Today is a day of student protests in London. Hard hit by a LibDem back-down that was both sorrowful and inevitable, the vote on fees starts today. These student protests, we have been warned, may take shape in forms of disruptive behaviour, violence, physical and mental dangers and, as the Standard growled on its front page yesterday tea-time, under threat of hijack from anarchists. All the above is true. All the protesters are cross. All of them have a right to be.
What was astonishing about yesterday’s Evening Standard was not the tone of thrilling scare-mongering about anarchists mowing down shoppers in Oxford Street, which broken-down logic is typical many of our daily nasties, but the tone of the article that covered the various outposts of protest throughout the University of London. Surveying sites including SOAS and UCL, the LSE, The Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths, the mocking tone of the article was blunderingly apparent:“A performance poetry slot includes sets by Northern indie rapper Ruby Kid and Londoner Kate Tempest, for whom the unruly gaggle of students and the odd lecturer finally fall silent. Later, striking singing Iva of three-piece thrash band Rough Kittens draws a crowd fascinated by her impressive caterwauling and leopardskin leggings.” This was at Goldsmiths.
Later in the article, over at the LSE “In a grubby anteroom, a small group polishes off some sugared doughnuts while sketching out a three-metre-long banner. One student’s proud dad had picked up a bag of Brick Lane bagels that morning, which “went down amazingly”.” Alarmingly, it took three people (presumably over the age of 10) to write this article. The impression it led the reader to was that this students protest against fees is the childish, misguided brainchild of feckless, doughnut munching layabouts, who have papered together “Cut Capitalism” banners with a well-meaning, yet vague ideology. In the face of an ethically robust demand for free tertiary education in the city they care about, the Standard mainly saw fit to lampoon students, not venerate them.
Despite the fact that I bet you the Evening Standard will be the first to show the bloody pictures of people’s faces in Friday’s edition, they failed to grant the students they met political or ethical legitimacy by accenting that this was a campaign run by liberal idiots wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, lacking neither basic organizational skills nor fortitude. The Standard’s implication is these children have not yet woken up to smell the ConDem coffee. They should grow up and maturely stop fighting, shouldn’t they, these daft, over-educated prigs? Incidentally, there are plenty of protestors at ULU who are better educated than the rest of Britain, financially articulate, adept at calculating costings regarding the financial impact on students at the drop of a hat outside the LSE, but Georgina, or Louisa, or Victoria, or whoever from the Evening Standard didn’t interview them.
It is one thing to take sides on the university fees debate, but it is quite another thing to deny the noble beliefs of morally centred protestors their ethical ground by taking the piss out of them. Is it a great myth, perpetuated by adults normally, that when you grew out of education, decide on a job and go to work, the political and moral idealism of adolescence becomes inappropriate; distasteful; something one grows out of, like wearing braces on your teeth. Many people over 25 are, shamefacedly, embarrassed in the fact of idealism. To demand a right, to stick to your guns, to fail to compromise oneself, all of these are misinterpreted as views only for the unworldly and the ill-prepared. That is because to be morally bankrupt in the world is a vast asset, particularly if you want to acquire power, political levy or become a banker. To have moral gumption, to be of noble sentiment towards students (and sentiment these days is a very, very dirty word) is to be a pain but we absolutely need far more of it. The world would rather you went to work, earned your money, shut up, pay your taxes and then died. Curiously, the world has its views very often the wrong way round. It may be that the Standard will continue it’s stance on accenting the violence of protestors with indignance. The annoying behaviour of political protest, which forces our cars to take circuitous routes around London (oh what a pain) and disturbs the glut of Christmas shoppers in town, will be aligned with civic irresponsibility, whereas it is actually civic responsibility in action.
So much focus has been pulled toward the economic value of education that the civic value of it has slipped out of view, because the newspapers don’t write about that. If we have to prove to the public that higher education is something worth paying in terms of its value in a civilized and cultivated society then something has gone terribly wrong. Regardless of what you think about the current student finance situation, you would have to be a selfish philistine to not be moved by the end of 500 years of free tertiary education in the UK, and not to empathise with those to whom the prospect of £9,000 p.a. fees would knock further education on the head altogether. 100 years ago it was part of a citizen’s moral duty to be concerned regarding the civic implications of political change in society. In its original meaning, Ruskin explained that sympathy was “the imaginative understanding of the natures of others, and the power of putting ourselves in their place” and that it was “the faculty on which virtue depends”. Eighty years earlier, in his dictionary of 1775, Samuel Johnson defined sympathy as a “fellow-feeling; mutual sensibility…” rather than its modern implications of being primarily about pity. The original definition of sympathy would be welcome today.
For an article that actually uses joined-up thinking, a more helpful guide than the Evening Standard is offered through the BBC website : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11874633
The current argument must be contextualized in economic reality but it must also be viewed with sympathy regarding the civic implications of charging for university education. London and Londoners would suffer. It should be our civic duty to care that the only noble people in last night’s Evening Standard were not capable of receiving respect for what they stood for, irrespective of what the readers’ views on student fees may actually be. The Evening Standard‘s careless riposte was chilly, derisive and abrupt, and to mock those who are less cowardly and more hopeful than the rest of us is morally reprehensible. Our city’s only evening newspaper should be ashamed of itself.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.