The Works of H. G. Wells: The Camford Visitation - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Works of H. G. Wells: The Camford Visitation

Alexander Wallace finds prescient social commentary in H.G. Wells' 1938 novella.
The great universities of the Western world are often romanticized and reviled in about equal measure; on the one hand they are the site of some idyllic times in the lives of their alumni with the added allure of social class, but on the other hand they are bastions of institutional privilege that can be cursed with insufferable snobbery (I went to the second oldest university in the United States, so I can vouch for all of this personally). But perhaps the most damning question so many people ask about them is “so what do they actually DO?”

Such a question, and its normative counterpart (“so what SHOULD they actually do?”), are asked in H. G. Wells’ novella The Camford Visitation. This novella is a later work, published in 1938, and can be read in a single sitting. It concerns a fictional Camford University, which is the site of a variety of incidents involving a disembodied voice enquiring about various aspects of education. It’s a strange subject, certainly; the name ‘visitation’ would imply a physical alien landing or something of that nature, but it is not the first time Wells has done similar (see my piece on The Wonderful Visit).
The novella is absolutely immersed in satire of prestige university life; it took me a bit to figure it out, but it soon became rather obvious that ‘Camford’ is a portmanteau of ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Oxford.’ It begins with a meeting of a prestigious debate society in a private hall where the students are engaged in a two-minutes-hate against the political class of the country, blissfully unaware that said class were students at similar universities some decades before. The narrative then goes to discuss and sometimes outright mock various sorts of people that can be found on such campuses. The most biting, and hands-down the funniest, of these is when the voice addresses a local meeting of the Communist Party, told not through the actual dialogue of the voice but rather a Party press release responding to it.

This ‘voice’ appears to be the Abrahamic God, but it soon becomes clear that it is actually some sort of disembodied extraterrestrial being; in this regard, it presages a certain sort of science-fictional creature that is used on occasion. It dares ask some very hard questions of these students and faculty. At that first club gathering, one of the students vents his fury at what he calls ‘half-educated’ politicians; it is after that comment the voice asks what he actually means by the phrase ‘half-educated.’

The voice’s critiques are those that feel shockingly relevant today. The big theme of these questions and discussions are whether humanity has ‘over-intellectualized’ its study of the world, and how so many modern developments have destroyed social solidarity and community, leaving us in a deeply divided, intensely isolated society. It’s the sort of argument that predates the works of thinkers like Christopher Lasch (who made a career writing about the subject), but also has its antecedents in ancient times. The voice can sound like Jesus Christ himself, who famously asked:
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
In a world where all the intangibles that make life worth living in the name of the mammon of profit maximization (just take a look at the proposals for a Europe-wide football league for a very recent example), it is a very potent question. In my own country, where higher education is charging through the roof for a bachelor’s degree (which many say is the new high school diploma) and leaving millions in debt and at the mercies of the worst job market since the Great Depression, asking “so what is actually going on there?” is a very potent act.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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