Mr Maskell’s essay, together with Mr Robinson’s note, was originally published in The Gadfly (Vol. VI, no. I, 1983), [1] and is reproduced here by kind permission of the authors. The essay enters an important caveat to one of Leavis’s key themes: the university. Mr Maskell raises the radical question of whether the university, as we know it, could conceivably perform the function of fostering an educated public that Leavis wished it to have. His answer is that it is not merely incapable of furthering this end but positively inimical to its achievement because of the nature of academic specialism, which ‘denies that thought in any but a debased form – “popularizings” – can have public character’. The evidence incontestably bears him out. Far from creating the climate of informed opinion Leavis desiderated, the university, expanded on an industrial scale in the three and half decades since Mr Maskell’s essay appeared to include the polytechnics and even teacher training colleges, has helped to deprived the public of its prescriptive compass, multiplied jargon and cliché, and ‘hardened…wordy illiteracy’. Mr Maskell shows that these pernicious developments are an inevitable consequence of its ethos, and what can be expected of it is more of the same. R.S.


Duke Maskell


So said F.R. Leavis (in the last Human World, to its first editor), and he meant – as I do, quoting him – “the problem of determining and saying what, in the face of the apparently irresistible menace that nevertheless has to be fought, can be profitably done now”. It is apparently irresistible – “the drive of a whole civilization” – and it has to be fought – “one is alive”. But what can be done that isn’t merely “quixotic and desperate”? Taking advantage of “the cuts” to take early retirement? Taking half-retirement and opening a publishing business, without any money? Giving up criticism (taking Wittgenstein’s advice) for the short story (was that part of it)? Giving up belief in criticism and transferring it to poetry, pop music, mysticism or anything else at all that looks as if it might have a depth of popular appeal? Carrying – “soldiering” – on? Looking to the schools, parliament, the legal or medical professions, the church to provide what the universities can’t? Looking to the universities to provide it? What, between the necessary and the apparent impossibility, can be done?

No one – inside the university – felt the necessity as Leavis did; and who outside but Lawrence? And no one faced so staunchly (and who described more tellingly?) the appearance of the impossibility:

There’s no redeeming the democratic mass university. The civilization it represents has, almost overnight, ceased to believe in its own assumptions and recoils nihilistically from itself…

There professional self-sufficiency, mere habit and coterie conceit might seem to dominate. It would at all events be the extreme of unrealism to hope for an ardent general response to even the most persuasive appeal…the ambition and success hardened are conscienceless and, in their will to power, prestige and privilege, formidably coagulative.

But who in the face of it – the coagulation: marvellous word! – was so dauntless? So when he says, “look this fact in the face and insist on it – in order to go on – and say, ‘The resolution must be accordingly…’”, one listens. His resolution in the face of the fact (and no one but Lawrence has done more to make it a fact) was to transform the real university within and despite the university – and outside it – from a “mere aggregation of individuals” into “an educated public – a public that statesmen, administrators, editors and newspaper proprietors can respect and rely on as well as fear, a public that is conscious of itself as such.” The university as an essential means of re-establishing an educated public: and an educated public as the essential means of combating modern enlightenment and “the quantitative civilization”, of keeping the present we all live in, in touch with the past that lives in us. “We can but fight for the life that grows in us.”

But what an appearance of impossibility: that the educated public which couldn’t maintain itself in existence when times, and the university, were more friendly, should now reconstitute itself from its own remnants and impose its own sense of itself as an authoritative public upon the world around it “commanding recognition as an impressive reality”, so impressive that statesmen, administrators, editors and newspaper proprietors respect, rely on and fear it! And all this, Leavis says, not only not “merely quixotic and desperate” but “a matter of practical, and necessary good sense”!

It is testimony with the truth of, at least, its author’s faithfulness to his own life and calling, Marlow’s truth, and Neckett’s, and – if one can say so: one hopes so – an English truth. But is it simply true as well as honourably true to Leavis’s own life? The question is beset with difficulties and delicacies.

What can be said for it is what Leavis himself said, retorting (that is the right word) to another doubter, the editor of The Human World:

Except from a university it wouldn’t have been possible to launch The Human World and keep it alive for four years, just as except for Cambridge it wouldn’t, forty years ago, have been possible to launch and establish Scrutiny

Such an enterprise calls for ease and closeness of appropriate collaboration at the centre: where could the conditions for that be found except at a university? It entails, if it is to continue, the forming of a public; where are the promoters to find access and the propagation-centres for this if not at universities?…

Genuine concern for the existence an educated class can’t be separated from concern for the university.

If a real educated class can’t be brought into existence in and by the universities, where and by what means can it? Leavis’s question, pressed home, “Where else?”

In the schools, staffed by people educated at the universities and polytechnics? The Church – of the N.E.B and the A.S.B.? Parliament – at Question Time? The political parties, the Inns of Court, the War Office? The commercial, or the uncommercial Press? Compared with what alternative isn’t Leavis’s resolution practical, elementary good sense? An educated class will be restored in Britain by the universities or not at all. What other means, is there, to hand?

For even though it is conceivable that another Human World or Scrutiny, a Gadfly, say, should be started up by someone outside, or half-outside, the university’s employ, in a town that hasn’t, to its name, so much as a polytechnic, it is absolutely inconceivable that it should be started up by someone who is outside the university altogether, someone who isn’t, whether in its employ or not, essentially of it. If not by means of the university, not at all. Where else? Nowhere.

But that doesn’t mean that Leavis’s retorts aren’t open to retort in turn; for if it is incredible that Parliament – or the Pope – should be a means of restoring an educated public to England it is no less incredible that the university should.

Amongst all the things Leavis does say about the university and what’s wrong with it (“I testify out of unforgettable experience”), one thing he doesn’t say or show any sign of being tempted to say is that the university, before as well as after Robbins, is itself one of the forms of modern life that has helped to destroy an educated public and prevent its restoration. For what else is academic specialism but the denial that thought, in anything but a debased form – “popularizings” – can have public character? It attacks the organism’s nervous system. It destroys the connections between thought and the man who thinks and the connections between one man and another. It attacks common sense and the common language that holds the public together as a public. The academic is a denial of the public (which is why the academy hated Leavis, the man who wanted to make it the-thing-it-was-not, its opposite).

But that’s a truth which, it seems to me, Leavis never grasped, He spoke as if what was wrong with the university was just that it wasn’t what it ought to be, not good enough: “to make the university what it ought to be – something (that is) more than a collocation of specialist departments”. But to speak of it needing to be more than a collocation of specialisms is to do nothing like justice to the malignity of the specialisms (“There’s no room in Higher Education for Amateurs,” said the Chairman of the visiting C.N.A.A. Panel), their malignity towards the only sort of thought that can be public. The true objection to Leavis’s “belief in the university” is not merely that it isn’t a credible means to the end of creating an educated public but that it is a means absolutely incompatible with that end. The existence of each – of the modern academic university and of an educated public – presupposes the non-existence of the other, just as, exactly as, the existence of immoveable objects presupposes the non-existence of irresistible forces, and vice versa. Either/or, there is no middle way, no making the university “more” than a collection of specialist departments, only unmaking it as that, getting itself to conceive and organize itself as something quite different. Until the modern university of academic specialists has either disappeared or lost its influence there will be no educated public in England.

And what is to bring this about? Only this – to say that it is so. The doing of thought and speech (“Recognition is everything”). When the university recognizes that it isn’t the university and in its present form never will be, then and only then will it be on the way to becoming a university, something worth “believing in”, a green shoot. Meanwhile it is a lifeline – but choking us.

Note by Ian Robinson

If it’s a question of probability, I can’t see what more we have to expect from the university than from church, press &ct. The “doing” of thought and speech has to be everywhere. And public is public, not academic. But I plan to offer my own retort to the great Leavis to this magazine during Mr Maskell’s editorship, if it gets that far. I.R.


  1. Published by Brynmill. For current Brynmill and Edgeways publications, see http://edgewaysbooks.com/ which the reader is warmly recommended to visit.