Archive for December 2008

My hopes for 2009

December 31, 2008

What did I make of 2008? It was without doubt the most interesting year in a long time, with a wholly unpredictable environment, a gallery of villains, rogues and heroes, major achievements in DCU and extraordinary calamities in public life. In my own life, I will remember 2008 very fondly, but it was also a year in which everything changed, for everyone. And I suspect that for many who have moved quite suddenly from personal prosperity and security to something much less reassuring, and for those throughout the world whose experience of this year was one of war, famine or oppression, it may seem right to follow the poem by Tennyson and let 2008 go, and hope for something better in 2009:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

From the perspective of Dublin City University, these are some of my hopes for the coming year.

• I hope that circumstances do not force us (and all the universities and colleges) to scale down our access programmes that support people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I hope that we will be able to become still more inclusive and move decisively towards a higher education system that is fair and socially aware.
• I hope that the universities will succeed in presenting a much better public image that emphasises the role we play in overcoming economic downturns and in securing a stable and just society.
• I hope that we get a good working relationship with government with a much higher level of mutual trust.
• I hope that DCU’s reputation as a radical educational innovator is enhanced by our new strategic plan (to be adopted in February) and by the energetic implementation of our Academic Framework for Innovation.
• I hope that DCU’s vibrant research performance – which has allowed us to out-perform much larger and older institutions in securing major research grants and contracts – will continue.
• I hope that we can persuade the government and its agencies that high levels of regulatory bureaucracy will not improve anyone’s performance.

    But overall, I hope that contrary to all expectations 2009 will be a good year for this country and for the world. May the hope and optimism that has been generated by the election of Barack Obama take root and be reflected in similar optimism everywhere.

    I hope that 2009 will be a good year for you, wherever you are and whatever you do!

    Happy New Year!


    A boy’s paradise

    December 30, 2008

    For a change, this blog is coming to you from Yorkshire, where I am on a short post-Christmas break. This morning I was walking down the main street of a local market town, and as I did so I passed a Woolworths store. As readers may know, the Woolworths chain in the UK is closing down. It was originally the UK (and Irish) branch of the US retail chain, F.W. Woolworth, but was sold off by the latter in the early 1980s – around the same time that the stores closed in Ireland.

    My earliest memory of Woolworths was of their shop in Mullingar, where we moved (from Germany) when I was seven years old. It was (if I recall correctly) the only retail chain store in Mullingar at the time, and as far as I was concerned it was a place of absolute and pure magic. I remember walking into it for the first time – and I had never seen anything like it in my life. I suspect that if I saw it now I would not be too impressed, but at the time it was a wonderful store. It had toys, it had sweets, it had household goods – it seemed to have everything. The first time I ever had any serious money in my own pocket – 10 shillings, to be precise, a birthday present – I walked into Woolworths and bought a View-Master and (for some reason I cannot now recall) a sweeping brush. 

    Back then I walked out of Woolworths in Mullingar, and from my sense of excitement and pride I could have been coming out of Tiffanys in New York. Today I walked round the now half empty shelves of the about-to-close store and could see immediately why it could no longer work. In the US the parent company still exists, but you would need to be well informed to realise that, as it is now Foot Locker: it has re-focused and re-branded. The UK chain, selling bits of this and that without any clear identity, could not survive – its demise was hastened along by the current recession, but it was bound to come anyway.

    So farewell then, Woolworths. The end was bound to come, but I still remember my first independent purchases there with great affection.

    Protecting the craft?

    December 29, 2008

    On the website of the UK higher education magazine, Times High Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of the University Brighton has some very critical things to say about the journalist (and pop-sociologist, as Wikipedia labels him) Malcolm Gladwell. For the purposes of what I am about to argue you don’t need to know more about this, but the links are there should you wish to follow her concerns. But in a nutshell, Professor Brabazon is saying that Gladwell is over-simplifying the sociological issues he is purporting to address, that the reader of his books will learn little of scientific use, and that the recognition that Gladwell has received is misplaced.

    It doesn’t for the moment matter whether Professor Brabazon is right or wrong. But there are two things she says that caught my attention, and not necessarily favourably. First, she uses the occasion to take a swipe at Freddie Mercury (late lead singer of the rock band Queen), apparently arguing that his cover of the Platters song The Great Pretender was of lesser artistic quality than the original, and suggesting that Gladwell is ‘the academic equivalent of Mercury’ – i.e. not the real thing. She was always going to lose me on this one, as for my money Mercury was an amazing artist, and if Gladwell is his academic equivalent, then frankly he rocks. But I haven’t read Gladwell, so I must put aside my irritation on this one – beyond wondering whether the misplaced analogy might suggest a weak spot in her argument in its real core. At the very least the argument she has employed is trivial, which may not do a lot to enhance her case against trivialising scholarship.

    The more significant passage however was this. Talking about Gladwell’s published output, she says:

    My worry is not these books in themselves. Every generation produces a pseudo-sage or author as fortune teller. My concern is for readers. The arguments are so simple, the evidence so superficial and the point so pointless that I worry about how readers move from books such as these and on to some of the remarkable sociology books being produced at the moment. Currently, I am rereading everything Sarah Pink has written, and it is an invigorating process.

    Sarah Pink is Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, and I believe she is a highly respected academic in her field. I have not met her, but as it happens have read one or two things she has written. And without this being intended in any way as a criticism, it would have to be said that the people who may buy Malcolm Gladwell’s books are unlikely to trouble themselves with Sarah Pink’s, or if they did they would be unlikely to read very far.

    So if I can make any sense of this, what Tara Brabazon seems to be saying is that sociology is for the academy. If you want to follow some of its debates and arguments, go to the academic oeuvre. If you cannot do that, then please don’t read about it at all, and mind your own business. And if you are an academic, then for the love of everything sacred don’t try to address the masses in terms that are accessible (and by definition over-simplified). And if you’re not an academic, then stop pretending that you know what all this is about.

    I’m probably being desperately unfair to Professor Brabazon here, and if so I will readily apologise. But there is a serious question in all this. To what extent do we in the academy belong to a masonic craft that pursues a language and ritual that must be protected from the great unwashed? The academic community, at its best, is a developer and disseminator of ideas and inventions, and for these to achieve their full benefit they must have an impact outside the academy. We are not in a private conversation. It is of course in the nature of intellectual thinking that it cannot always be accessible; but there is also a need to connect these intellectual insights with a wider public, and there is not just a market but a need for some popularising work. And some of the greatest academics in history have done it.

    It is of course possible that Tara Brabazon’s real complaint is not that Gladwell is accessible, but that what he writes is wrong. And of  course I would readily agree that popular writing isn’t good when it misleads or distorts. But I think that the academic world is sometimes tempted to believe, or persuade itself, that a good theory cannot ever be explained to a popular audience without falling into those traps.

    I have seen some of the leading academics of my time presenting their work to people without any expert knowledge in terms that were understandable to them, and more to the point I have also seen non-academics – including journalists – successfully master the academic state of the art and translate it for a wider audience. And all of that is good. So what disturbs me about Tara Brabazon’s piece is that a reader might take from it the idea that the academy should keep its analysis to itself, and others should keep out. That may not be the message she was intending to send, but that is how it could be read. And that would be bad for the academy, and bad for society.

    Understanding history

    December 27, 2008

    Recently I agreed to an interview with a young man who is about to take his final school examinations (the Irish Leaving Certificate). He was working on a history project, and his teacher felt I might be able to add some colour to his research: his topic was Germany in the 20th century. We had an interesting discussion about imperialism, the cultural developments in the Weimar Republic, Nazism and the greadual rehabilitation of (first) West Germany and later the re-united country. I hope it was of some use to him.

    However, the conversation did cause me to wonder a little about how young people are taught history. The young man in question knew quite a lot about the various movements and events during the period he was researching, but was not at all in command of some basic facts. He could not tell me (or even guess) the dates of either world war, he did not know when the Nazis were able to take over the government, he did not know the name of the first post-War West German Chancellor (although he assured me the name was on the tip of his tongue). He was fully in command of other matters: he was able to outline the significance of Berlin as an eclectic cultural centre in the Weimar period, his (correct) understanding of the development of concentration camps under the Nazis, the significance of the Berlin air lift by the United States and others, and the value (or otherwise) of German currencies in the 1920s and late 1940s. In short, he was extremely articulate when discussion social, political and economic trends, but was on the whole unable to place these in the context of dates and names.

    To see whether this was specific to German history, I quizzed him very briefly on a few key dates and facts of Irish and European history, and came up with the same result.

    Of course I would need to add a health warning or two here. First, he had come to me for a conversation on a particular set of topics, and there was no reason for him to expect the encounter to be under exam conditions and that he would be quizzed on various facts. Secondly, his particular knowledge may not be typical of secondary students generally. But more particularly, I myself may have been going at this the wrong way. When I learnt history at school at least earlier on I was on the whole learning dates, events and names. I can still (weirdly) recite from memory the dates of all the English kings and queens from 1066 (which is odd not least because I disapprove of monarchy), and the dates of pretty much all major battles in these islands and central Europe. That kind of approach was some time ago dismissed as being unhelpful to a proper understanding of the significance of history. Increasingly students were also discouraged from seeing history as just the story of rulers and great men and women, and were persuaded to spend more time looking at social trends, cultural insights, and the lives and times of ‘ordinary’ people. In addition, there has been an increasing desire to move away from history as being just about Europe and America and to embrace a much more international approach that includes a variety of countries and cultures.

    I suppose that what I am wondering is whether we need to focus a little bit on both aspects. I absolutely accept that history is more than just names of white rulers and generals and the dates they encountered, and is more than just a description of the big political and military moments of each era and place. On the other hand, I am not at all persuaded that someone will have a useful historical insight if they lack the knowledge of basic facts, and struggle to remember which century the First World War was in (my visitor, when gently pressed by me, eventually went for the 19th century).

    However, as I considered all this I also acknowledged to myself that, as someone interested in history, I was woefully unaware of the finer details of the debates around how to teach it: a gap I shall try to fill in the coming year.

    Christmas contradictions

    December 26, 2008

    During the afternoon of Christmas Day I settled down to read a little, and one of the things I was reading was a brief history of Christmas Day. Of course we all know that Christmas falls on December 25th, but then again, the event it commemorates – the birth of Jesus Christ – may have taken place on any day of the year, as there is no reliable record of the date. It was not a festival kept in early Christian times. The key elements of today’s Christmas festivities, such as the socialising and exchange of gifts, did not emerge until much later

    By the time of the Reformation some of the reformers had become hostile to Christmas in part because they regarded it as an un-biblical festival, in part because they disliked the catholic resonance of the ‘Christ-Mass’ concept, but largely because of what they regarded as the excesses ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. This led to Christmas being banned in England under Oliver Cromwell – alongside all other religious feasts apart from the normal Sunday religious observances. Christmas was also banned under the influence of the Puritans in some parts of the American colonies around the same time.

    So maybe Christmas has an unreliable pedigree, and there is still no shortage of people today who will argue that we have got the spirit of Christmas all wrong and that it is nothing more than an orgy of wasteful excess. But as for me, I don’t particularly care whether people celebrate the Christian festival (as I do), or pursue a secular escape from (what at any rate in Europe is) the winter, or try to have a family get-together during a holiday season. I believe that communities need holidays, and should be able to enjoy them.

    Happy Christmas!

    Season’s greetings

    December 24, 2008

    I would like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy and restful Christmas. I hope that for all of us the year ahead will see peace, prosperity, equity, innovation and tolerance.

    For those with really nothing better to do, there may be a post or two on this blog over the coming days.

    With best wishes to everyone,


    The blogging world

    December 23, 2008

    At this moment, you are reading a blog. Only a few years ago, you had no idea what a blog was, and if you had known you wouldn’t have found any or many. Now there are millions of them, and it is estimated that perhaps 300 new blog posts are published every second. But it is not just volume: blogs are credited with all sorts of things, including determining the course of election campaigns, ending the careers of major business leaders, changing tastes and fashions, and so forth. They have changed the publishing industry, and in particular the news industry: even traditional newspapers now also run blog sites for their journalists, which allow readers to make comments. Some blog sites are as influential as the traditional media – see for example the always interesting Huffington Post. In fact, an article written three years ago on CNET suggested that blogs were the future of publishing, with the qualification that the author did not think they would ever present a commercial proposition.

    More recently some doubts have begun to set in. Some commentators and analysts have begun to wonder whether the sheer volume of blogs and the disorganised nature of the whole phenomenon is actually preventing rather than encouraging intelligent debate. Furthermore, as blogging becomes more and more pervasive, the worry is that it may be compromising the viability of traditional news media organisations – a recent commentator associates the growth of blogging with the possible collapse of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.

    And what of the bloggers? Are they all ego-maniacs, driven by the belief that everyone out there is just dying to know what they think? Are some of them just incredible time wasters, slaving away at their blogs while they should be out having a life? Are some of them simply mad?

    Of course there is an unpredictable and eclectic set of blogs out there. Quite a few are technical, some in such an obscure way that I doubt they do much for anyone. Some are true believers in something or other, which often remains opaque to the uninitiated. Some use blogs as a kind of family diary that would have very limited appeal outside of the family. Some are plainly crazed (and I confess I read one or two of such with amusement). But there are also blogs out there that are intelligent, enlightening, thought-provoking, humorous, humane.

    If we are afraid of this avalanche of unorganised information and opinion, we should relax. We have been there before. The arrival of the printing press several hundred years ago had much the same effect, and the same kind of people tut-tutting today about the unreliable nature of the internet in terms of orthodoxy and accuracy were at it back then also, bemoaning the new technology that allowed people to assemble and disseminate views and information without first getting anyone to authorise it. It would be difficult to argue that mass printing did a disservice to humanity, and I imagine that the same will be said of blogging.

    And I suspect we’ll continue to be able to distinguish between good information and valuable opinions on the one hand, and mindless rubbish on the other. Just like we are able to tell the difference between a quality newspaper and a sensationalist gossip rag. Humanity will survive, and I suspect blogging will continue to prosper and evolve.

    But then again, I’d have to say that.

    Life imitates art

    December 23, 2008

    Over recent weeks I have been watching the BBC’s serialisation of the novel by Charles Dickens originally published in 1855, Little Dorrit, adapted by Andrew Davies. It was wonderful timing. Just as the financier Bernard Madoff was seen in the TV series to have been a complete fraud, so at exactly the same time the real-life Merdle was arrested in New York – or was that the other way round?

    Dickens was partly motivated in writing the book by what he saw as the unacceptable relationship between the key financial institutions and their directors in the City of London and the government, which appeared unwilling or unable to regulate the sector and protect investors and ordinary citizens. And this theme was repeated a couple of decades later by Anthony Trollope in his great novel, The Way We Live Now, in which the financier Melmotte is also found to have built up a fraudulent house of cards.

    Both novels describe developments in economics and business which are remarkably close to what we have recently been witnessing in 2008. There are no doubt aspects of the current global financial crisis that are new, or are peculiar to our own era. But the basic issues are not new, and have been around before. The trick now is to ensure that, some 100 years from now, there will not be another re-run of such events. Or at least that the world is better prepared for it.

    But maybe another conclusion to draw (as was done also in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper) is that the great Victorian novels can teach us a lot about society, trade and politics.

    Is capitalism always corrupt?

    December 21, 2008

    In the light of the drip-drip of revelations over recent weeks and months about the behaviour of business leaders, particularly in the financial institutions, a number of commentators have suggested that what has been demonstrated is that unregulated capitalism will become inherently corrupt, as the instincts of the key movers and shakers in a capitalist economy are corrupt and they are only held in check through effective regulation. In fact, this thesis is not new – it was suggested in an interesting (if flawed) book by John Girling, Corruption, Capitalism and Democracy, published in 1997 by Routledge. In this the author suggested that there is an inherent contradiction, or clash, between the public service ethos of democracy and the private gain imperative of capitalism, resulting in corruption wherever the latter is not held under strong control.

    It could be thought that the news over recent times gives strong credence to that argument. How can anyone justify the apparent lunacy into which financial institutions slipped for no better reason than the maintenance of bonus payments for managers; or what we have just heard about personal (but carefully disguised) loans by a bank to its chairman? Not to mention all the stuff we discovered a few years ago about Enron and WorldCom.

    And yet, it is facile to suggest that corruption is somehow symptomatic of capitalism, or even of capitalism only. When the Soviet Union and its satellite states went under in the early 1990s, one of the initial things we discovered was the systematic corruption which had pervaded the upper levels of the system. Furthermore, we know that a number of countries with authoritarian but left-leaning governments (Zimbabwe being an extreme example) have demonstrated huge and often violent levels of corruption.

    It seems to me that corruption is always a risk that we run, under any system of government, when there is a sustained period of untroubled economic or political development, such as a sustained boom in a market economy, or a dictatorship without any visible or effective opposition. Recent events have demonstrated the need for vigilance, but perhaps also suggest that every so often a disturbance is needed to clean out unacceptable practices and wholesale lapses of ethics. And while of course it is a disaster when a recession deprives people of jobs and security, it may at least have the side effect of pushing to the surface the  reprehensible behaviour of those who have become arrogant.

    The sometimes suggested response – greater levels of regulation – is not always ideal, as its main effect tends to be to bureaucratise behaviour and inhibit initiative; but vigilance is always needed, and the determination to ensure that corruption is never accepted as one of the normal characteristics of public or private conduct. And no system can afford the complacency of a belief that it is immune to such risks.

    It’s on the cards

    December 20, 2008

    This time last year, there wasn’t a single table or shelf in my office that was not completely covered with Christmas cards. Such things are a terrible waste of paper, I suppose, and perhaps are not always the product of much thought by the sender – and yet there is something I like about them, a kind of affirmation of community and empathy, even if the sentiments are superficial. In my own case, I have tended to send out a reasonable but not excessive number of cards – just so many that I can write a personal message by hand on each one.

    Anyway, at this time in the current year there are cards, but far fewer than in 2007. And those that have come arrived much later; most of them came in the last five days. Perhaps it is a sign of the recession. Friends and colleagues tell me they have experienced the same thing. I hope, as the climate gets more hostile, that we are not just getting more introspective and less aware of the community around us.

    A small number of friends – those who I think will not be disturbed – may be getting unusual cards from me this year. On my visit to California (mentioned in previous posts), I was able to pick up some rather different Christmas cards from a market stall. I confess they caught my eye. One offered the greeting “Here’s your f***ing Christmas card, I hope you’re happy”, and another ‘Happy F***ing Holidays’. I am sending them to people who, I hope, will not think them offensive, but who may be amused. Right now, we can all do with a laugh.

    PS. What I am getting lots of is e-cards. Dozens.