Anthony Grayling has had some rough sledding over the past few weeks. His new book, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, failed to draw universal approbation. And his idea of founding The New College of the Humanities, an elite university that would bring in famous lecturers like Richard Dawkins and Steve Pinker, has met with a lot of scorn, mainly because the tuition would be £18,000 per year.
It also didn’t help that, as the Guardian revealed yesterday, the college is being underwritten to the tune of £200,000 by Peter Hall, a conservative who has donated nearly half a million pounds to the Tories. Hall was approached for this donation by Grayling himself.
The rancor towards Grayling, whom I’ve always liked, is driven by charges of hypocrisy. As the Independent notes,
The author of more than 30 books has set himself up as a champion of fairness and equality. His humanist principles include the notion that religious groups “have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or Women’s Institute or trade union”. Writing in The Guardian in 2009, he complained of the “overweening privilege” accorded to religious lobbies and said it was easy to show that “the mindset which looks for and tests the facts rather than shores up ancient edifices of authority is likely to make the world a fairer one economically and in power relations too”. He is seen as a liberal and, until this week, a supporter of the public education system.
Just yesterday, the controversy impelled Grayling to resign as the incoming president of the British Humanist Association. He was due to take over on July 1, but issued this statement:
It was an honour to be named President of the British Humanist Association and I very much looked forward to working alongside the staff and trustees over the next two years to promote Humanism – a vitally important task in today’s world. Unfortunately, I believe that controversy generated by activities in another area of my public life will make it difficult in the next two years for me to be the sort of President that I would like to be for the BHA and all its members and supporters. In deciding to stand down and let the Trustees of the BHA appoint an alternative President, I wish them all the best in their important task.
I haven’t had strong feelings about New College, but I confess to some disappointment that champions of rationality and, presumably, of the “common man” would take part in such a high-priced venture. I’d like to hear readers’ opinions.
But one thing is clear: Grayling, charismatic as he is, hasn’t handled public relations about New College at all well. For one thing, he needs to put away the hairspray when the journalists visit:
Even his crowning glory is held in place only by “a bit of sticky stuff just to hold it up there”, he protested to interviewer Decca Aitkenhead in April. When another journalist visited the philosopher’s home last week, he discovered nine cans of hairspray in the toilet on the “his” side of the sink, mostly Pantene’s Ice Hold brand. Even for AC Grayling, some things are sacred.
And his hair was perfect