Should we keep pretending Jeremy Bentham founded UCL?

Should we keep pretending Jeremy Bentham founded UCL?

Jeremy Bentham has long been considered the ‘founder’ of UCL – why do we preserve this myth?

Jeremy Bentham, the man, the myth, the legend; long has he been the go-to figurehead of UCL, leaving his mark on official documents, at least one function room, and the entire university’s philosophy. And yet, the latest exhibitions in the Cloisters make a point of doing away with Bentham’s significance, dispelling half-truths and outright lies about his dealings with UCL. No, they don’t roll the auto-icon into meetings. No, Bentham didn’t really invent utilitarianism, and no, he didn’t found UCL either. Less man, more myth. But perhaps this legend is one worth preserving, given the alternative: if Bentham didn’t really found UCL, then who did? And why don’t we venerate them in the same way?

For starters, it’s worth taking a short history lesson. According to a mural painted in 1923 by the Slade professor Henry Tonks, the four founders of UCL (then simply the University of London) were architect William Wilkins, poet Thomas Campbell, lawyer Lord Henry Brougham, and diarist Henry Crabb Robinson. Of these, it was Campbell and Brougham who really pushed forward the idea of a London university; this idea first arose in an open letter in the Times from the former to the latter. They later worked together to get the issue into Parliament, which led to Brougham’s expulsion as an MP for recommending the creation of a university separate from the Anglican Church. Our contemporary Atheist Society’s slogan, “Godless of Gower Street”, was originally an insult used to discourage the creation of Brougham’s proposed university. The roots of this atmosphere of academic tolerance were the study of universities in Scotland and Germany: Campbell’s alma mater was Bonn, Robinson’s was Jena, and Brougham was schooled in Edinburgh.

Barring Wilkins, then, none of the founders were Oxbridge grads – but crucially, not one of them was a Londoner, and they held few firm connections to the capital. However, being local isn’t exactly imperative to founding an academic institution, especially if you happen to be filthy rich. It’s hardly a surprise then, that all of UCL’s founders were of the wealthy, land-owning upper middle classes, or philanthropists in their own right. Although UCL was far beyond its rivals in holding the moral high ground, its origins were hardly wide-ranging. Back then, the university was less “global”, more provincial.

But maybe this isn’t giving its founders enough credit. If we account for James Mill, one of Bentham’s students and the father of philosopher John Stuart Mill, we can establish connections to the Indian subcontinent. The issue is that most of these connections, based on Mill’s penchant for ethnic segregation in India, invited racial profiling and disrupted local identities; like a subcontinental Sykes-Picot, his machinations gave rise to the vast diaspora following the split of the British Raj into India and Pakistan.

Say we keep Bentham, then. Say we abandon UCL’s true founders and stick to the myth. What then? The problem is that Bentham’s myths stretch far beyond his academic patronage. First and foremost, Bentham wasn’t actually the first man to come up with utilitarianism. The phrase, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, was in fact first coined 50 years before his time by Scotsman Frances Hutchenson. And, like most Western philosophy, it can for the most part be tracked back to the Ancient Greeks, with Epicurus’ doctrine of a happy life that avoids pain and seeks sustainable pleasure. While Bentham was by far the most important proponent of utilitarianism, especially as a response to the philosophy of Kant, he was only the latest in a chain of philosophers stretching back millennia, who have continued theorising since without managing to topple Bentham’s crown.

But is utilitarianism that incredible anyway? It’s not exactly a complex moral theory, which is why one of the key complaints aimed at utilitarianism is that it can’t deal with more complicated issues by making snap judgements about who or what factor is most valuable – most famously articulated in the Trolley Problem. We venerate Bentham as if he was some master philosopher, but his Principles of Morals and Legislation is totally incapable of articulating the value of pleasures, and how to its natural conclusion, unfettered ‘reason’ bred fascism. However, it’s not just utilitarianism that poses problems for Bentham’s legacy. As our poster next to his auto-icon so carefully explains, Bentham invented the Panopticon – a way of designing buildings, usually prisons, such that all prisoners can be viewed from a single space in the centre of the prison, which cannot be seen into itself. Pentonville Prison is one such example of this design. The postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault would later go on to show that the idea of a panopticon is a symbol of a “surveillance society”; as no one prisoner can ever be sure whether they are being watched, they must always act under the impression that they are.

Therefore, prisoners in such an institution are conditioned to feel inhibited and oppressed, automatically enforcing good behaviour. If this sounds fair when applied to convicted criminals, it probably wouldn’t be fair when applied to an entire society – which is what Foucault suggests is happening all around us. Today, in Bentham’s own country, having the most CCTV cameras in the world and with ever greater concerns over data collection on social media, the Panopticon is increasingly embedded – in ways that would royally ruin a utilitarian calculus. Of course, most of the criticism levelled at Bentham here would have been impossible during his lifetime. In the absence of CCTV,  Facebook, or “Trolley Problem Memes”, Bentham’s theories seem hardly malicious. In his time, he was a serial innovator, and after all, he did patronise UCL to no end.

But if we decide our spiritual founder on the basis of what they symbolise now, Jezza and his curious cadaver aren’t the best examples. And yet, the conscious choice by UCL to purchase his auto-icon is testament to our desire to use Bentham as a figurehead. Perhaps if the Four Founders themselves had followed Bentham’s mummified lead, things would be more representative. Five waxwork heads are better than one, after all.

This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine

Artwork by Carol Bartlett