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Knowledge and privilege

Author: joe

Friday, 08 July, 2011 - 23:28

When I went to university, we still used quills and we paid maids to compile our bibliographies. There were privileges which accompanied being an undergraduate, such as the right to never attend lectures, or to study German philosophy when you were supposed to be studying economics, or to drink absinthe at orgies, or to take free aviation lessons from suffragettes, or to attempt world-record breaking states of inebriation for months on end and completely forget you were enrolled on a course with the cleverest academics who were the leading contemporary thinkers in their field.

I remember with shame, (and an admixture of triumph), being bored to death when my tutor came to a lecture on Thomas Hardy and read aloud a paper he had written for a conference. I had the arrogant young indifference to his standing as an internationally recognised scholar on the subject, and preferred to scoff at his lack of charisma on the day, rather than appreciate the magnitude of the privilege I had in actually hearing him say his own groundbreaking words. It is right that the stupid young should scorn the elderly and be restive against their authority. It is good to kick against the pricks when you're young, because the destiny of everyone who doesn't die is to become a prick against whom the young will kick.

There is something from that ancient privileged world that I do still believe in though: there is a shape to scholarship, which is generalisable: you are responsible for learning stuff yourself. My antiquated mentors were exemplars, not service-providers; they generated expectations, but they did not relieve you of your responsibility to boot-strap yourself into consciousness; you were already privileged by your admission into a system that gave you 3 years of autonomy and independence: why should you be also nannied into making something of yourself? They didn't need to teach me everything they knew, they simply needed to let me know that I should find it out. Hence I'm proud that I was almost 39 before I finally learnt what an oxford comma actually is, and I'm confident that my university masters would be comfortable with the time it took me to find it out, since their job was to encourage me to have an enquiring attitude, rather than to know any one specific thing.

Today, however, that system has been diminished to the extent that it must be subservient to the most prurient, Moloch-worshipping profit-driven coercion, and the mechanism that has achieved this has been under the the mendacious logic of "access", as though access to education is comparable to access to capital. When, o when, o when, o when, will the ideological link between knowledge and privilege be broken? Only when the link between learning and servitude is broken. Learning means thinking for yourself! It takes at least 3 years! if not 21!

Categories: knowledge, university, privilege, learning,
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