All these years later, I’m still haunted by a 1981 episode of the television series, Tales Of The Unexpected. Entitled The Sound Machine, and adapted from a Roald Dahl short story, the episode introduces us to Klausner, an enthusiast of sound.
“I believe … there is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear. It is possible that up there in those high-pitched inaudible regions there is a new exciting music being made, with subtle harmonies and fierce grinding discords, a music so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it.”
In pursuit of his ambition to apprehend sounds undetectable to the normal range of human hearing, Klausner invents a listening device. At first, Klausner doesn’t understand the provenance of the screams detected by his machine when he tests his apparatus out in his garden – until he notices his neighbour snipping the blooms from her rose bush. Klausner’s sound machine is hearing the agonies of plants.
As a child, this episode did for walking across lawns what Jaws did for the deep end of my local swimming pool, freighting ubiquitous behaviors in familiar environments with new probabilities of risk. These days, I’m more likely to worry about entire ecosystems than the discomfort experienced by the few blades of grass between my toes. Even so, I still find myself thinking about Klausner’s sound machine, and the act of listening to pain.
Given the clear and obvious impact of the pandemic on student well-being, and on the institutional infrastructures in place to support it, discussions around the responsibility for the pastoral care of undergraduates have intensified. Even before the advent of Covid, the term ‘epidemic’ was much used to characterise the rise of poor mental health among university students.
In my former higher education institution, initiatives to support student well-being proliferated like plucky mushrooms. There were ‘listening posts’ and ‘Mood Boost’ workshops and online counselling sessions, hopelessly over-subscribed. Consider our incessant hand-wringing over the ethics of granting extenuating circumstances to students, with the university unable to make up its mind as to whether the glass was half-full or half-empty, when it came to recording high numbers of extended deadlines and interruptions of study. Was making extensions available to ever-growing numbers of undergraduates indicative of greater inclusivity, and welcome move towards student-centred learning? Or proof instead of systemic course-level failure? By seeking out extra time and additional allowances, were students demonstrating commendable levels of self-determination, or just vapid snowflakes, melting wetly, the institution wilting similarly under the glare of its canny customers?
When the conservative government cut funding for disabled students in higher education, there were those in the university who feared the good and proper project of widening participation would now continue in name only, in service to the institution’s recruitment targets and not much else. For others, the paring back of learning support assistants and free laptops was like being given permission to switch off an expensive machine that was keeping the pipe-dreams alive of students otherwise ill-suited to the rigours of higher education.
Sometimes, often, I’d hear colleagues talking about ‘the good old days’, when undergraduates just knew how to study; when they were resilient, self-directed, arriving on day one of year one as savvy, professionalised learners.
Hand-on-heart, I wasn’t immune to prelapsarian thoughts myself, dog-tired after another round of tutorials with unhappy students. But golden ageism is always bullshit, as we know very well. We might look back wistfully at tutors from yesteryear going about their simpler business in their simpler classrooms with their simpler cohorts, just as Klausner might once have smiled fondly at someone taking their shears to a hedge. We might coo nostalgically over all those seemingly stoic undergraduates, the sort who “bloody well just got on with it”; strong, silent types, who could be relied upon to metabolise gumption from hardship.
But let’s imagine, in addition to its existing functions, Klausner’s sound machine has the capacity to detect the frequencies of the past, and how about we turn the dial: what’s that I hear? Ah yes, it is those same fierce grinding discords, the as-of-now unmuted miseries of diverse groups of individuals being nicked, bruised, picked at, and broken by the everyday habits of teachers and the mono-cultures of their classrooms; and not injuries inflicted on purpose, not always anyway, but injuries nonetheless.
When I think back to the classrooms of my own secondary modern, my blood runs cold in the knowledge of this parallel universe of suffering, rendered undetectable by the deficit in my own perceptual apparatus. I remember the rather odd-seeming children hidden away at the back of the class who wouldn’t meet your eye, whose non sequiturs disrupted the teacher’s flow and magnetised the bullies. I recall the clamour of the disruptive boys, too quick and too clever to know when to wind in their necks, but too stupid to read the black board; and I think about the weird kids, the whey-faced loners standing disconsolately at the edge of the playground, friendless inside the hoods of their parkas.
These young people were all unheard and unhearable in their different ways, for how to detect the call-to-action of Asperger’s, when it’s carried by a frequency to which no one is yet attuned? How to decipher the dissonance of dyslexia when the only sound it makes in the world of other people is naughtiness? How to mitigate against acute social anxiety, when there is insufficient bandwidth by which to detect it?
But that was then, the ‘good old days’, when all the damaged, stupid people knew better than to go to university, when silence was golden…