things about students as consumers and the student experience, much of which aren’t that far away from how it is today for students —doing serious intellectual work and having to do a lot of paid work at the same time.
And academics in novels are normally figures of fun?
Yes, the portraits of academics in academic novels are often comic or parodies. But these are some wonderful insights. One of the key protagonists in Frank Parkin’s book is a man who is obsessed with George Orwell. He makes these research trips to Wigan to find the commode, which George Orwell would have used when he was writing The Road to Wigan Pier. I have to say that though I’ve never looked for George Orwell’s commode I have done some pretty strangely esoteric forms of obsessive lead-following. Some of those observations are well aimed. Clifford Geertz, the American anthropologist said it was good for intellectuals to occasionally be made fun of. It is good for us to have some of the hubris of our lofty titles cut down to size. That is one of the lessons I draw, very often, from campus novels.
I was intrigued by the title of your last book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks.
bell hooks is an extraordinary writer. I admire not only her ideas, but also the way she writes. She is unusual in that she is a university professor and a very respected world figure in feminist theory and writing, but, at the same time, her books are written in public prose and are read by an extraordinary range of people. She could have been one of the figures in Edward Said’s book, Representations of the Intellectual. She is speaking to the issues of the day and has a wide, popular readership.
I chose the book not because it is trenchant or even a comic description of what universities and academia can be and are, but rather because it’s really a wonderful account of the possibility that education has to shape and transform lives. The book is written from a very personal point of view, of her own experience of education. She is arguing unapologetically for the transformative power of education and of thinking and of ideas.
What she draws on, which I think is so brilliant, is the importance of teachers in her own life — often black women teachers who taught her and opened up the world to her in a different kind of way. That process of transformation, for people who didn’t grow up in homes where there were a lot of books, that movement into the world of learning and thinking, can be very painful.
Tell me a bit more about who she is.
bell hooks is a cultural critic. She is a black feminist writer who came to international prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. She writes on a whole range of topics from the racial politics of Madonna to film criticism. She’s written a brilliant essay about the film The Piano. She has even written a beautiful book about love, for example, and relationships. She ranges across the whole wide spectrum of issues from music, films, and cultural production, to pedagogy, teaching and learning, and the experience of gender, and class and race in America. She writes about things that she thinks are important and are the key issues of the day. She writes at all these different levels, but she has a very singular voice. She is a very radical critic of inequalities and divisions in contemporary society, but, at the same time, has an incredible generosity and hopefulness about the potential for things to change.
“It reminds me of John Steinbeck’s phrase about his best teachers who ‘did not tell — they catalyzed a burning desire to know.’”
What area of sociology do you focus on?
It’s somewhat similar to bell hooks’s, really, in that I have written a lot about popular culture and music. I started out as a youth worker. I was a youth worker in the 1980s and then wrote my dissertation about what it was like to grow up in a very close but ethnically-mixed neighbourhood in South-East London. My first book was about that, and the ways in which young people were developing new kinds of culture that bridged their differences. At the same time, sometimes in the same streets, there were very intense forms of popular racism and institutional racism.
Can you give an example from the book to give a bit of a flavour of what exactly she is saying?
In this book, bell hooks argues for something that she calls ‘engaged pedagogy.’ It’s a version of education that’s holistic. That’s why she gives the book the subtitle,‘The Practice of Freedom. Her vision of education—which I think resonates with figures like Richard Hoggart and the workers’ education movement, which I was very influenced by and benefited from—is as a simple commitment to the idea that anyone can learn and that we need to teach in a manner that respects and cares for our students. I’m very mindful of it today, as students are handing in their dissertations. They’ve been struggling all week with the doubts and anxieties they’ve been living with, especially in terms of, ‘Do I have the authority to have a voice for an argument?’ Many of these students are the first in their family to come to university. They are facing those demons as they approach handing in their dissertation. That version of education that is about respect and care that is holistic I think is a very admirable one.
In her case, this comes out of her involvement in the American civil rights movement and the feminist movement. She thinks of teaching as a practice that is about freedom and well-being and transformation. There’s something about that that I think is so important to be reminded of in our time of professionalization, of trying to present a view of academia that is worth its salt. She writes very, very poignantly that ‘The academy is not a paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created.’ She says, this is a passage that I really think rings true for me as the very best of what academia is and can be:
‘The classroom with all its limitations can remain a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond the boundaries, to transgress.’
That’s why academia feels like an important place to be, to try and play a small part in fostering that openness of mind. The way bell hooks writes about teaching conveys what’s at stake. It reminds me of John Steinbeck’s phrase about his best teachers who ‘did not tell — they catalyzed a burning desire to know.’ That potential is the gift bestowed on every academic.
Interview by Sophie Roell
June 8, 2016
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