Born in 1949, – a first wave ‘Baby Boomer’ – my generation has been nurtured on lashings of cod liver oil, orange juice, milk at school, high quality health care, social and welfare services, the anticipation of full employment plus a higher standard of living and longer life expectancy than our parents and, above all this, a free education at primary, secondary and even tertiary levels: a blessed and lucky generation.
Given this generational context, the views that I held when I bowled up for my first job in the Politics Department at York University in 1976, were perhaps fairly predictable. I believed very passionately (and still do) that Education should be organised as a public service rather than as a commodity for sale in a market place – education is quite simply ‘priceless’. I also shared the generational view of conservatives, social democrats and liberal politicians alike, – the famous Butskellite consensus – that education would prove a powerful engine of social mobility, corrosive in its effects on existing class structures.
But across my 4 decades working as a university teacher, academic life has changed markedly and some of these changes are at the heart of what I want to discuss here. I draw on personal recollections rather than the kinds of evidence which typically inform academic accounts; so this is my first stab at amateur auto-ethnography.
The changes I want to consider include, the shifting balance between teaching and research in academic life and, the creeping – then galloping – commercialism and the retreat from notions of public service in the academy.
My career, ‘brilliant’ or otherwise, reflects a brief post 1945 window of opportunity provided by an unprecedented amalgam of economic, political and sociocultural circumstances. That window is closing rapidly, if not firmly slammed shut, leaving those currently entering academic life, confronting a much bleaker landscape of academic opportunity, autonomy and freedom.
My Brilliant Career
But let’s start with a brief “Cook’s Tour” of my academic working life. It all began in the early 1950s when, aged four and a quarter, I went to the local primary school about 150 yards from my parents’ house. Here’s a picture of me at school with my sister when I was 7. It remains the only studio photograph of me taken to date, but in the mid 1950s paper shortages were so acute (as newspaper historians will confirm), that the photo was mounted on the back of an advert for orange squash.
In 1960, I passed the 11+ and attended the local grammar school. I left ahead of my 16th birthday, but in 1968 I enrolled at the local technical college where I surprised myself – and many others – by getting three A Levels. Then it was 6 years at Hull University for a degree in Politics and Sociology and a PhD in political theory supervised by Bhiku Parekh [an inspirational teacher and scholar].