Haydon Etherington traces the university’s straight-laced character to founders Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
Today, LSE students rarely glow when they consider their university environment. For many, it is too career-focused. It’s a poorly kept secret that you’re more likely to bump into friends in the library than in the Students’ Union.
The annual rush for Spring Weeks and summer internships is baffling for first years who have never heard of the Big Four. It’s even more baffling for third-years who wonder why you would want to work a twelve-hour day in finance.
The culprit for LSE’s po-faced attitude is evident at first glance: the university’s turn towards banking careers and finance. As the UK became enamoured with Thatcherism, LSE jettisoned its traditional principles of collectivism and social-betterment. Instead, we became a home for career betterment.
This has intuitive appeal, particularly for those who see the LSE as the JP Morgan prep-school. But it would also fundamentally misunderstand our roots.
LSE’s founders came from a wide-range of disciplines. We were co-founded by a Nobel Laureate in Literature. However, it’s the Fabian principles of social solidarity and incrementalism that are the bedrock upon which LSE is built.
These intellectual foundations are nearer to our current state than flag-waving socialist activism. Fabianism’s shaping influences were more marginalist than Marxist. The Webbs poured scorn on revolutionary socialism, instead supporting the milder ideas proposed by economists such as William Jevons. (Jevons’ influence would later be felt in the neo-classical school, a familiar sight to those unfortunate enough to study EC201.)
The Webbs’ academic endeavours also came at the expense of their social life. If you thought that the trials and tribulations of your dissertation stopped you from going out, at least you didn’t spend your honeymoon investigating Trade Societies in Dublin.
Beatrice Webb herself once wrote that she and her husband were so focused on research that they had “neither the time nor the energy” to listen to music, watch plays, read books or go to art galleries. “There’s is no spooning in the parks of recreation”, she’s quoted as saying. So much for LSELove.
This is stark in comparison to other London universities. UCL was founded on radical secular lines, in opposition to Oxford and Cambridge. It soon became incredibly popular amongst elites for its godlessness and debauchery. This went so far that some Oxbridge colleges feared losing students. In response, they began to model themselves on London-style Georgian houses to imitate the atmosphere.
If not in ideals, but in style, LSE appears much more similar to the stuffy Oxbridge colleges than the free love of UCL’s Benthamite tradition.
It may be true that LSE has strayed from its original social mission of the betterment of society, and from gradualist socialism towards managerial capitalism. But it has never been a revolutionary, or even particularly vibrant, institution. Blame the Fabians, not finance.