We typically speak as if we choose our politics, but often politics choose us. We might tick off a D or R registering for an election, or declare in our academic work our position as "a Marxist" or "a feminist" or "a free marketer." But sometimes a situation confronts us, and our politics take shape in ways we might not have expected or predicted.
During the past few years, Stefan Collini, a British professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, has been drawn into the thick of controversies over higher education in England. In 2010 the Conservative-led coalition government, headed by David Cameron, pushed through a policy to replace public financing for postsecondary education with high fees, spurring student protests, alarm from faculty, and praise from conservative pundits. At the time, Collini wrote widely circulated pieces for the London Review of Books and The Guardian criticizing the shortsightedness of those moves. With them and his subsequent book, What Are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012), he became a major voice for the opposition, defending the need for public support of universities.
Collini already had a substantial scholarly reputation in intellectual history, illuminating figures such as Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, and John Stuart Mill in books that include Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850-1930 (Oxford, 1991) and Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford, 2006). Over two decades he has also built a formidable body of work as an essayist and reviewer. But his recent comments have put him on a main stage.
In England, as in many other European countries, higher education has traditionally been publicly financed, with minimal or no tuition. It is, as Collini explained to me in an interview last winter, "a more centralized and uniform system" than in the United States." Even elite universities like Cambridge and Oxford are essentially public institutions and open to all through national examinations. Unlike in America, fees are regulated by government, and "there were no fees until 1998, and very limited fees from 2006 onwards," he said. "Universities were still largely paid for out of public sources."
That quickly changed, however, after the 2010 election. A committee chaired by Lord Browne, a former chief executive of BP (once British Petroleum), had been commissioned before the election, with bipartisan support. Its main recommendation was to remove the cap on university tuition and allow institutions to assess their own rates. The new government largely accepted the report, and the cap for fees jumped from £3,000 to £9,000, or from about $4,700 to $14,100—not extraordinary to American eyes, but a fundamental change to the British.
Collini proceeded to dissect the problems with the plan, one being that the report had been compiled through an unusual, if not shoddy, process. Such committees customarily issue a policy paper that is then debated, but "the Browne committee and the future Conservative government had exchanged views, shall we say," Collini told me. Then the policy was simply put in place, so "the government had, without real public discussion, removed a large part of the public funding of the universities."
Another problem is that it's unclear whether the new system saves money. In fact, it might cost more than the previous one. In Collini's analysis, the Browne report was patently ideological, "fundamentally to make universities more responsive to so-called 'market forces.'" A further irony is that, although Conservatives had claimed that the new policies would introduce price competition, almost all universities have raised their fees to the maximum, £9,000.
Besides his criticisms, Collini has unapologetically defended the cultural and intellectual role of universities. As he remarked, "we shouldn't underestimate how much members of the general public outside universities expect intellectual matters to be what universities ought to explore."
Even "people from the business world with whom I've spoken don't want the justification of the university to be given entirely in terms of the percentage points of the GDP," he added. Rather, they "value the capacity to analyze and present a case, cultural awareness, the ability to write—all those things that are better formed by doing traditional academic subjects than the more narrowly vocational ones."
Collini's LRB essays went viral, circulated not only in Britain but also around the world, as other countries have dealt with similar pressures. Collini himself has mixed feelings about the response: "I can't say this has been an altogether enjoyable experience. It's a very rough-and-tumble world, in which accuracy in reporting plays a small part, and partisan affinities play a large part."
Yet he has also been encouraged and even moved, for instance when, after he gave a talk at a literary festival, "a man came up and asked me to sign copies of my book for his sons. He said, 'You give them hope.'"
Most critics of Collini's generation—born in the 1940s and receiving their Ph.D.'s in the 1970s—embraced literary theory. Trained in history, Collini instead brings the tools of that discipline to the field of critical writing, explaining a writer's views in the context of his or her times. For example, he begins his introduction to the Canto Classics edition of C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures," an essay about the division between the sciences and the humanities, with the story of Snow's 1959 lecture on the topic at Cambridge, elaborating how Snow was responding to the scene there, particularly to the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, as well as to larger concerns in British culture, dating back to the fracturing of knowledge that arose during the Romantic period and debates about literary education, notably between Thomas Huxley and Arnold, during the Victorian era. We usually take Snow to be talking simply about the contemporary research university, but Collini reconstructs the full intellectual context.
Though Collini turns to the more empirical ground of history rather than theory, he shares with critics of his generation a sensitivity to the difficulties of interpretation. As he emphasized in our conversation, "Once you start to unearth the history a bit more, what you see starts to become more variegated. The transmission of ideas is uneven and might have loops, bumps, gaps, intermissions, or resumptions." It also usually differs from commonplace views, and Collini works to demythologize those. Absent Minds, for instance, counters "the feeling that, in the United States as in Britain, true intellectuals are to be found in some other culture, very often thought to be in France," as Collini put it. In fact, Britain has had a distinctive tradition of intellectuals, including philosophers like A.J. Ayer and writers like George Orwell. The trait that runs through that tradition is a questioning of the very concept of the intellectual.
Edmund Wilson is frequently cited in the United States as an exemplar of the public intellectual. In his influential 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals (Basic Books), Russell Jacoby argued that public intellectuals have waned with the rise of the suburbs and the expansion of higher education, and that independent figures like Wilson have gone extinct. Collini provides a different perspective in an essay in Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (Oxford, 2008), which starts with the sentence, "Edmund Wilson is an object of fantasy." He proceeds to show how Wilson was an old-fashioned man of letters even in his own time and had quirky, not always public interests. Moreover, he was out of fashion by midcentury, when much of his writing had gone out of print. He gained a second life only after publishers like Jason Epstein, who founded Anchor paperbacks in the 1950s, reprinted his earlier work. That suggests that the public intellectual is as much a product of the efforts of publishing as individual aspirations.
I asked Collini his view of the "last intellectuals" argument, and he replied, "I am not a doomsayer who believes that there was a golden age, or that intellectuals have come to an end." Most previous critics, like Eliot, were hardly public or popular, he said. "At the time, it would have looked more like writing for minority audiences who were deeply unpopular." In fact, "the success that we think we find in earlier intellectuals is often a retroactive creation."
One could see Collini himself as a public intellectual, but when I mentioned that, he demurred: "I ought to start by saying that I am an academic and a scholar, and my life has been shaped by working in the university." He added, "I don't think we should kid ourselves that writing for the TLS or LRB is writing for some fictional 'general public.' It's a nonspecialized but still extremely sophisticated readership."
Perhaps the better distinction is the crossover critic. Many of the people we call public intellectuals are academics who occasionally cross over to more-public venues. Their skill is in inhabiting both spheres, drawing from the scholarly well while talking in commodious ways. It is tempting to see the public side as more genuine, but Wilson himself offered the caveat that commercial magazines expect "fashions of the month or week" and foster mechanical writing, rejecting original thinking just "as the machines that make motor parts reject outsizes." Contrary to its poor reputation, academe has the benefit of mitigating most venal pressures as well as providing a knowledge base.
When we look at people's careers, we tend to connect the dots, with successful careers forming a steady, upward arc. We might see Collini's career that way, as he has constructed a picture of British thought and criticism from the 19th century to the 20th and moved from young scholar to Cambridge don who comments in The Times Literary Supplement.
But close up, it is not usually so neat. I asked Collini about some of the threads running through his writing, and he responded, "Somebody reviewing Absent Minds said that it's clear, going all the way back to Liberalism and Sociology: L.T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England, 1880-1914 (his first book, appearing in 1979), that Collini had a master narrative of the rise of liberalism in mind. I don't recognize that in those books, but I'd also have to say, autobiographically, Collini had no very clear idea in his mind, certainly not any kind of 'master narrative.'"
He ventured that "an element of countersuggestibility" has informed his work. While many historians were talking about "history from below," he dealt with major figures, and while a number of British historians of his generation espoused Marxism, he kept his distance from "imposed group positions." Perhaps most strikingly, he turned away from the discipline of history, migrating to literature.
After Ph.D. work at Cambridge in the early 1970s, Collini wrote on and taught the history of social science at the University of Sussex, producing Liberalism and Sociology as well as several co-written works, examining the ungainly intellectual world before the formation of current disciplines. But he grew restless, finding that "in many ways, my own strongest affinities and attractions were not to social and political thought but to literary and cultural criticism." He moved to Cambridge in 1986 to take a position in the English department, where he has been since, rising from lecturer to professor.
A pivotal moment was writing Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait (1988; revised edition 2008) for the Oxford University Press's Past Masters series, which marked his shift to literature as well as to a more crossover style. The series has a set format and provides accessible overviews. "That meant that I had to write in a slightly less ploddingly scholarly manner than I had. I didn't have to write a footnote for everything I said and pin together quotations from sources. So it was liberating stylistically," Collini told me.
Around that time, he also started writing regularly for venues like LRB, with, he stresses, "a concern with engaging the reader, which a great many academic writers don't show much sign of."
Doing literary journalism, though, does not reflect a conversion of the kind many American critics professed during the 1990s, when they renounced theory and embraced more-personal or accessible writing. It is more of a symbiosis, and Collini remains rooted in history. His current research involves digging through the archives of Penguin Books, founded in 1935 by Allen Lane and taking off in the post-World War II years in England.
The political climate in England also prompted a turn. Though Collini had protested the Vietnam War at one point, he recollected that "in my 20s, I spent more of my time trying to understand late-Victorian Britain than I did trying to understand my own contemporary political situation." However, "my own sense of political identity has grown since the 1980s," and "one of the things that sharpened it was the advent of Thatcherism." With the softened edges of memory, Margaret Thatcher has come to be a revered figure, but in her time she prompted a good deal of controversy as she worked to dismantle the welfare state. Her policies were responsible for some of the first cuts in public services, including higher education.
Collini himself had benefited from the postwar expansion of the welfare state. He grew up in the southern suburbs of London, "but I was not in a genteel family—both my parents struggled to a fairly fragile, lower-middle-class level of prosperity," he told me. He did well on exams and "was a beneficiary of the very selective public-education system in Britain at that time," going to Cambridge on scholarship.
It was a historically unique situation, he noted: "I'm lucky in my generation. If I had been born 15 or 20 years earlier, from my social background I certainly wouldn't have had most of the opportunities that I have had." And, given the cuts enacted in the Thatcher era, "if I'd been born 15 or 20 years later, certainly in Britain, I think the road would have been much rockier in the lack of jobs and declining working conditions in universities."
That awareness motivates Collini's current criticism of higher-education policy in Britain. The personal is the political, but the political also arises from witnessing how such policies affect those around us, and those who come after us.