On the 24th February, the Exeter Northcott Theatre presented a script-in-hand reading of David Lane’s political drama SELLOUT – a play which offers a critique of the modern higher education system and the pressure placed on those within that system by governing powers attempting to install within it a core based on financial motivation rather than intellectual. The play is produced by Upstart, a company aiming to bring to the forefront of theatre the biggest questions and challenges facing our society.
One of the key ideas threading itself throughout the play is the notion of value. The character of Graham, the head of department, fills his dialogue with regurgitated buzzwords such as “online”, “special measure”, “accessibility”, “star performer” – imploring his lecturers to “sell” knowledge, gift-wrapped and spoon-fed to the governing powers, the consumer rather than the student. Rather than value being attributed to what is being taught, it is rather how it is being packaged – the university a factory for knowledge as opposed to a centre of inspiration.
Students themselves are described synonymously with cattle being ushered through their education, regardless of talent or intellect; anyone who can pay is forced through and roughly handed a slip of paper at the end and a “vaguely narcissistic feeling of self-worth”.
The individual value of the educator is thus put into question, the character of Daisy offering an example of a clinical and soulless corporate approach to education, shipped in to deliver on quotas but who fails to engage with the student body. This new generation of educators is diametrically opposed to the likes of Frank and Judy, the old revolutionaries who have been slowly sucked in and have had to sacrifice their dreams of “changing the world” just in order to pay the rent: “we can’t be mavericks anymore”.
Lane provides flashes into each of the characters personal lives and the detrimental effect of thinking of employees of the education systems as mere cogs in a machine, their private worlds begin to crumble.
Regardless of the actors reading from a script with only a few chairs there was a very powerful message being expressed which directs the audience to totally re-evaluate the system they are familiar with. I am often guilty myself of thinking of university as a meal-ticket to a decent income rather than associating myself in the present and thinking about the value of the knowledge itself and the way in which it can not only open doors to the future, but open my mind. Even from secondary education we are set on a path somewhat dictated to us, always with our future usefulness to society in mind.
Academics have always been those who have liberated themselves from such a conveyor belt, allowing themselves the freedom to create new knowledge. Lane exposes the increasingly suffocating effect of our society’s capitalist structure and how it is closing in on those who attempt to create and inspire – using the symbolism of the always locked window in the staff room to confine his characters on stage.
His script begs the audience to stop thinking as a consumer and reassess the intrinsic value of education before the following statement becomes inerrant reality: “the value of knowledge is confirmed when you see it in pound signs”.
Bethany Stuartbookmark me