Something worth looking at

Martin Ivan’s online introduction to last week’s Times Literary Supplement:

OCTOBER 2, 2020

In this issue

This week my two sons go back to college and an uncertain future. As the first Ivens “in a thousand generations to be able to get to university” (copyright N. Kinnock) I remember my parents’ pride and curiosity when I left home with a full maintenance grant and an open scholarship burning in my pocket. That my father, a polymathic poet, had been forced to leave a fine school at fourteen to support his family made the experience more poignant.

Autres temps. My children have already lost almost two academic terms to Covid. They pay a small fortune in tuition fees and accommodation costs for Zoom learning. The eldest, a student at Manchester University, keenly follows events at neighbouring Manchester Metropolitan University where 1,700 students have been told to self-isolate for fourteen days, even if they have no symptoms.

In our lead feature Joe Moran laments the limitations of a digital education. Good may come from evil – “the sacred form of the hour-long, real-time lecture probably needed shaking up”, he writes – but for poor scholars without access to a computer or a quiet space it is a hard life. In any case, “students may be surgically attached to their phones, but that does not mean they should live whole lives online”. In order to flourish students need “time and space to develop their gifts”, through “organic and serendipitous encounters.”

The value of that university experience derives from reason, debate and tolerance. In his review of Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Simon Jenkins fears that American habits of intolerance have crossed the Atlantic: “Today more than 50 per cent of British universities have been forced formally ‘to restrict speech, especially certain views of religion and trans identity’”. Even engineering must be “reconceptualised” to make it “sensitive to difference, power and privilege”. He observes, “I am not sure I would want to cross a woke bridge”. At a deeper level Jenkins believes that the politics of group identity “privileges some groups to the neglect of others, such as the poor, the alienated, the disempowered”.

Tolerance is a two-way street. Stephanie Burt celebrates the Transgender Tipping Point reached in America by 2014: “More people, some of them famous, came out as trans, which led to more social acceptance, which led to more people coming out”. She looks to “a future in which gender roles and identities are something you get to try on, or try out”. The TLS is a broad church.

Martin Ivens

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