There’s much controversy around the philosopher A.C. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities, a project for a new private university which would charge its students an eye-watering £18,000 a year in fees. At a time when the public university sector is in such confusion and crisis (much exacerbated by the managerial brutalism which now dominates it), one can certainly see the temptation to get out altogether; but Grayling’s scheme will, of course, simply entrench educational inequality even faster than the current government is doing so.
But suppose we take the Grayling scheme as a metaphor rather than a reality, as a heuristic tool rather than a politically obnoxious fact. We might then think of William Morris, say, not just as a colourful individual Victorian, but rather as a ‘new college of humanities’ in his own right. What might a student signing up to this Morrisian programme for the humanities actually study?
Well, there would be some busy preliminary learning of languages, which would include Icelandic, Middle English and Anglo-Saxon. There would be practical hands-on sessions in the various ‘decorative arts’ (pattern design, weaving and tapestry, stained glass, calligraphy and so on), accompanied by a rigorous course in the history of all of these crafts across the centuries. There would be intensive modules on Victorian history, painting and poetry (with some attention to twentieth-century developments in the latter two fields).
In the advanced phase of the programme, the languages would be put to work, in the study of sagas, romances and Beowulf. Craft work would move from basic skills and history to original composition in all those different modes. There would be a lively course in the history of socialism and Marxist theory, followed by a survey of utopian writing from Thomas More to Kim Stanley Robinson. Study of medieval romance would eventually give way to more advanced work on the contemporary genre of fantasy writing, from Morris’s own late romances to Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet. And, as with craft work, one would be expected to contribute original work of one’s own in the genres of utopia and fantasy as well as study the masterpieces of the past.
All this to be accompanied by brisk sessions of rowing up and down the Thames and regular participation in political marches and demonstrations to keep body healthy as well as mind; and our three undergraduate years in the Morrisian College of Humanities will, I believe, have been time well spent.