A man walks up to a brass band, and asks one of the musicians whether he can buy her trumpet. Confused by the request, the musician replies that she wasn’t planning to sell the instrument, but could be persuaded for the right price. She asks why the man is so keen on buying her trumpet. Is he perhaps a musician himself? “Oh no,” the man responds. “I only want it for the brass.”
I’d like to use this analogy to think about the value of a university education. The story is adapted from Bertolt Brecht’s Messingkauf dialogues, a series of observations and parables on theatrical theory that he began in 1938 but never finished*. Brecht was making a point about the differing criteria of value that might be held by an artist and their audience.
Right now is a good time to have this conversation, just as undergraduate students are about to find out their exam results. Soon our graduates will be launched into the job market and have to sell their capabilities to potential employers. To employ a metaphor that Brecht didn’t intend, they will have to blow their own trumpets. This does however depend upon them still having trumpets and knowing how to use them.
Throughout his career, Brecht was obsessed with the idea of how theatre could be used as a means of instruction. Sometimes this was an explicit aim, for example in his Lehrstücke, or learning plays. Other times it was intended to be subliminal, distracting the audience while ensuring that their subconcious absorbed the intended message**.
The challenge was that audiences don’t go to the theatre to learn something. They are there to be entertained, to relax, to see what all the fuss in the newspapers is about, to associate themselves with a political faction, or as a signifier of their intellectual credentials. Over dinner or in the workplace they could then tell friends and colleagues “Oh yes, I went to see that Brecht play the other night,” and offer some personal observations.
Surely, you might think, the problem for an academic isn’t the same as for a playwright or our trumpeter. The audience have come to university to learn. We perform in some way, whether that’s through lecturing, tutorials or other pedagogical forms. While we try to make our lectures engaging and entertaining, the performative aspects are very much secondary. The message is the important element; what we want to say is what the students want to hear.
Except that it isn’t. In a university, teaching is always taking place. Students are there because, by and large, they want to learn the material and pass their exams. This is not always for the intrinsic value of knowledge, although having some passion for the discipline certainly helps. Rather they need evidence that they have moved some material. They absorb, recite, then obtain a reward for having done so. For a brief period they have been the bearers of information which can be returned and assessed.
This is of course a cynical viewpoint and not meant as an insult to the many committed, dedicated students who care deeply about the subjects they study. But the commodification of higher education encourages them to think as customers. Teaching is simply part of the compact: we deliver information, they demonstrate that it was received, we get paid.
And how much brass can you get for a degree? Helpfully, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have produced a report where you can find out exactly how much previous graduates have benefitted from sitting a particular subject at a given university. This is being circulated as a tool to help students make an informed decision on how best to spend the loans they receive in order to pay for their tuition. It gets worse though; the UK government is determined that this be used as a measure of value-for-money, and even as a stand-in for teaching quality. These are evaluations based on brass, not music.
We understand the sinking feeling of the trumpeter every time a student asks us what they need to know to pass the exam, how to get a first in our module, or whether the assigned reading is compulsory. We feel it when our students select modules based on the previous cohort’s grades, whether the lecturer is perceived as a ‘hard’ marker, or if the assessment is of their preferred type (exams or coursework). We see it when the conversation about supporting a student begins not with “I want to understand this subject more deeply” but “I need to get a 2i”***. I don’t blame them for taking this approach; they have been led to believe that this is the purpose of a university education.
When academics teach material, we do it not for the necessity of saying something (although lecturers, like musicians, still need to get paid). We want our audience to feel something, to respond to the narratives we weave, and to act accordingly. When we fail to move them to value the story behind the information, something has gone wrong: with our own abilities as teachers, with a system that encourages purely functional attitudes towards learning, with the willingness of the audience to see beyond the original reason they might have turned up.
A university education is more than just a certificate that can be leveraged to obtain a better salaried job. If that’s all a graduate does with their degree then they are in the same place as our fictional trumpet buyer. Perhaps that’s all they wanted all along, which is itself a shame. But that’s not what got me into doing this job. I’m here for the music.
* I have of course modified it for didactic reasons, but that’s surely just being a good Brecht disciple. The original is Dialoge aus dem Messingkauf, and Messingkauf can be translated as ‘buying brass’.
** To a modern audience these efforts can seem forced or inappropriate, but at a time when the arts were being deployed by fascists for political indoctrination it was essential that the left fought back with its own tools. In universities we’re not playing for the same stakes.
*** For non-UK readers, a 2i (or ‘two-one’) is an upper second-class degree. In most universities it represents an average mark of around 60%, and shows that the student has learnt enough to have a basic understanding of the subject. A number of graduate employers stipulate this as a minimum requirement. It’s roughly equivalent to a 3.0 GPA in the North American system.