Archive for August 2008

Speaking in tongues

August 31, 2008

I am writing this blog in my second language – at least chronologically, in that I was born in Germany and had no occasion to speak English until my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. By the time I was 13 I was able to speak, after a fashion, four languages, if you count Latin (which I would).

Learning English was of course a great career move. English had been the international language of politics and business (though not necessarily of diplomacy) for some time. In fact, by the time I was at university those studying with me often rather looked down on those studying languages, as they rather thought that this was a waste of time.

For a short while, there was some speculation that Spanish might displace English as the key international language, based on the influence of people of Latin American origin in the United States. It never happened – many speak Spanish in the US and elsewhere, but it has not taken over from English as the dominant language. 

And now, in the face of growing Chinese influence globally, some have wondered whether Mandarin Chinese may become the new language to know. Maybe, but I know some Chinese people don’t think so. I was recently advised by a Chinese academic that English was also becoming more and more prominent in China, and would soon be the main business language there.

One of the reasons, perhaps, why English has remained so dominant is because of the internet. The origins of the internet are complex, but its initial growth and development was in the United States and in English, and so even when it spread elsewhere it tended to be in English – even in countries where English is hardly spoken at all websites have generally published web pages in English to give access to international readers. English is not just the lingua franca of the internet, it is the dominant medium. There have been suggestions that this trend should be resisted, and that bodies such as the European Union, or maybe some Asians countries, should drive through the development of other linguistic options and ensure that there is at least a more varied diet. Experience tells us that such moves will certainly fail – English, after all, is now the dominant language of the institutions of the EU, having long since displaced French.

And so the perception that you can ‘get by’ in English almost everywhere has seriously affected people’s willingness to study other languages, as universities have found out over recent years.

But how damaging is this? I for one believe that English is indeed likely to spread further as the lingua franca of business, politics and tourism, and there is not much that anybody can do about that. I would not be surprised therefor if demand for university language courses will be affected by that. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to know more about countries we visit and do business with, and this includes insights into culture. This can be supplied by language schools in our universities.

I do not believe that the case for learning languages is a weak one. We should go with the flow of English as the international language, but we should also remind ourselves that successful international relations, at whatever level, require some visible element of mutual respect. Let us hope that there will always be enough people who will want to know more about other cultures, to the benefit of Ireland’s international relations.

Footprints in the air

August 30, 2008

The English newspaper The Guardian recently carried an article on the environmental impact of aviation. The starting point of the argument presented by the author was this:

 ‘Climate change has changed forever how we view flying. Suddenly, getting on a plane at the drop of a hat seems as morally defensible as clubbing seals.’

All of this is of course tied to the concept of the ‘carbon footprint’, which measures the impact of individuals or groups in terms of CO2 emissions. Websites such as this one allow you to calculate and offset your impact on global warming by acknowledging and then reducing your carbon footprint. In the explanatory narrative, flights are cited as the first potential source of an excessive negative environmental impact.

There is, it seems to me, a need for a more sophisticated analysis of how we should deal with global warming and greenhouse gases than the Guardian quote above might suggest. For many people rightly concerned about the environmental damage that is being inflicted upon the earth the answers seem to me to be a tad facile and sometimes dangerous. They are, very often, based on the idea that we should turn the clock back: travel less, decline to eat imported food, and so forth. But human progress cannot be so easily picked apart, and if we discard individual items of habit and conduct we may have an unexpected impact on others. The headlong rush for biofuels, for example, was badly thought through and is now a contributory cause of third world hunger.

International transport and travel has had a number of effects, beyond carbon emissions. It has put doubtful governments and regimes under the spotlight as visitors were able to observe what was going on at first hand; it has given markets and an income to third world growers of food that they could not get from resource-poor internal consumer markets; it has opened up access to diverse cultures and new influences; it has helped to create understanding and tolerance. Whether or not we could reverse all this, we certainly shouldn’t.

Actually, it has become increasingly clear that the ‘moral pressure’ approach to carbon emissions is ineffective. It may make travellers feel they are social pariahs, but it doesn’t stop them travelling. And it may even be that some of this talk is diverting us from the real solutions, which are mostly to be found in science and innovation. We must of course reduce greenhouse gases and other contributors to environmental damage, but this will be done most effectively through scientific research and common sense and prudent behaviour.

Lest I am misunderstood, I am not at all opposed to a vibrant environmentalist agenda, and I believe we have a strong obligation to be good stewards of this earth. I do not agree at all with those sceptics who still try to argue that humans actually don’t contribute to global warming, or who make similarly silly points. And I believe in the precautionary principle that says that even if we are uncertain about it, we must act on the assumption that global warming is taking place and that we are to blame. But I do believe that this important agenda must not be shot through with moral posturing and calls to return to a previous age. We can never do that, in this or in any other context. The way forward is always forward.

In praise of Victorian fiction

August 28, 2008

I have recently gone back to reading some of the novels by Anthony Trollope. I read many – maybe most – of them just over 20 years ago, and I recently decided that the time was right to re-read some of my favourites. Trollope was an interesting author. After a very difficult childhood he eventually worked for the Post Office in Ireland, and during that time is thought to have invented the pillar box – the cylindrical post box that became ubiquitous in these islands. But he also started to write novels, and in the period that followed he became one of the most prolific Victorian novelists.

I am interested in Trollope because he was fascinated by ideas and how people with complex characters and complex lives could give effect to them. Partly because of his experience of his very lively mother (also a writer, and with whom he had a difficult relationship), many of Trollope’s strongest characters are women, and often they are women trying to achieve a degree of autonomy and respect in a society where that was not the norm.

Trollope does not quite have the exuberant style of Charles Dickens, or the romantic insights of Jane Austen, or the mystery of Wilkie Collins, or the gritty portrayal of working class society of Mrs Gaskell – but he does have the ability to demonstrate the tensions and complexities of Victorian society, and there is something honest about his writing.

But more generally, I find that reading Victorian fiction doesn’t so much transport me back into history as tell me something about how we became the kind of society we have become. The great Victorian writers of fiction were important as analysts of social conditions and campaigners for solutions. Much of what they described and the ideas they allowed their characters to debate would still be relevant today. It seems to me to be right that Victorian fiction deserves to be read widely in this 21st century.


[I am delighted that there is a whole blog site on Victorian literature]

Where are all the socialists?

August 27, 2008

Recently I was attending a gathering of some friends and colleagues, and the conversation turned to politics and ideological perspectives. Someone asked me what my politics were, and without a second thought I answered that I was a socialist. This, I have to admit, caused a certain amount of mirth amongst those present. They claimed not to be able to identify much socialism in what they thought were my known views.

I suppose some of these things depend on your definition. If you look at articles on socialism on sites such as Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica, you will tend to see it defined as an ideological perspective (derived mainly from Marx) that places its main emphasis on the public ownership of the means of production and distribution, and others may also focus on the redistribution of wealth. In fact, socialism has splintered into a bewildering array of groups, some of them with fairly exotic views. But it is true that most people will still regard state direction and control of economic activity as they key aspect.

This seems to me to place method high above outcome – and this is perhaps one of the disheartening features of socialism. In the articles of faith of many socialists, it is not permitted to believe that socially desirable conditions could be created by any means other than public ownership and state direction. This is often due to a very strong commitment to socialist theory which is capable of rejecting facts if they do not match ideology-driven expectations. It is this, for example (and with apologies to my many friends who hold this view), that drives apparently intelligent people to cite socialist principles as a reason for redirecting funds to the wealthier classes (in the context of university fees), simply because that is what received theory seems to require.

But it seems to me that the real ideal of socialism is much more interesting: it is about taking action to create, maintain and sustain a society that is equitable and inclusive and seeks to eradicate poverty and disadvantage. In the economic, technological and cultural conditions of the 21st century it is unlikely that we can easily do all these things by adhering closely to 19th century articles of faith. The challenges are now different, and require different methodologies to tackle them.

I have always, as far back as I can remember, described myself as a socialist, and I propose to continue doing so. But I think that if we are to have a powerful sense of what socialism is and can be and if we are to make that politically influential, we have to move away from the old statist concepts that defined socialism 100 years ago or more. If we cannot do that, it is doubtful that too many people outside that die-hard circle of true believers will be interested in it any longer.

My life on the M50

August 26, 2008

I share an experience with just about every other Dubliner, and with the many visitors to the capital – the experience of driving, stopping, cursing, palpitating, shivering, fainting and just giving up on the M50. I remember when the first stretch of the M50 North of the Westlink bridge was opened, going only as far as Blanchardstown. The next phases were under construction, and as I crossed over one such building site once in a taxi on the way to Dublin airport, the driver remarked that ‘it would be nice if they weren’t just working on this in their spare time’.

A few years later the M50 was open all the way to Dublin airport, and for a brief moment, it seemed wonderfully easy to drive from West Dublin to catch a flight. And then it all went sour. The four-lane highway (two lanes on each side) was completely unable to handle the volume of traffic. Try to drive there at any time outside of Sunday night and you were likely to be in a queue. If any accident happened, or if there was any trouble at the toll plaza, or for no reason whatsoever, the traffic built up and stopped.

And now we are back at the construction phase, and the uncertainties of barrier free tolling, the latter being as mysterious as anything thought up by St Thomas Acquinas, with the same tussle between eternal salvation and damnation. New lanes are being built, but to a schedule that seems to envisage completion years, rather than months, from now. And it is still easy to drive along the construction sites and find that nobody is there or working. Why, for example, does construction stop over the weekend?

As far as I know, the M50 is the only motorway/freeway in the world with its own website. In many ways that is most appropriate, as it has become such an important part of the collective Irish consciousness. And yet, I would love to spend less time on it, so that I can lead my life where it is more enjoyable and more profitable. I hope that the day when I can do that is dawning. But I doubt it.

University architecture

August 26, 2008

Just after I took up my post as President of DCU, I invited an old friend to visit me there. I collected him from the airport one evening and drove him back to the university. We approached the campus along Collins Avenue (for those who know Dublin and DCU); it was 9 pm in the autumn, and it was dark. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘this looks like an oil refinery’. And maybe it did, a little. At the time we were building several new buildings along the road, and the scaffolding and cranes were lit up, and it did indeed look very industrial.

Some eight years later it is no longer like that. The buildings (or at least those under construction at the time) have long been completed, and the campus is, even if I say it myself, rather attractive – for a modern university. It has been carefully planned, and the clusters of buildings in DCU are laid out in such a way as to provide good interaction between the occupants, and also so as to leave some open spaces to avoid the campus seeming claustrophobic and so as to give some room to the human spirit. The campus is clean (mostly), and there are flower beds and other decorative features. I am very proud of DCU.

But as I visit universities both in Ireland and overseas, I am often struck by the rather poor quality of the visible infrastructure. Often I will find an old university with magnificent old buildings that have clearly been neglected, with new buildings pushed in next to them with little regard for the resulting aesthetics. New buildings are often badly maintained and show signs of ageing even before the snagging list has been attended to. And all too often I find a campus that seems to show no sense of the human dimension of what we do.

Why are we so bad at this? Some of the old universities worldwide often have inherited beautiful and grand buildings, occupying a campus that in modern times has clearly not been designed to be sympathetic to this heritage. Newer universities are often struggling with not-fit-for-purpose buildings constructed during the dark ages of design (from the middle of the 20th century until recently). And time and again I find myself looking round a campus that has clearly not benefited from a master plan of any value.

Of course there are also wonderful campuses, that have been well designed and planned and whose buildings and amenities clearly support the professional work being carried out there. And where this has succeeded it is not always just because there has been lots of money to spend – I have seen some universities which have clearly been able to make the most of modest resources.

Our physical environment is a crucial aspect in our ability to find fulfilment in our work. We need to be both comforted and stimulated by it – and certainly not depressed or overwhelmed. We need to get good not just at designing individual buildings, but also at ensuring that the campus as a whole reflected and supports our values. This should be one of the most important tasks for any university management team.

Are we neglecting the humanities?

August 25, 2008

As the various reports about and proposals for universities in Ireland have emerged in recent years, one of the regular points of concern expressed by those  commenting on them has been that all our higher education strategy seems to be focused on science and engineering. Certainly the funding for the national research agenda has been particularly generous to those fields that are covered by Science Foundation Ireland.

In fact, the funding of research in science, engineering and ICT is of vital significance as Ireland seeks to stay out of recession and move towards renewed economic growth. And in fairness, there are increasing opportunities for researchers in the humanities and social sciences to make contributions to the major science research programmes.

But equally it has to be said the a higher education sector in which the arts, humanities and social sciences appear to be second class citizens will not be able to support and sustain a cultured, equitable and literate society, which is also significant in maintaining a successful and stable economy, as well as being vital in its own right.

It is therefore to be welcomes that, at the current time, there is to be a Foresight in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Exercise, conducted jointly by the Higher Education Authority and the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences – the terms of reference can be seen here.

Over recent years there has been the development of a clear strategy for science and engineering, which has well understood policy goals and significant funding. It is now vital to achieve the same for the humanities and social sciences. This is both right from an intellectual point of view and important for practical reasons: issues such as the management of migration, the development of a properly understood framework of ethics, the development of proper linguistic skills, the drawing up of a proper framework for the performing arts have a major national significance and require strong and confident teams working in the humanities.

It is to be hoped that the Foresight exercise will be conducted speedily and will have visible results – the country will benefit strongly if that is the case.