The freedom to be exploited: reflections on The History Man
This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of ‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975). This post is about why we should contemplate the past, real or imagined. My next post will compare the university as we know it today with Bradbury’s fictional University of Watermouth.
At a recent all-staff admissions conference the marketers proclaimed we must adopt ‘future-facing’ branding and ‘future trends’ as much as possible. We were told we can no longer rely on our old experience because, ‘what we’re facing is new’. I wondered what they meant exactly and was reminded of my late father-in-law who, ever hopeful, would often ask ‘are you looking forward?’ as he earnestly sought affirmation that something better really would turn up tomorrow. In the case of the marketers, however, they’re leaving nothing to chance as they drive the admissions agenda onwards to a brighter, winning future. At the all-staff conference we were regaled with phrases such as, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘competing head to head with the big boys’ and ‘rules of the game’, and with sporting metaphors. We were told, ‘we HAVE that winning horse’ and as the image flashed across the screen, I was struck by a strong similarity between the horse racing world and universities; both are prone to grand narrative and the glamour of status.
It is exactly this type of future-facing discourse, which, according to Susan Clegg, valorizes only certain forms of reflexivity and limits the ways in which we might think about the future in higher education (Clegg, 2010). I’m concerned about where the compelling narrative of the marketers is taking us, not least because it rules out the option of reflecting on what has gone before, an exercise that just might prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past.
So, it was at a recent Research in Higher Education & Society Group session that we stopped the clock and took the time to reflect on Malcolm Bradbury’s iconic novel, ‘The History Man’, his ‘darker and more troubled’ take on higher education in the post-war world (Lodge, 2008). Whether or not ‘The History Man’ is a true account of higher education in 1972 – or indeed, of one particular university – we found it a very uncomfortable read.
The Vintage edition cover blurb describes the protagonist, Howard Kirk as, ‘the trendiest of radical tutors at a fashionable campus university. Timid Vice-Chancellors pale before his threats of disruption. Reactionary colleagues are crushed beneath his merciless Marxist logic. Women are drawn by his progressive promiscuity.’
The exchange at our meeting was animated. The veteran male professor, who first read the novel in 1975, was shocked by his second reading – “the abuse of power which was not clear then is abundantly clear now”. The male postgraduate researcher reflected on Kirk’s manipulative strategy centred on fulfilling his desire for control and sexual conquest. To the female researcher, Kirk is a manifestation of what society was like in those days; it was not as unreal as some would imagine. For the male early career researcher, Kirk, as a strategist and bully, serves as a warning from history of what not to become. Even so, the female early career researcher insisted there are characters in higher education today with those same traits as Kirk. The male senior lecturer talked of the ’70s as the beginning of individualism – “Bradbury was constructing sexual and social morality and the bigger picture gave rise to Kirk’s position as new history was being written”. The male international post-doctoral researcher could not comprehend the idea of inviting your students to your home – “this makes for a bad relationship”.
Bradbury described Kirk as, ‘a rogue of rogues, but at least he believed that.’ So, there was self-awareness. Bradbury also stated, ‘No doubt in 1979 he would have voted for Thatcher, and in 1997 for Blair. He would now be enjoying his vice-chancellorship at Batley Canalside University, and the life peerage has been a source of the greatest pleasure. But at least Howard believed – even if it was chiefly for his own advantage – all the things that still do matter. He believed in history, society, philosophy, ideas, human progress, mental discovery, all that’s left of the Enlightenment Project’.
David Lodge describes ‘The History Man’ as having the ‘power to grip even the resistant reader’ (Lodge, 2008). I did find it gripping. Like ‘Stoner’ (John Williams, 1965), it is difficult to put down. However, whilst both novels are adroitly crafted, they provoke very different emotional reactions. A part of my response to ‘The History Man’ is one of repugnance for Kirk, in a similar vein to the revulsion that I experienced when I saw the 1969 road movie ‘Easy Rider’, another iconic representation of that ‘progressive’ period.
Our group discussion reflected on the false promise of those times, when women were free; free that is, to be exploited. I understand this interpretation but worry about the notion of putting the exploitation down to the emergent individualism of the ’70s. A consequence of doing so is the temptation not only to view Kirk’s behaviour as a thing of the past but to blame it on a specific ideology, like it wouldn’t happen here. A similar explanation is used to excuse the conduct of marauding celebrities such as Stuart Hall and Max Clifford, convicted for assaulting girls and young women – it was the culture of the time. Ah well, that explains it, then.
Kirk is not actually asserting his right to self-realisation as he rapes (yes, rapes) his female colleague. His declaration immediately afterwards that the act is inevitable, (‘It was bound to happen…Marx arranged it’) may be tied up in a clever narrative about history (his victim had earlier named him as ‘The History Man’) but that should in no way detract from the violence and abuse committed.
I would like nothing more than to say that the era of the amoral male egoist and predator is over but let’s not kid ourselves.
Must history perpetually repeat itself?
‘Welcome back to the History Man – first commissioned by the Sunday Times, published in Liar’s Landscape, Malcolm Bradbury’ http://malcolmbradbury.com/fiction_the_history_man.html
Clegg, S. (2010) “Time future – the dominant discourse of higher education.” Time & Society 19(3): 345-364
‘Lord of misrule’ David Lodge, Saturday 12th Jan 2008 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/12/fiction1