"And what do you do for a living...?"
I might be alone in this but is anyone else struck rigid with anxiety when asked to explain what we do for a living? The summer holidays are a particularly apprehensive time when it comes to answering this question for those who want to know exactly what we do in universities. Encounters with itinerant Brits holidaying in the sun are among the most excruciating episodes of this kind of status anxiety but weddings or family functions can be just as bad. It's that awful moment when it is time to offer some dinner table account of what being an academic entails. Usually, I try and fob off such queries and just say that I am a 'teacher'.
On one occasion this deflection strategy placed me in hotter water. I was on my way to give a talk at the University of Wolverhampton and running late. I jumped into a mini cab at the station and gave the address. The driver asked, "So, what do you do for a living then?" "I am a teacher," I replied expecting this answer to satisfy his curiosity. "I bloody 'ate teachers," he said thumping the steering wheel, glancing up at me in the rear-view mirror. He explained how his son had been excluded from school by middle class idiots who called themselves... teachers! I tried to retract the answer. "Well, actually I am not that kind of teacher... I am a university teacher." The damage was irreparable. Arriving at the Walsall campus he took my money and drove off without making eye contact.
Of course we are teachers but I
suspect that there is something else going on. Being involved in or committed to the 'life of the mind' is still viewed as mildly indecent in England. It's a cliché to say that we live in a thoroughly anti-intellectual culture but I feel its grip tightening. The suspicion of intellectual life is held across social divisions. A friend of my father's used to say that his measure of a person's importance is how useful they'd be if the atom bomb dropped and the world had to be made anew. According to his logic philosophers are dispensable but bricklayers are not. A not so new vocationalism has become institutionalised through the changes in student finance. Students rightly need to see some return on their investment in university fees and student loans. While pragmatism doesn't completely govern curiosity in our universities, it is a very powerful force.
In other ways, the upper middle classes have a longer-standing instrumental approach to education. A few summers ago I had a few glimpses into this world in the south of France among the British expats in Nice and Cannes. Our neighbours in London, Caroline and Alan, had a curtain-making business but these were not ordinary furnishings and they offered an up-market service to the rich and famous. They also had a business in the south of France and we often stayed with them there as they had become surrogate grandparents to our children. I would sometimes accompany my neighbour Caroline on fitting expeditions and help out in return for their kindness. At some