Archive for January 2009

Newcastle – oh dear, oh dear!

January 30, 2009

Forgive the self-indulgence of my posting again about Newcastle United FC. But there is a very sad Irish angle to the terrible and sometimes farcical events afflicting the Magpies. Right now, it looks certain that veteran goalkeeper and long-serving member of the Irish national squad Shay Given will leave for the fleshpots of Manchester City; and there are rumours that Irish team-mate Damien Duff may also be heading elsewhere. And one person Newcastle haven’t lost is owner Mike Ashley, so any thoughts about the return of Kevin Keegan can be forgotten.

One bit of news that might be good is that Kevin Nolan (of Bolton Wanderers) is coming to Toon. He’s English, but with that name there must be some Irish roots.

It is sometimes argued that premiership football is not just sport, but an ongoing and often highly implausible soap opera. Nowhere does it get more surreal than Newcastle. Still, in some ways temporary-going-on-permanent manager Joe Kinnear (and at least there’s an Irish link) is not doing a bad job. But the long-suffering fans could do with less soap and more success!

Learning behind bars

January 29, 2009

While cleaning out some old papers and documents the other day, I came across a notebook I had used for a short while in 1974. Written in big letters on the cover were the words ‘Gedanken im Gefängnis‘ (‘Thoughts in Prison’). Yes, it was a prison diary. Not what you might think, though. In fact, exactly 35 years ago today, on January 29 1974, I visited a prison for the first time in my life. The institution in question was a small prison, not far from where I was living at the time in Germany. It contained a mix of inmates, some of whom were there on remand, and some were there for the long haul; a significant proportion had been convicted of murder.

How did I get there? A friend of mind was the prison chaplain, and in conversation with him I had indicated that I was interested in finding out more about it, and about prison life, and about what we as a society could do to help rehabilitate prisoners (this was a phase of my life in which I was very committed to political and social activism). On that day, and on a few occasions over the following months, I visited this prison, usually to join the prisoners for their evening meal. At the end of each visit I wrote down my impressions in the notebook. And what came up most in the conversations was the prisoners’ desire for more education. As you would expect, most of them were poorly educated, and back then there were no real opportunities to make up for that while serving their sentences. So I would come back with various educational books, and would also outline to them some of the more basic bits of education I had enjoyed myself.

In my life as an educator in various universities I have, at least on and off, maintained my interest in prisons and in the potential of education to make a difference. When I was Dean of the Law School in the University of Hull, I set up an agreement with the Governor of Hull Prison (which was largely a remand prison) under which staff from my Law School provided evening courses for prisoners. The two most popular options were family law, as many prisoners had family issues of one kind or another, and (this being a remand prison) the law of evidence. My colleagues joined ion this, initially with some enthusiasm, but over time found it difficult because the population changed so frequently, making it difficult to establish a rapport with a class. But I did get a visit one day from a former prisoner in my office, who told me that what we had offered by way of legal education in the prison had changed his life, and that if I ever needed anything – anything, he stressed – I needed only to ring him.

We are not, so we think, a Victorian society, and yet we have made remarkably few changes to the basic principles of prison life. We sometimes talk about, but in reality seem not to care about, the rehabilitation of prisoners, and we seem content that once they first enter through a prison gate they are likely to be regulars. Ireland has, by international standards, a small prison population, but as a society we care very little about them, and it takes vocal and courageous people like the Governor of Mountjoy Prison to remind us from time to time that we are failing these fellow members of our community. Maybe it is time for me to take an interest again.

Memories in cyberspace

January 29, 2009

If last week, on January 20th, you had (let us say, at 4.30 pm Irish time) opened on your browser, you would have seen the final messages of the George W. Bush administration on the web. An hour later, and you would have seen the welcome to the new world of United States under Barack Obama. If for some reason you were interested in going back to the Bush material – and after all, it’s a free country – you would not have been able to do so. It was gone; not re-filed in some way, but gone for ever. All that remains is a page on George W. Bush himself, in the part of the site that gives information on past Presidents.

The point I am making here is not that you should show nostalgia for the last eight years, but rather that if we see the internet as a valuable archival resource, it is a somewhat insecure one, and some information (even if you consider it important) will be ephemeral. My example may not bother you much right now, but at some point people will want this material as they do historical or political analysis, and it will not be there. At any rate, it will not be on that website, though no doubt someone somewhere will have filed it.

But as an article in the Observer newspaper pointed out last Sunday, there are other issues of a similar kind in today’s world of electronic information and document storage. An increasing number of us have our photographs only on our hard disks, with no hard copies. But something may happen to our computers, or indeed they may become obsolete, or the software that makes our images viewable may change so that in a few years we can no longer open them. Gone are the old paper diaries, in are the blogs and the jottings on social networking sites. If my great grandchildren want to read these, will they be able to? Quite probably not. And if that is so, has our new information age actually made that information very fleeting?

I actually think that these are important matters – and at any rate my own contribution to this will be that I shall spend some time this year printing out at least some documents, emails and photographs that I would hate to see lost to future generations. Maybe that’s just ego on my part, but I feel it’s the right thing to do.

So do we need the historians here?

January 27, 2009

Yesterday I was engaged in a discussion with a number of colleagues from various universities, and the conversation turned to the disciplinary mix needed in a higher education institution to ensure that it can be a credible university. We agreed that it was possible to be a perfectly respectable university, and successful, while not having, say, a range of minority languages in the portfolio. But then someone suggested that any institution that wanted to be recognised as a bona fide member of the academy would have to have some subjects or disciplines; and the example given was history.

Well, DCU does not have a history department. We have had one or two trained historians at certain points, but they have worked in other areas. And to be perfectly frank, we are not about to establish a history school. Not that I have anything against history or historians; on the contrary, I read a lot of history myself, and as they say, some of my best friends are historians. But still, we won’t have history here as a discipline any time soon. So then, are we not a university? What is more, we don’t have theology or philosophy either. That means in fact that we don’t have two of the three disciplines that, in medieval times and for a long time afterwards, were considered the basis of all knowledge.

Once again, we are up against the problem that there is no consensus any more as to what constitutes a university. Almost nothing that defined universities in the past – from the required core disciplines to the teaching methods – are universally accepted now. But then again, probably all those in the room with me yesterday would have agreed that ‘Warnborough College‘ is not a university. And I suspect we would have had views about some currently non-university institutions seeking to make the transition to university status.

Over the coming months the university sector will be subjected to increasing analysis and pressure, and rationalisation and reform will feature large on the agenda. If we are to take part in this discussion in an effective and intelligent manner – as we must – then we need to get a fix on what actually constitutes a university at this point in time. It is no longer enough – maybe it never was – to say that you cannot define a university, but that you’ll know it when you see it.  We need to have an agreed view of the concept of a university that respects intellectual integrity while also allowing for diversity.

The questions we shall need to ask, and in some measure to answer, will include: what methodology of teaching and research marks out a university? What organisation structures are acceptable, and to what extent should they be based on disciplines? What kind of links are desirable or acceptable between universities and other organisations, including government agencies, business organisations and community groups? What is the meaning and significance of academic freedom in all this?

Unless we have a shared understanding of these matters, we will find it impossible to navigate the very choppy waters we are now entering.

Public service broadcasting

January 26, 2009

If anyone from somewhere other than these islands is reading this, they may not know what I am talking about in this post, so a quick explanation up front. Jonathan Ross is a radio and television presenter on the BBC; his regular Friday night TV show on BBC1 draws millions of viewers, and he has gained great popularity with his quick wit and irreverent manner, and his somewhat risqué approach to some topics. Russell Brand is a comedian with an unusual style in comedy and clothes. They are good friends, and in October 2008 they created a scandal when they made some prank telephone calls (broadcast on Brand’s radio show) to a respected actor suggesting that one of them had had sex with the actor’s granddaughter. There was significant fall-out as sections of the public protested. Brand had to resign from his slot on the BBC, and Ross was suspended from his radio and TV programmes for three months.

Last Friday Jonathan Ross returned to his regular show, and opened it with an apology for his misjudgement in the prank calls – before returning fairly quickly to his irreverent interviewing style, before an audience of some 4 million.

I confess I am a regular viewer of the television show, and felt the gap in the schedules during his enforced absence. I also rather like Russell Brand’s quirky style of comedy. And yet, there seems to me to be something of broader significance in all this – evidence of the evaporation of a shared understanding of what the broadcast media can and should, or cannot and should not, do. Whether we may have liked it or not, in the 1960s – when there were just a handful of stations – there was a fairly clear consensus of the limits imposed on broadcasters, who by and large were in the business of providing a public service that focused on education, culture and drama, even when the programme was about entertainment. Nowadays of course we have hundreds of stations, and we will shortly have thousands and thousands as virtually anyone can broadcast over the internet. Can we still hope to maintain some sort of code of conduct in those circumstances, and do we need to?

It is sometimes argued that for those who were able to view it the BBC was one of the most important and positive cultural influences of the second half of the 20th century. It more or less defined the concept of public service broadcasting. And many (sometimes including me) express the view that this key mission must not only be protected but enforced.  But is there a public appetite for, or even tolerance of, a broadcaster that concerns itself solely with high-minded and educational programmes?

Actually, I suspect there is, though I am not sure that it needs to be focused just on one media organisation such as the BBC. When multi-channel TV first made an appearance in this part of the world, the majority of the new channels contained programmes that were almost entirely rubbish. Games shows (with ridiculously low intellectual standards), pulp music, more games shows, low budget soaps, and of course games shows – these were the standard fare. Twenty or more years on, many of the huge selection of channels serve up educational topics, culture, the arts, history, politics, and so on. Public service broadcasting may be more dispersed than previously, but it is still alive and well.

I suspect we can cut the BBC some slack. Let it have Jonathan Ross and even some games shows – and then let it also continue to fly the flag for public service broadcasting. And when someone gets something wrong, let us not pretend that this is a global disaster that requires a government to fall. Let us have high standards, but let us also relax a little.

Newman’s university

January 26, 2009

Just over two months ago, on November 17, was the 150th anniversary of the resignation of John Henry Newman (later Cardinal Newman) as Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. Newman was the founding Rector of the university, which had opened its doors to students four years earlier in November 1854. Without going into the details here, today’s University College Dublin traces its roots back to Newman’s original enterprise on Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

John Henry Newman was a remarkable man: a theologian, priest (in two different denominations), philosopher, educationalist, scholar and poet, who had a profound influence on opinions and events of his time, both in England and in Ireland. His epic poem Dream of Gerontius (set to music later by Elgar) also contains some well known hymns, such as ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’. An Englishman who had been first a well-known Anglican priest, and then a Roman Catholic one, he had come to Ireland at the request of the Irish bishops to establish the Catholic University. It was not a happy experience for him, but it gave him a platform for an influential piece of writing, The Idea of a University.

Strictly speaking this was not a book, but rather series of lectures (or ‘discourses’) delivered to ‘the Catholics of Dublin’. The purpose of these was to set out how a university should address its intellectual and pedagogical tasks in order to provide a ‘liberal education’. Newman believed that students should be taught, in a critical context, to acquire knowledge for its own sake, not as part of a broader ultilitarian purpose. He summarised the university’s key obective as follows:

‘Its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.’ (Discourse 6, p. 127)

Newman has been quoted regularly in the debates about how universities should see their roles in today’s world. I would in fact encourage anyone with an interest in higher education to read The Idea of a University, which was a thoroughly liberal and progressive piece of analysis in its day, and an exceptionally good foundation for a new university (demonstrated, perhaps, by the fact that it did not recommend itself as such to the Catholic hierarchy of the day in Ireland). But whether it is a blueprint for a 21st century university is another matter; we are in a very different world from that of mid-19th century Dublin.

However, we cannot easily argue with Newman, because as a society we have not undertaken the important task of asking what we expect of a university today. Universities still on the whole continue on the course set for them in the Middle Ages, as perhaps adjusted a little as a result of the growth of the sciences and engineering in the 19th century, and the addition of education for the professions in the 20th century. We don’t even know whether there should be several models, or just one model with some marginal variations. Most of the reviews that have been commissioned focus sharply on organisational and related matters, but neglect this broader examination of mission.

As we face yet another strategic review of the system in Ireland, it is time that we ask this important question of general principle, before we move on to operational matters: what is our modern university actually for? If Newman were writing today, what would he say? It is time for us to address that.

A matter of faith

January 24, 2009

A few years ago a survey was conducted of Church of England (Anglican) clergy which revealed that a majority of them could not accurately list the Ten Commandments. This was seen at the time as deeply symptomatic of the terminal decline of English Anglicanism, because it showed that the keepers of its flame were ignorant of its history, traditions and theology; and if they were ignorant, there was hope for no-one. Given the disputes which have rocked Anglicanism since then, that now probably seems like minor stuff; but perhaps it is rather more revealing than all the blood-letting about gay clergy and women bishops. The latter disputes are about traditionalists setting their face against living in the present age, and to be sure these are fights that will fade away as their generation passes; the former are about the content of faith.

Not that I believe that the Ten Commandments are some sort of touchstone; they seem to me to be rules and prescriptions that were handed down by Moses in his quest for nation building amongst the released people he had brought out of Egypt. They were relevant to their time, and important for us to understand in context; but I don’t see them as a code of conduct for today, taken as a whole. So I am not much disturbed that the clergy were not up to speed with them. But if you believe in Christianity (or really, any form of organised grouping based on ideals and beliefs), then you must wonder about its sustainability  in the absence of a shared knowledge of key principles. If the clergy are so-so in their understanding of their own theology, then how can this theology still shape their congregations? And if it doesn’t, what holds everything together?

This is brought out for me by another survey that was conducted in England in 2007 by the polling organisation MORI (The Times, October 31, 2007), this time of people in general, and I found some of the results startling. This found that those who identified themselves as Christian had what I might describe as a fairly rocky understanding of their faith. Only 63 per cent believed in heaven (so 37 per cent didn’t), and 44 per cent believed in hell; curiously, 1 per cent believed in hell but not heaven. Oh well, that’s fine. But here are the curious bits: 18 per cent of Christians believed the number 13 to be unlucky; 12 per cent believed in witches and wizards; 27 per cent believed that horoscopes told something potentially significant, the same number that attached significance to the spilling of salt. 44 per cent of Christians believed in the practice of crossing fingers to bring good luck.

Of course, the borderline between Christianity and various pagan beliefs and other superstitions was always a little blurred in the ancient history of the faith. But this was a survey taken of a sophisticated population in the 21st century in a highly developed country. And it is hard not to want to ask some questions around that. You could say that it lends support to those, such as Richard Dawkins, who argue that the whole Christian enterprise is superstition and make-believe. Or you could say that it supports the statement (often wrongly attributed to G.K. Chesterton) that the evaporation of traditional faith leads people not to believe in nothing, but to believe in anything. 

This Sunday a declining (but still reasonably significant) number will go to church here in Europe, and a much larger number in other parts of the world. Some will be very unclear about what it is they are subscribing to, some will feel they have clear views that will however (in terms of the official theology) be quite wrong and misguided; some will belong to groups with emphatic certainties that owe little to the age in which they live. And in all of this mix, the sustainability of the faith will be very doubtful.

Christians, it has often been said, are a ‘people of the Book’. It seems to me that the correct approach to the book is one of scholarly insight, of knowing what is there and of understanding what it does and does not (or not necessarily) signify. Ignorance, however, is dangerous, as we load up our prejudices and personal preferences and put a divine stamp and unquestionable infallibility on them. God protect us from that.