This text was collectively performed using a “people’s mic” in Lady Mitchell Hall, in place of the planned talk by David Willetts. Willetts was bundled off stage and students continue to occupy the space where he was meant to speak.
Dear David Willetts,
The future does not belong to you. This is an epistle which is addressed to you, but it is written for those who will come after us. Why? Because we do not respect your right to occupy the platform this evening. Your name is anathema to us. You are not a welcome guest because you come with a knife concealed beneath your cloak. Behind your toothy smiles, we have already seen the fixed gaze of the hired assassin. You have transgressed against all codes of hospitality. That is why we interrupt your performance tonight, because nothing is up for debate here; your mind is made up; you are not for turning. All your questioners have been planted. So we, too, have planted ourselves in your audience. We stole in quietly, without much fanfare - because we know your tactics – but, now that we are here, we will not wait to be told before we speak.
You have professed your commitment to the religion of choice but you leave us with no choice. You are a man who believes in the market and in the power of competition to drive up quality, but look to the world around you: your gods have failed. They were capricious gods and we do not mourn them, nor do we seek new ones.
Fools that we are, we took you at your word: so we are clambering into the driving seat because your steering is uncomfortable to us and your destination is not one of our choosing.
Even the very metaphor betrays you. So let us begin by activating the emergency brake: the University is no motor vehicle, to be souped up, ideologically re-tuned, intellectually re-fitted, cosmetically re-sprayed, and then sent out onto the highway, like some gaudy engine of the ‘knowledge economy’. The road itself is narrow; your eyes are fixed on a vanishing horizon which you will never quite reach. You have chosen a route which skirts carefully around all redoubts of human warmth and solidarity. Look elsewhere for your metaphors, David. We have no desire to be put into the driving seat. There are chairs enough in our libraries – would that there were more libraries – and these are the only seats of learning that we would wish to know. We will not used by you. We do not wish to ‘rate’ our teachers; we wish to learn from them. We are not consumers; we are students – and we will stand with our teachers on their picket lines.
Your soulless vision of efficiency; your mechanistic frameworks of ‘excellence’; your chummy invitation to hop on board and serve the needs of the Economy: all of this makes it clear to us that you have set out from a false premise, because guess what, David: you cannot quantify knowledge. Your craven desperation to do so tells us only one thing: you are trying to discipline us, but we will not be disciplined, because we are schooled in a different kind of pedagogy. You cannot steal our honey, David. It will go sour for you. You can process all the information that you wish, but your project is doomed to fail. We thought we should let you know – out of kindness, mainly. If you want to make us the processors of the information that is useful to you; if you want to smother the capacity for critical thought: so be it. We understand that you do not like to be told that you are wrong. So we understand that you do not want us to think too rigorously, or too critically. So, go on: lobotomise us. Tell us that we are beyond the pale. Make us over into the drones and ciphers of your economy. Your world will be the poorer. We will continue to nourish our traditions in the crevices and dark corners that you forget and that you cannot touch.
It is almost inappropriate to lay out to you the terms of your own wrongness. Has it not occurred to you that the ‘vocation’ of scholarship, far from leading to a profession, may, in fact, preclude it? Or is it that you are more of a capital calf than you are letting on? Is it that the Brave New World you are trying to inaugurate will, in fact, preclude scholarship?
We have tasted companionship in a way that you cannot know. We have a singleness of heart and, unlike you, we none of us believe that any of our possessions are our own. You will not find us in any of your statistical surveys; our ‘student experience’ cannot be measured by your instruments. Woe to every scorner and mocker who collects wealth and counts it. We are both measurably younger and immeasurably older than you. You have already lost. You have lost the initiative. You have lost the debate. You have lost your sense of decorum.
We are closer than you think. So it does not surprise us that you are worried. You can try to intimidate us; you can threaten to shoot us with rubber bullets; you can arrest us; you can imprison us; you can criminalise our dissent; you can blight a hundred thousand lives, slowly, and one-by-one, but you cannot break us, because we are more resolute, more numerous and more determined than you. And we are closer than you think, so it does not surprise us that you are scared. It is not that you lack our confidence – you never had it – the nub of the issue is this: you do not have confidence in yourself. Go home, David, and learn your gods anew.