‘Take them all over,’ says Derek.
‘All of them?’ says Simon.
‘The state?’ says Bob. ‘Yes.’
‘All the public schools?’ says Simon.
‘No more private schools,’ says Derek.
Ren, who has just finished talking to a student nearby, has overheard the conversation, and joins the trio.
‘Are you saying that the state should commandeer private schools?’
‘Of course,’ says Derek. ‘Don’t tell me you’re so right-wing that you’re holding a torch for the bloody public schools?’
‘Right-wing? Jesus, you lot are so out of touch with ordinary opinion that you think sending your kid to a private school must be criminalised. No wonder civilians think academics are political cranks.’
‘Didn’t you get sexually abused at yours?’ says Derek.
‘Unlike you I went to state school.’
‘If a state education is good enough for most people, why isn’t it good enough for everyone?’
‘Yeah, why should a few people get a superior education?’ says Bob.
Derek gives Bob a look.
‘Well put, Bob,’ says Ren.
‘They don’t get a superior education.’ says Derek. ‘They get an unbalanced education.’
‘At my state school I just got a mediocre education, with leftist indoctrination,’ says Ren. ‘I had to educate myself to learn anything.’
‘You don’t have to just take them over in one go. Another method is to just gradually bring them under your control by way of increasing regulation,’ says Simon, who usually speaks slowly and with bizarre emphases on certain words. ‘And the teachers they’ll have to choose from in the future will mostly be left-wing, because that’s the way University graduates are heading, so they’ll be taken over by stealth.’
‘Don’t frighten the horses, that’s always your way, isn’t it, Simon?’ says Derek.
‘Unless your aim is to actually frighten the horses, then yes, that’s my way,’ says Simon, in his quiet but slightly hammy way. ‘Choose the effective path, rather than the melodramatic one.’
‘I think you’ll find that Derek’s aim mainly is to frighten the horses,’ says Ren. ‘He doesn’t want to make an omelette without breaking some eggs. That’s half the fun of it.’
‘It’s just that you have to establish early on who’s boss,’ says Derek. ‘Otherwise the old bosses will have too many opportunities to stymie you.’
‘So we all agree that the state should completely take over the Universities as well?’ says Ren.
‘What? No,’ says Derek.
‘Of course not,’ says Simon. ‘That would be awful.’
‘A disaster,’ says Bob. ‘The state couldn’t possibly run the Universities. Imagine having a government bureaucrat in charge of Grayvington.’
‘So it’s imperative that the state does not run even a single University,’ says Ren, ‘because the state is full of idiots who don’t know what they’re doing, but they must nevertheless be put in charge of all schools?’
‘It take specialist skills to run academia,’ says Derek. ‘Only academics are in a position to know how to do it properly. Not the government, they’d make a complete mess of it.’
‘Conquest’s first law of politics: everyone’s a conservative about what he knows best. In our field, it’s best to let Universities manage themselves, and the government know-nothings should butt out. But in that pretty similar field over there, which I don’t know so well, I reckon the government know-nothings should run everything.’
‘Oh come on, it’s not the same thing at all,’ blusters Bob.
‘You mean the school’s are even harder to get right?’ says Ren. ‘You may be right there.’
‘We’re the experts on Locke,’ says Simon. ‘We’re the experts on Joyce. We’re the experts on physics. We’re the people who know the students best. We’re the ones who should make the decisions.’
‘Sure, but schools can say the same thing. They know their students the best, they know the parents, they’re the ones in the best position to make the decisions for their students.’
‘You can hire a lot of educational experts who make better decisions than teachers,’ says Simon, ‘and that’s what the state’s done.’
‘You can say the same of lecturers. The state could easily hire a panel of top philosophers who tell us what to teach. But would that be a good idea? Do you want a panel setting your curriculum for you? And the idea that the state does a good job of hiring educational experts is horse feathers. The whole field is full of poor quality, unempirical, politicised dross, and the government education department that sets the national curriculum is full of third-raters, despite the fact that that department takes a significant proportion of the whole education budget. Thank God there are still some schools that can provide some variety in what is taught.’
‘Why should richer students get a better education?’ says Bob.
‘I thought the argument was that the state is better at education? Or is it that you want to cut down private schools because they’re better than state schools?’
‘What it is, is that public schools suck up too many good students,’ says Derek, ‘leaving those at state schools at a disadvantage.’ He is about to elaborate further on this when Verna comes up looking angrily at Ren. Ren assumes she has come to join the battle against him, but it turns out it’s something else.
‘Ren,’ she says. ‘I have a bone to pick with you.’
‘That graduate seminar you came to yesterday. Your behaviour wasn’t acceptable, and you need to be told.’
‘Huh?’ Ren racks his brain. He didn’t misbehave at that graduate seminar yesterday. What on Earth is this misbegotten hag going on about? ‘What are you talking about, Verna?’
‘You asked Lauren a question.’
‘You asked her a question after her talk. That’s not acceptable.’
‘I don’t understand. I asked her a question in question time. When the floor had been thrown open to questions.’
‘Yes, but you shouldn’t have asked her a question.’
‘I shouldn’t have asked her a question… in question time?’
‘It was threatening.’
‘I’m not following you. It was a normal question, in fact a fairly softball question, asked in a normal tone of voice. How was it threatening?’
‘It was threatening because you are a staff member asking a graduate student a question.’
Derek and Bob make their excuses and slip away.
‘Still not following you. Isn’t the point of these graduate seminars to give grad students the chance to experience a philosophy talk? Where people ask them questions? Isn’t that what we all want when we give a talk? To discuss our ideas with other philosophers?’
‘It’s intimidating for a graduate student to have to answer a question from a staff member. Especially an analytic staff member.’
‘I asked her an easy question, and she answered it without any trouble. Did she say she was intimidated?’
‘No, but it’s the principle that matters. Graduate students can find it a hostile experience to be asked about their work by staff members.’
Simon decided that he is better off elsewhere too, and he glides away silently.
‘This is stupid. The grad students beg us to come to their seminars. They’re desperate for us to pay them attention, and ask them about their research. And they want the experience of facing questions before they have to do it for real, in front of a real audience, who might ask them much more hostile questions. That’s why I went. You sent out an e-mail practically ordering us to come to this week’s.’
Verna seems to be unmoved by what Ren has said. ‘I didn’t say you could come and ask questions.’
‘You just want us to come and sit there and listen? Like it’s a lecture, not a seminar.’
‘That’s right. Unless you’re someone sympathetic to their viewpoint, you should just listen. In respectful silence. Not harass them.’
‘But you asked a question.’
‘I’m not a hostile questioner.’
‘Neither am I. I asked a straightforward question. Practically a practise question for her. It was hardly Bertie Russell or Freddie Ayer getting vicious and trying to knock someone down and destroy them. And why do you count as non-hostile?’
‘I’m female. I’m not analytic. And I’m her supervisor.’
‘Then you’re the last person who should be asking questions in a seminar. You’ve had many opportunities to talk to her about her research. The point of the seminar is to open it up to others. To let her get used to taking questions from people who might not agree with her. Or people who haven’t understood things, and need more explanation. This is a University. These are graduate students, for Christ’s sake. It’s not a sheltered workshop.’
‘That is offensive talk.’
Ren thinks better of letting her know what real offensive talk looks like.
‘Really, you just don’t want the wrong people asking awkward questions,’ he says, in a slightly harder voice. ‘Or even non-awkward questions. I don’t think she had any issues with answering questions. It did her good. You’re doing her no good trying to hide her. She’s not a shrinking violet first-year grad student. She’s a third-year, and can cope.’
‘You’re being aggressive. This is what we don’t want students being exposed to.’
‘You’re the one being aggressive. You came over to me to berate me over nothing.’
‘You’re still being aggressive. This is the sort of behaviour that needs to be stamped out.’
‘Is your hypocrisy deliberate? Or do you genuinely believe that I’m being the aggressor when I’m just defending myself against your aggression?’
‘I need to speak to the Head of Department about your unacceptable violent male attitude.’
Ren shakes his head. ‘I seem to remember you saying the same sort of thing about him last semester, so I’m not sure how well that’s going to work. Adelaide’s not Head any more, remember.’
‘Then I’ll take it higher up. The Dean is not so keen on your sort of bully-boy tactics.’
‘Can’t have people asking questions at a University after all, can we?’ says a fed-up Ren as he walks away.