September 6, 2014


Sheffield University’s Open Day. The outdoors ‘Ambassadors’ smiled in their translucent white rain capes, embarrassed that the heavens too had chose to open on this of all days. But one should never judge a university by its weather. We were toured in leaky buses from one accommodation complex to another, and introduced to scrubbed up kitchens and rooms by enthusiastic second year representative who could probably hack it as successful estate agents in their post-education afterlife. This was the ‘Universityland, Sheffield Experience’, and the current students were clearly thrilled by the ride. The academics, for their part, promoted degree schemes and options, research and teaching ratings, and student satisfaction and employment statistics with an evangelical zeal that bordered on desperation. (We are, now, all salespersons.) Nevertheless, the university appears to deliver on its promises:


There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about open-plan libraries with coffee shops on every level, glitzy Guild buildings with subterranean supermarkets, WIFI-saturated campuses, and whatever other accessories that are heaped upon students these days to help them feel ‘satisfied’. I, for one, was never a satisfied student. How could I have been? Education was a humbling encounter with the limitations of my prowess and the breadth and depth of a discipline that my intellect could accommodate in only the smallest part. Oh, the buildings, the teaching, and the curriculum (or what little there was) were more than adequate for the task, even if I wasn’t. But they were merely the shell. The pearl, about which I heard no mention today, was intangible, internal, immaterial, and enduring. In part, it was an appreciation of: the value of education as such; the transformative power of understanding; the necessity of rigour and integrity; and of the responsibility that I’d been given for the future custodianship of the knowledge handed down to me by my betters and elders. That same voracious dissatisfaction brought me to where I am today. In this respect, I hope the School of Art’s students will always be unsatisfied, educationally. I could wish them no better.


After the sales pitch, we visited the university’s Alfred Denny Museum – an ‘old world’ collection housed in a single room with large oak display cases full of articulated skeletons and forlorn pickled specimens identified by hand-written captions. Not a push-button display in sight. It was refreshingly out-of-keeping with the adjacent high-tech, polished chrome, white-tiled labs in which the boundaries of the discipline are challenged today.

We left the still drizzling Sheffield in the late afternoon, and enjoyed a trouble-free journey home.

On approaching Newtown railway station:  the memory of an Edward Hopper:


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