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Salient. Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 4. Monday, April 8, 1963

Too Many Conformists — Part Two by David Wright

Too Many Conformists

Part Two by David Wright

"The Universities are full of miserable little conformists who are there for negative reasons. They are pushed out of the schools, and they go to University because they don't know where else to go."

These are the views of a young Londoner who was at the University of Reading last year doing a post-graduate course. He is a very original person, bubbling with ideas, but to the average English student he was an outcast. Not because he is rude or unlikeable, but because he holds very radical views about the nature of British society.

Yet I am convinced that there was a great deal of truth in what he said. It showed itself in the atmosphere there, a kind of intellectual stuffiness. Many of the indigenous students never noticed it, though it came close to choking me at times.

But the outsiders noticed it. I noticed it, and so did quite a number of other students from the Commonwealth. A Ghanaian friend mentioned it to me a number of times.

Part of it is due to the character of the students which is eminently middle class and respectable. After all, what can be built on respectability except more respectability?

However, much of the blame must be laid on the University itself, and its failure to arouse, to stimulate, to challenge. The virtues of Reading University are mostly negative ones. Granted, it is more soundly constructed than Oxford, and there is a more civilised male/female ratio, but there is not much else you can say for it. Part of its failure to provide a broad education can be attributed to the "degree factory" effect. There are very few second chances given to students who fail exams. As a result many students devote their entire intellectual energy to their subjects, and take up only those extra-curricular activities which need little thought.

The lack of second chances is due largely to the competitive nature of the Universities: Reading receives 12 applications every year for every available place, so newcomers are given more consideration than failures. The result is a small turnover of students, because those who get in usually stay in.

Due to an acute shortage of money, the English Universities are totally unable to do anything about this, though it is doubtful if they want to. The present system very effectively preserves the educational elite so prized by "The Establishment."

There are also elites within elites. The academic government at Reading is a fine example. Not only is it dominated by the professors, as you would expect, it also chooses its own successors. It has no student representation at all, and is not likely to have in the future. The students are just not interested.

This is not to suggest that there is not enough contact between the staff and students at "the top". Quite the contrary. There was too much contact that most people knew little about. There is not the same sort of contact between ordinary students and lecturers.

An example of this arose in two successive years in the Education Department. On both occasions students were dissatisfied with the course, and on both occasions the Prof, would not listen to their objections. On both occasions the students failed their exams.

One of the student leaders last year told me that the trouble was that the course tried to cover both Education theory and practice in too short a time, and consequently did neither adequately. I don't know who was right, but I do know that the Prof, more or less retreated into his shell when challenged, and that some of the lecturers "turned nasty."

Obviously some Profs, are worse than others in this respect, but there is a common tendency among English middle-class people to use social distance as a weapon against people with unusual ideas. Not surprisingly, most people are unwilling to face it, and so accept traditional values without much opposition. The English would never say that they use social distance, they would say that they are "very reserved." and tell you that it was a virtue on such a crowded island.

There is another factor which I have only mentioned in passing. It is the persistence with which this University models itself on Oxford. Unfortunately, the reason why Oxford does something is often lost in the process. If they could forget about Oxford, they might be able to develop a distinctive character of their own.