I think that the withdrawal of the grant and the implication of student loans necessarily limits people that want vocational careers and produces a generation of people who feel that only the purpose of education is to earn money. And you already see it happening, right? It’s changed the vibe of campus and it changes the kind of people that want to go to college and I think it was done deliberately.
I think it was done deliberately to rid us of all these troublesome thinkers and artists, and of conscientious people. And I think that if Thatcher could have done it she would have done, because I remember a really famous bit of television—well I don’t think it was famous, but it was famous to me:
It was in about 1988 and she was being shown around a women’s college in Oxford, and she said to this girl, ‘What are you studying?’ And it was just broadcast as just a bit of like, filler footage. Thatcher went, ‘What are you studying?’ and the girl said, ‘Ancient Norse literature.’ And Mrs. Thatcher went: ‘Ooh, what a luxury.’
And this wasn’t pointed up as meaning anything, but it does mean something. What it means is that the Prime Minister attached no intrinsic value to knowledge of another culture, or of the past, or of its language. And its a cliché to say, but you understand the modern world through its echoes in the past.
And obviously, there’s not a huge financial future in studying ancient Norse literature, but we do need people that know about these things, and the ‘trickle-down’ effect of their knowledge enriches a culture and the people in it. And to say that, what she said—’What a luxury’—indicates that if she didn’t believe there was a direct financial value to it, that it was of no value and the pursuit of that information should not be subsidised by the state, and that’s wrong and I think it was done deliberately.
In the end, [Lord of the Rings, a film trilogy that wouldn’t exist without Tolkien who studied English literature at Oxford on scholarship funds,] that made a lot of money, didn’t it? But you know what, the problem with that is then you’re being drawn into fighting the war on their terms:
When Battersea Arts Centre was threatened with closure because of its withdrawal of funding from Wandsworth Council and when the Bush Theatre was threatened with closure because of the withdrawal of its grant from the Arts Council, the bigwigs from both those places engaged with their detractors by saying, ‘But look, we developed Jerry Springer: The Opera and that went on to the West End and made loads of money for businesses,’ and the Bush went, ‘We developed this play about whatsit, and so-and-so’s in it,’ and whatever.
But actually, what they should have said was: ‘Look, we put on, for a week, a bloke blowing into a balloon and dragging it around on the floor and making funny sounds. And that didn’t transfer to the West End because it has no commercial future, but it is inherently worthwhile.’ That’s what they should have said: ‘And that’s why it needs funding.’
But instead they engage on their [detractors’] terms and they’ve already lost because they talk to these people as if the only point of the art were to make money for shops in the West End because people on the way to the theatre were buying crisps. It’s like you’ve already lost because instead of going, ‘Well we feel this has an inherent value in and of itself,’ you’ve gone: ‘Yes, but look, it made loads of money!’ So it’s a problem.
British writer and comedian Stewart Lee, creator of Jerry Springer: The Opera, discusses current levels of student debt and how it is affecting the careers of potential comedians and other writers/artists/performers. He also discusses the importance of arts funding and grants and the need to defend art for art’s sake.
Lee studied English at St. Edmund Hall in Oxford on a full grant between 1986 and 1989. The Lord of the Rings mention comes from the fact that Tolkien himself studied English at Oxford under a scholarship.