Thursday, November 29, 2012

You're Danger-What? Dangermouse, Did You Say?

These musings have not appeared in a scholarly journal and they have not been peer reviewed.

I keep hearing that people are dangerous when they're educated. Despite the fact that I am now, nearly, educated, I have to say something about this apparently widespread belief before steam comes out of my ears.

It's bollocks. And more to the point, it's snobby, class-ist bollocks, since even before the massive hike in student loans the number of students at university who'd come straight off the estates seemed pretty damn small. Now it will probably be smaller than the number of university bureaucrats who gave a shit when I talked to them about their relationship with China.

Every office of every politician in the land is filled with educated people; and not one of them is doing anything to change the world for the better. All they're doing is helping to keep a cruel, cancerous system running that benefits them and screws over the poor, the weak, the sick and the disabled.

You have to be educated to work in most businesses if you're not going to wear overalls or an ugly uniform with a name tag on it. And your only purpose in business is to make money to buy a nice house and keep the boss warm in his swimming pool, unless you're part of something that's producing really innovative technology that helps humanity in some way. The number of companies doing that in Britain these days must be very small indeed

You have to be educated to work in book publishing too, in the mainstream. And no one in the mainstream has published anything dangerous for years.

I have enjoyed my time at university, although I must admit it's mostly been fun because of the people I've met. But it has struck me over and over again that this education I was receiving was teaching me (unsuccessfully) how to say what they wanted me to say in the style that they wanted me to say it. University to me seems like a fancy intellectual cookie cutter designed to turn out thousands of people every year who are the same mental shape.

Perhaps - and I don't really think it's so - but perhaps a person who was dangerous already is more dangerous with an education. But what really threatens power and corruption is intellectual independence and a well-developed personal conscience, and you can find that just as frequently, if not more often actually, behind cash registers, in care home car parks on cigarette breaks, and outside on the wall at the Job Centre.

Saying that the educated are dangerous implies that the uneducated are easily duped by political parties with bad intentions. Sometimes that's so; sometimes it isn't. But who voted for David Cameron? Who, perhaps more germainely, couldn't see what a complete bullshitter Nick Clegg was and voted for the Liberal Democrats, who are supporting some of the most iniquitous policies carried out against the vulnerable in this country for 100 years? And who keeps re-electing their puppets in the local councils?

It certainly wasn't anyone from round my way.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cooking the Books, or How We Stopped Mithering and Jumped Up the League Table

As followers of this blog will know, I have been at university since 2010. I'm doing a degree in English. I didn't plan on doing one, but at the beginning of that year I walked out on my job, burned out after 15 years and pissed off with the persecution I was receiving from my manager because I didn't know how to kiss ass like some of the others. I had to do something or keep signing on indefinitely, there being very few jobs around at the time for 44 year old epileptics with left wing sympathies, a bad disciplinary record and no reference. So I chose university. It wasn't signing on or a job, after all; I got money for it too.

I'm coming to the end of my degree soon. I have six or seven months to put in and then I can retire from Academia. But before I leave I'm obliged, apparently, to fill in something called the National Student Survey. It's a nationwide customer satisfaction survey of higher education which (I think) somebody or other consults when drawing up the university league tables for the following year. "You must do this," two lecturers told us, while giving separate presentations on the subject. "If you don't we will call you at home and write you letters."

Which is fair enough. It isn't too hard to fob off lecturers, ignore phone calls and tear up letters. But telling us, as they did, that it is in our interest to portray the university in a positive light in the survey isn't fair enough.When I heard this I almost choked; although nobody else in either room where I heard it seemed to mind one way or the other. The argument of the two English professors who made this outrageous statement was that if we made the uni look good, our degree would be more respectable and we would all get better jobs. So, blackmailing impressionable people is acceptable now in the sterling-driven world of education?

The real reason these men want us to gloss over the problems at my university is so that we can bump it out of the relegation zone in the academic league table; and probably give their careers more weight so that they'll make it onto the shortlist the next time they apply for a job somewhere. And the irony is, there's nothing much wrong with the English Department, although for me there weren't enough options and the syllabus was much too narrow. The lecturers themselves are pretty damn good (with one obvious poetasting exception).

But there are problems; big problems. And if we don't bring them to the attention of the people who can do something about it, kids coming in paying twice as much as we did (and then some) for the same education are going to have to deal with the same things, and by then the problems will have become more entrenched.

Why didn't I raise any of the issues I obviously have internally, you might ask. I did. With person after person, at level after level. I used the complaints procedure. I even used the internal student questionnaire. And you know what? I didn't get a single answer, from anyone, all year. The only time I've ever even seen the Vice Chancellor, who I wrote to more than once about the university's close relationship with China, is when he's escorting business people around the building telling them what a fabulous student experience they provide.

The mantra at my university is, "Keep your mouth shut and get a good degree." I was advised to do that in the first year by an American Literature professor (I couldn't) and I've heard it since from student after student. What an appalling legacy to hand down to the next generation of consumers. Or maybe it's a good one and I've got the wrong end of the stick completely. I come from another time, after all; I was raised by a person who believed that you should stand up to power and live for more than two holidays a year and that next big promotion.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stage Fright

Tomorrow night there's another open mic at the newly-branded "Legendary Labour Club" in Northampton. The primarily spoken word Raising the Awen event. I've been there to read for the last two months but after the debacle of my brief slot in October, when I suffered some sort of psychological meltdown, I won't be attending this time. I'm going to my friend's house for the evening instead. Maybe dying my long grey hair purple at the roots.

Performance poetry is an art, and a very different one from writing poetry down. In the best poets the two arts cross over (Allen Ginsberg, Ron Whitehead, Jimtom Keith Thomas James). Some who write imperfect poetry can convince you they are wonderful because of the strength of their personality when they stand at the mic. That doesn't apply to me. I don't have the personality for standing up in front of a crowd and making them like me, or engage with anything I'm saying that's controversial or difficult. I don't want people to like me. I'm too afraid of them for that. I hate them too much for that. I don't want them to listen to me either because I know I'm full of shit. I just want my art to be a metaphorical sword that cuts off their heads and uses them for jack o'lanterns. I just want them to give me all their money and leave me the fuck alone. I want to bring the grave into the club without paying extra for the drinks.

People tell me to keep doing it until the confidence comes. There's probably some wisdom in that too. You can learn to do most things if you keep going at it for long enough. But why put myself through the pain when there's nothing to be gained from it? The last time I stood up there I felt like I'd been flayed alive. I sat in the darkness after my slot was finished hating myself for not making an impact and wishing fire and pestilence on everything and everyone around me (not fair maybe, but true). It didn't help that someone who was trying to be helpful stood at the mic and made a joke about the uncontrollable trembling of my hands. They shake like that because of the medication I'm on; and when I'm nervous they shake more. It makes me feel like a freak and I try to hide it - something you can't do on a stage with 20 or 30 people watching. When he joked about it an embarrassed man became a humiliated and angry man. If I could have exited from the club at that moment without making even more of a spectacle of myself I would have done it.

As it was I stayed until the end, behaving in a curiously apologetic, self-justifying manner as I slunk out of the door and into the night. When I woke up in the morning and thought about my catastrophic performance and obsequious behaviour at closing time, I didn't think I'd ever go out of the house again.

Well, I've done that. I'm here in the university now writing this. But when I'll be returning to the spoken word mic is another thing entirely. Certainly it won't be any time soon, not that I want anyone to think this is a problem for me.