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I will not be sniffy about this non-Oxbridge university

To ———, a non-Oxbridge university in England, with the Daughter, for its open day. To think this was the girl whose first spoken word was “fuck”. (She would pick up a book, drop it on the floor and then say the word. Where on earth did she learn such behaviour?). She has come so far. But a gruelling encounter with a Latin “A” Level paper has made her change her preferred university course from Classics to philosophy. Also, because her state school does not teach Latin at A-level, she has been obliged to take these lessons at a well-known public school – there’s a long-standing connection between the two – she has developed serious misgivings about the products of the private education system. Which pleases me, for even though (or rather, because) I am such a product myself, I have identical misgivings and consider such a system both the symptom and the cause of the most pressing problems this country faces. 

Mindful matter

Yet although she is more intelligent than I was at her age and very possibly more intelligent than I am now, just not as well-read (but, as it happens, even more of a grammar Nazi than I am), her state-school education, excellent though it was, means an Oxbridge place is far from a foregone conclusion, so other universities must be considered. She is mindful, though, of my own outrageous snobbery when it comes to tertiary education and makes me promise that I will not be sniffy about ———. Well, what can one say? I begin to question these days the value of a university education tout court, given the amount of debt young people are saddled with and the rotten future that awaits them when they leave it. Can’t she just form a band? 

Anyway, we turn up at ——— and go to the philosophy display. In a room about the size of an ordinary living-room, there are a few display boards up with pictures of various philosophers (Wittgenstein, Descartes, Nietzsche), brief accounts of the lecturers and professors’ careers and so on. It is a warm day and the town of ——— is hilly, and I am unfit and wearing clothes for colder weather, so am sweating freely. 

There is a lone lecturer standing in the middle of the room fielding questions from those who care to ask them. They look so young! After a gander at the display, I shove my daughter towards him and suggest she asks questions about the course. It’s not an idle interest – I gave her Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained a couple of years ago, and wrangling with the mind-body question has kept her awake more nights than it probably has Daniel Dennett. 

The lecturer lists some of the great thinkers they cover. He mentions someone whose name he pronounces “day CAR”. Oh Christ, I think, and start to sweat some more. While my circulatory system makes a noise like a kettle coming to the boil, I wonder whether I should Say Something. Eventually I crack. “Sorry, did you say ‘day CAR’?” “Yes,” he says, “is the name familiar to you? Do you have vague memories of him?” OK, gloves off. “I think you’ll find it’s pronounced ‘day CART’.” “Oh, do you know the pronounciation [sic] of medieval French?” “Yes I do, as it happens, and anyway he’s not medieval, he’s at least early modern period, you berk.” (I don’t say the last two words. But perhaps they hang in the air.) 

Afterwards, I apologise to the Daughter, but she says she, too, was dismayed at his pronunciation and added that she also knew that “pronounciation” is not a word. We have a thoughtful pub lunch before going to the philosophy lecture – which, as it turns out, is good, almost thrilling and makes me wish I was studying the subject myself. (In reply to a later text from her mother, I reply “your question is philosophically meaningless”. Philosophy is fun.

Our survey says

Later, there is the big room with All The Stands, and we cram our pockets with bumf. As we are about to go, we are beckoned over by a stand that turns out to be devoted to students’ health and well-being. “Could you take part in a survey?” we’re asked. “Just write down the thing you’re most worried about when starting university and stick it on that board over there.” The Daughter gives that blank look I know so well: it’s when she is confronted by idiocy.

I have a look at what’s already on the board. “Not fitting in.” “Being lonly [sic] :(”. And many variations thereof. There is some shocking handwriting on display, too. I beckon the Daughter over and invite her to contribute. “I refuse to participate in this tomfoolery,” she says quietly. “Well, I know what I was most frightened of when I went to university,” I say, so I write “not getting laid” on a Post-it note and stick it on the board.

By Nicholas Lezard

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in Honey, I shrunk the Tories