I recently attended a fascinating workshop on trust and authenticity in interwar Britain. In a period that witnessed the crumbling of old certainties and the appearance of new forms of mass culture, communication and politics, the question of what was real and who could be trusted became a pressing concern. In a world in which everything seemed in flux, what measures did people use to assess authenticity and whose truth-claims did they trust?

Such questions have a long history in the context of higher education. For much of the 19th century, a university degree stood as a decisive marker of class and cultural distinction. Teaching a classical and liberal (and often religious) curriculum, universities sought less to impart specialised knowledge than to cultivate the character and fashion the morals of the elite young men who would be leaders in politics and society.

But by the 1870s, revolutions in transport and communication, industrial development and intensified global trade had begun to refashion the established relationship between culture and power. Rapidly growing in importance were types of knowledge – scientific, technological and professional – that had traditionally sat outside the universities’ domain. Although still a marker of cultural attainment, the old generalist university degree had little attraction for those seeking a career in these expanding sectors. Not only did the universities face charges of irrelevance, they also found themselves in danger of losing their role as institutions of wide cultural, social and political influence…

… read the rest of this post in the THE magazine 6 Dec 2012 issue.