“Taylor. L”. “Taylor. L”. For a second I consider injecting a little life into the proceedings by barking back a crisp “Present”. But I remember that any show of idiosyncrasy in this context is perilously close to attention-seeking, so I follow the lead of my alphabetical predecessors and settle for a half-hearted wave in the general direction of my new tutor. “Good. Now, Tremain. Tremain. Has anyone seen Tremain?” Silence. Unbroken silence. If anyone in the room had seen Tremain they certainly weren’t about to let on.

Martin Rowson's cartoon of Laurie Taylor from New Humanist March/April 2007I am back at school: a fully paid-up, properly enrolled student at the LSE, on a short course in the history of economic thought. It was long overdue. The BBC radio programme I present is meant to explore the latest research in social science. But for years I’ve managed to avoid any mention of economics. It’s not that there haven’t been any exciting advances in the field. Nor that listeners wouldn’t want to know about opportunity costs, aggregate demand, comparative advantage and the circular flow of income. It’s simply that my capacity to distinguish between them was about as developed as my knowledge of recent advances in quantum gravity theory.

So now at last I’m tackling the mystery head on. But after all my years standing behind university lecterns, I’m finding it a bit tricky to adjust to being a student again. There was nothing wrong with my material preparation. I had a brand new purple Paperchase exercise book, a selection of biros and an already well-thumbed copy of The Penguin History of Economics. But none of these did anything to resolve my proprioceptive problem. To put it simply, I’d forgotten how to arrange my body at a desk.

For a start, institutional desks are designed for the entrapment of callow teenagers forced to stay still and concentrate without the aid of mobiles, i-pods or laptops surreptitiously loaded with Matrix 7. They are certainly not ideal for someone of my extreme age and height. It was perplexing enough finding a strategy for squeezing all of my legs in. I hated to think about how I might ever get out again.

My first instinct was to sit up straight and stare eagerly forward. But it was soon apparent that this violated the implicit rules of tutorial engagement. The correct posture is a head-down sideways slump suggesting that one was only in the room at all because for the time being there were no other more exciting prospects. This carefully calculated slump not only served to keep the tutor well at bay, it also isolated the slumper from every other student. In my six-week’s attendance I have yet to make accidental let alone purposeful eye contact with a single member of the class.

But, as I’ve now learned, far more important than mastering the art of slumping is the capacity to check any incipient show of interest in the proceedings. Indeed, in my first couple of weeks I began to form the view that I’d wandered into a class entirely composed of people preparing themselves for graduate entry to a silent monastic order. Even the most commonplace questions from the admirable tutor, questions which demanded nothing more a modest recollection of the previous week’s tutorial, were treated with the type of shocked disdain normally reserved for an improper sexual advance. “Anyone remember anything at all about Adam Smith? Anything about his view of the importance of the division of labour? Anyone recall his story of the pin factory?”

In the first week of the course, before I’d recognised these normative constraints, I blurted out the answer to a question about the name that Aristotle had given to any concept which contained evidence of its own end. “Entelechy?”, I suggested tentatively. The tutor seemed inexplicably displeased. Apparently it wouldn’t do to disturb the somnolent equilibrium of the group by public praising such an obvious smarty-pants.

So now I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut like all the others. And that’s quite an achievement for someone who’s spent his entire career pontificating, probing and plunging in whenever there’s even a second’s pause in conversation. The fact that someone else is regularly obliged to talk for the entire two hours because of the absence of any interruptions or responses to his questions is almost a boon to me.

But I do wonder about the origins of my fellow students’ carefully managed apathy. It is, in one sense, as difficult to comprehend, as normative, as the capacity of a rock audience to display massive clamorous enthusiasm at the mere sight of a bunch of roadies doing the rig.

Last week, though, at the beginning of a session devoted to Ricardo, there was one brief indication that I might have been too precipitate in my judgement of my fellow students. After Tremain’s name had once again been called out twice, there was a response from a slumped figure near the back of the room which contained a genuine note of enthusiasm. “I think he’s left,” said the voice. ■