Review of Educational limitations Brian Pullan: A History of the University of Manchester, 1973-90|
The Irresponsible Cowardice of Being—Manchester University, 19 April 2011
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Hardback. 2004. Indexed, but no illustrations apart from charts of e.g. student numbers over time. This is volume 2, covering the nearly twenty years from 1973-1990. (Vol 1, 1951-1973, was published in 2000 and is unreviewed in Amazon; vol 3 one assumes is being prepared).
Manchester had an important part in making the modern world: cotton and cloth, the port and, later, the Ship Canal, Salford, the obscure secret connection with Jews, Manchesterismus, Manchester Man, the 'Manchester Guardian', in recent years even a BBC and other broadcast media outpost next to the 'Northern Imperial War Museum'.
Pullan is 'Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Manchester'. Abendstern 'works as a researcher'—she interviewed about seventy University-related people, listed at the back of the book. The reigns of two Vice-Chancellors, Sir Arthur Armitage and Sir Mark Richmond, more-or-less delimit the time period of this book. The first was beyond the reach of any interviewer; the second was interviewed along with a mixture of people—from clerical organisers and electricians and technicians and librarians up to the more elevated regions, identified either as 'administrators' or by (usually narrow) specialism—mycologist, econometrician, historian of such-and-such a period, radio astronomer. There are also a few persons from the mysterious real outside world—bankers and industrialists and politicians. The only missing categories I think are drop-outs and throw-outs, and seriously disaffected types, and the secretly-controlled student 'radical' and journalistic types. Some of these are named in the body of the text, but I think I'm right in saying none were interviewed.
The writing style can be quite amusing, whenever the general seriousness permits. Partly this is because all specialisms have a slightly ludicrous quality. Thus 'An Annotated Guide to Insolvency Legislation' is 'a work read avidly by accountants'; 'it regarded Celtic Studies as a harmless and inexpensive activity, and thought it good that about seven students a year should ... be taught Welsh by part-time lecturers.' However, much of the material deals with in-fighting between groups, none of whom are likely to be honest in their presentations.
The layout is partly chronological—1970s and 1980s. The 1980s get twice as much space as the 1970s. Chapter headings deal roughly speaking with academics, students, money, and the effects of external conditions. However, one does include the word 'research'.
Bibliographical material (as opposed to oral) includes government papers on education, various reports into 'disturbances', and miscellaneous books. There are twenty or so years of minutes of 'Court', 'Council', 'Senate' and other bodies which must have helped with the factual material of names, professorial chairs, resignations.
And money—especially money. There's an idealistic view of Universities—'starry-eyed, unmaterialistic' is one encapsulation. There was a golden age—or so it's claimed. It's possible that late Victorian Britain bore some relationship to this ideal. Huge modern frauds were unknown. The hold of the Church had loosened. Scientific progress was possible without vastly expensive equipment. There were connections and links with the continent. There was a feeling of prosperity which encouraged cautious expansion. This was the time of H G Wells. Of course the downside turned out to be fatal: anti-German feeling simmered, there was no serious investigation into paper money, the empire was not assessed in any serious way, and there was no way to remove academics who simply turned away from serious issues. Pullan's book unconsciously fixes a spotlight on the money-based nature of university life in this period—and no doubt vol 1 from 1951 carried the same message. There is considerable detail on pension funds, retirement ages, the relative costs of older staff, salary scales, grades, percentage increases, percentage decreases, the University Grants Committee, then the University Funding Committee, building costs, and all the rest.
It's interesting to review some of the activist activities of the time. Pullan does his best to be conventionally fair. But he at no point draws attention to the fact that there must have been covert government approval of the denial of free speech. No representatives of the anti-free speech mobs were ever investigated, as far as I know; it's the same tradition as in the BBC.
Pullan (and/or his sources) are curiously myopic, like accountants who provide bare figures without showing any grasp of the undercurrents which affect such figures.
Pullan provides two pages on Manchester University Press, including a few anecdotes, and a comment on its being subsidised; but the whole feeling of the place—how many titles? How many successes? How many duds? What life history? Did they have contracts with authors later felt to be a mistake?—there's nothing to show any real familiarity with the organisation. This book is in fact published by Manchester University Press, though not on any lavish scale—it has no illustrations, maps, photographs, so the accounts of purchasing of buildings, moving of departments, demolitions, and all the rest—'Student Union' buildings, buildings named after this or that eminent person—have a rather spectral feel.
Or take Pullan on the library, or libraries. Looking at these monolithic structures, many people must vaguely wonder how many new books are purchased each year, out of the hundreds of thousands published? Do controversial ones make it through the scrutiny process? How many people are members? ... But there's little to suggest familiarity. We're told such and such a librarian was an avid collector of books; but did students treat it/them as anything more than a way to avoid buying their own books? Was there much theft? What about the myriad of journals? How many poor quality publications were aimed specifically at the library market? Might they run out of space?
Or take the question of syllabuses: the whole business of deciding what ought to be dropped, retained, or newly inserted; the marketing aspect via university prospectuses to 17 and 18 year olds; the effects on students of dropped or interrupted courses; the issuing of exam results and the question of whether there were complaints—all of this is treated from the point of view of lecturers.
Or the NUS, a rather strange organisation which seems inconsistent with serious learning, possibly intentionally. In the 1970s there was a whole industry of exchanging information on posts falling vacant, so that people who were not students, and who had no connection with university or college or poly A, would stand for 'president' or whatever. Unfortunately most students were and are too supine, stupid, or preoccupied to understand the damage that the NUS has inflicted. It's perhaps worth noting that there are/were 'national NUS/Guardian competitions for best student journalists of the year.'
Or on financing of 'chairs'—(indexed under chairs, endowments of'). Quite a few are listed—e.g. money from Peat Marwick, ICI, Glaxo, Boots, a 'British Gas Chair of Urban Renewal', the 'Alliance Family Trust' for a 'modern Jewish studies' chair. One has to assume each would have an elaborate contract, but it's perhaps too much to ask a general book to ferret out the intended results of such chairs, even assuming the contracts were accessible.
Luckily (or not)—the time period of this book coincides with a number of important issues. (I'm excluding important issues which don't coincide very well or at all—AIDS, 9/11, climate frauds, Jewish and Islamic extremism, Shakespeare authorship, arms dealing):---
 The Vietnam War was coming to an end. There were vast atrocities by Americans. Did University of Manchester historians comment on these?
 The EU was coming onstream; 1973 being one of the milestones. It was to introduce unelected government on a soviet-style basis. Did Manchester's historians and economists comment?
 Around 1970, a pamphlet 'Did Six Million Really Die?' was circulated, probably in a limited way. Did Manchester historians comment?
 Educational theorists introduced the 'look say' method which was manifestly nonsensical. Did educators and psychologists comment?
 Herrnstein wrote on intelligence in 1971, a convenient dating point. A number (6 or 8) of academics wrote in the same sort of way on the same sort of topics. Did Manchester University professors comment?
 NASA carried out its moon landing hoax in 1969, handily just before the period of this book. Did Manchester physicists or astronomers comment?
 The oil situation was changed in 1973 by OPEC. Did any Manchester economists or geographers have anything useful to say?
 The basis of cell biology came under challenge, mostly by Harold Hillman at Surrey, on the grounds that essential control experiments had never been carried out, so that results based on such techniques as electron micrography and subcellular fractionation were not reliable. Did biologists at Manchester have anything useful to say?
 Tower blocks, designed by Manchester's own town planning department, had to be demolished. Did sociologists and psychologists comment?
 The long march of dumbing-down at every exam level had begun. Pullan says nothing about this and there's no evidence that Manchester academics did or said anything useful about it. Though there are hints, from accounts of musclebound thick students' activities, and the supposed desire of many students for drugs, and even the embarrassing quality of verse taken mostly from the 'student newspaper', the Mancunion.
So it has to be said that Manchester—and of course it was not alone, but entirely typical—has a negligible record in pursuing independent inquiry into important subjects. And a negligible record in fostering free speech. Pullan's book is an account of evasions, decisions not made, childish behaviour, the damaging effects of irresponsible money power. Manchester was/is like a wealthy person, anxious for his own assets, wilfully ignoring the ever-increasing mounds of junk and garbage accumulating nearby.
Pullan's book helps explain why this is, and why it will continue until changes are made. My best guess is that professors will have to be legally forced to respond to legitimate queries. This of course is not enough on its own—they could simply resign, assuming their backers are willing to fund them; therefore the surrounding conditions would have to be incorporated in the legal processes. They will not like this: just as the police prefer soft options and understandably shy away from hard cases, and just as politicians slide away from difficult problems, so academics will not easily be made take their duties seriously.
I recommend Pullan's book for dealing in an overview way with the issue of universities and education, the way the ideals of young people as enlightened and 'free citizens of the universe' are corrupted into a profit-maximising group, dedicated to minimal work for maximum assets, and the weird activities and side-issues this process has thrown up. There aren't many books like it. Even if the issues are fudged, quite a bit of raw data is in there, waiting to be mulled and pondered.
Many more collected book reviews by 'Rerevisionist'
Home page of Rerevisionist's website, big-lies.org.
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