“Cuts, job losses, money for the bosses,
Grayling get out! We know what you’re all about.”
These were the words the audience was chanting and I was transcribing when I noticed a lit match fall at the toe of my boot. Odd, I thought, given we were in the gallery at Foyles bookshop on a Tuesday evening, but we were there to listen to AC Grayling and others discuss arts cuts and the match had lit a flare which began billowing red smoke into my face. This was all the more appropriate, for I am one of thousands for whom the red mist descended several days ago at the news of Grayling’s private academic venture, New College.
The staged discussion at Foyles had been planned for months, and the timing must have been coincidental. Grayling was joined by Christopher Frayling, ex-Arts Council chairman, and Mick Gordon, these latter referred to at one point by an audience member as two ends of a pantomime horse. It’s true that as in pantomime there was much laughter, jeering and enthusiastic audience participation – Grayling was greeted with a classic long hiss.
New College proposes to charge £18,000 a year for undergraduates to study humanities on standard University of London syllabi, supplemented by the odd lecture by a high-flying academic, popping in from their internationally diverse academic posts. It will not be a seat for research or postgraduate study, nor will it technically have the power to award degrees; but with names like Niall Ferguson, Richard Dawkins and Grayling attached it is marketing itself as a kind of celebrity-enriched academy for the rich.
Predictably perhaps, Grayling stated categorically and in line with his previously expressed views that education ought to be a public service available to all. However, actions speak louder than words, and his venture into private and expensive education, whilst resigning from Birkbeck College, has now eclipsed an entire career as a respected expert in ethics.
The shouts began before Grayling had even opened his mouth. One interjection from the audience that gained cheers of approval neatly summed it up: “You should be staying in public education to defend it and instead you are deserting it to turn a profit.”
Grayling replied, in a terrible misjudgement of the audience demographic, “Do you believe any number of broken windows will change this government’s mind?” The response was a resounding “Yes!”
And this is the crux of the issue. Yes, we all need to respond to government cuts with a certain amount of pragmatism, but this does not have to be exercised at the expense of integrity. The public expect more integrity from Grayling than they would of most, given his status and expertise in moral argument. Instead his defeatist attitude, and decision to join ‘em if you can’t beat ‘em, flies in the face of what he seemed to stand for. In a matter of days, Grayling has irrevocably damaged his reputation as a rational, ethical thinker, who leads others to truth as all great philosophers can. The disappointment in him I have heard expressed in recent days has drowned out so much former respect; he will surely be remembered not as a thinker but as a sell-out.
Some excellent points were made at this event, though sadly not by Grayling. I had hoped a master of logical argument could muster a decent defence. Instead we heard from Christopher Frayling that the entire edifice of the profit-making sector in the arts rests on the public sector, a truth that unfortunately applies equally to Grayling’s new project, which will rely on the publicly funded education and career experience of its lecturers.
That red flare at my feet marked a lost opportunity: Grayling seemed to offer at one point to stay behind and discuss New College after the advertised event – his retort that an audience question about arts cuts damaging access (a fair and relevant enquiry) was ‘hijacking the debate’ was laughed down when someone yelled that he was hijacking education. As we trooped out accompanied by the scent of smoke, I heard the flare-throwers joking that they should follow Grayling down the street and throw shit at him. This would have been unnecessary: Grayling through his own actions is already thoroughly tarnished.