Universities and the ‘broken society’

For some time now the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been talking about what he calls Britain’s ‘broken society’. This theme has been part of his message since 2008 at least. Back then he listed the elements of the broken society as ‘issues of family breakdown, welfare dependency, failing schools, crime, and the problems that we see in too many of our communities.’ In the wake of the unrest in parts of England he was back to his theme yesterday, this time referring to ‘children without fathers, schools without discipline and communities without control.’ He stressed that his ministers would be told to ‘review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society’, and that he would in particular instigate ‘all out war on gangs and gang culture’.

It is, I believe, hugely important for politicians, who when faced with some crisis or other feel under pressure to ‘do something’, to put the scene into an historical perspective. Nothing we experience is ever as new as we think. Britain, or indeed any other country, does not particularly have a more ‘broken society’ now than it did in the past. A quick journey through the pages of a Dickens novel will quickly reveal a far more broken society than we are likely to discover today. Unrest, looting, anarchism, riots did not suddenly emerge, without any historical precedent, in 2011. They have some longevity, and this being so are unlikely to be amenable to a quick political fix in time for a general election cycle.

But if there is an interesting question here, it is how we see, understand, sustain and protect communities; or indeed, how we identify them. This week I have moved into a new home on a new (to me) street in a new town in a new country (Scotland), and I have been struck by the warmth of the welcome from people living several houses away, who I might have imagined would pay little attention to our arrival. There is a community there. Even in the responses to the English riots there were significant elements of community spirit and concern.

I don’t believe that today’s society is ‘broken’, and I am far from sure that it helps to describe it in this way; indeed doing so may reinforce the behaviours that are thought to be symptomatic of ‘brokenness’ Nor, frankly, do I subscribe to what I think is the rather facile suggestion that violent riots, at least in England, are an expression of political resistance to expenditure cutbacks. What may however be the matter is that it has become hard to see what constitutes today’s ‘society’ and how it could be held together, and this is in part because there is so little understanding of where to find contemporary communities. There has been some very interesting academic analysis on this – I would mention Benedict Anderson and Robert Bellah – and it might be useful to think a little more about the nature and purpose of social communities before setting out to fix them.

Society needs a successful narrative if it is to work, and one of our problems is that the narrative has become disjointed. It is the task of our universities in particular to re-energise this debate and to provide materials for the re-discovery of the community. It is an important task.

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10 Comments on “Universities and the ‘broken society’”

  1. don Says:

    While university academics may analyse and comment on the matter, such analysis will often emerge from university communities which themselves are often unbalanced. Such circumstances may better inform the debate you look for, I admit, but be careful not to advance too vigorously the concept that the answers to society’s recent turmoils can be drawn ‘in particular’ from a pure academic well.


    • I’m not so sure I’m a believer in the university as a pure well of anything, but I’m interested in how often universities allow themselves to be described as somehow apart from “the real world”. (My own Faculty advertises a program of study whose chief selling point is that it’s a degree “for the outside world”. The prisoner education overtones are accidental I’m sure.) Maybe we need to be clearer about the fact that we are already in the communities where we’re located, in multiple ways. So while universities aren’t entirely diverse, in obvious ways, they’re not markedly less so than hospitals or quite a few of the corporate environments for whom universities train their future graduate hires. We’re concerned, engaged community members before we’re employees, surely?

      I like Brian Mulligan’s point below, that at some level universities do offer the potential for quick and informed input to policy, as well as to public commentary. But we already do this, and we’re willing to be unpopular in our opinions, which puts us in a different position than those elected to office.

      What we don’t do is act concertedly. This is because we’re pathologically attuned to the virtue of inter-institutional competition and rank fixing (and here the Jiao Tong really is a trap for the unwary), and so we find it genuinely hard to coordinate some kind of sustained, shared position. Perhaps that’s what it will take.

      • anna notaro Says:

        on Aug.11 a Times Higher tweet read that Ed Milliband was telling people not to listen to ‘academic experts’ about the riots, as the people affected were the ones who needed to be heard. I thought it was interesting how skilled politicians contribute, albeit inadvertently (and I give the benefit of the doubt to Milliband in this case) to the perpetuation of an old anti-intellectualist cliche’, and all in the name of the *people*!


  2. What about some sort of push for the use of evidence based policy by government? What if every time a government made a policy decision the relevant academic groups automatically got together to prepare comments on the evidence of the efficacy of these policies.

    I’m wondering if the attitude to hard-drugs could be a good example. It is certain that governments pander to public opinion in keeping them illegal. Many professionals in criminal justice have suggested that if hard drugs such as heroin were legalised, it would have a huge effect on the level of crime and even possibly reduce the number of users, both of which would improve the lives of the poorest in our societies. This suggestion is mostly resisted by middle-class parents who believe that it would give their children easier access to drugs (and “send the wrong signals”).

  3. Eddie Says:

    Some thing more relavant than this hot air.

    Publication of Shanghai Jiao Tong world rankings. Where is RGU the “global University” in this rankings?

    • don Says:

      Eddie, which ‘hot air’ are you referring to? The entire preceding debate here? We can all see that RGU is not in the elite of the world rankings but that doesn’t (shouldn’t) preclude individuals in RGU from advancing their opinions on this matter.

      Referring to Brian’s point above, it would be great if Government did (and perhaps they do?) take advice from the ‘relevant academic groups’, but unless these groups have a Government (and political party) mandate, I doubt if the Government would listen to them. After all, in Ireland, isn’t it Party first, country second…? Anyway, isn’t there a university panel in the Senate?

  4. anna notaro Says:

    *What may however be the matter is that it has become hard to see what constitutes today’s ‘society’ and how it could be held together, and this is in part because there is so little understanding of where to find contemporary communities….it might be useful to think a little more about the nature and purpose of social communities before setting out to fix them. Society needs a successful narrative if it is to work, and one of our problems is that the narrative has become disjointed.*

    I think I agree with the above analysis, more specifically there is little understanding, by politicians among others, that contemporary communities have nothing to do with a romaticized/nostalgic idea of Gemeinschaft. As Bellah rightly puts it, a better idea of community is instead one in which ‘there is argument, even conflict, about the meaning of the shared values and goals, and certainly about how they will be actualized in everyday life’, in other words ‘it is a form of intelligent, reflective life, in which there is indeed consensus, but where the consensus can be challenged and changes, often gradually, sometimes radically, over time’.
    If it is true that there is little understanding of what a *real* community is like, unfortunately there is even less of *virtual* ones and of the complex ways in which the virtual and the real interact and overlap (this has become blatantly clear with the recent calls to block social networking sites during riots/protests etc.).
    As for the idea of the successful narrative for society to work, one has to say that in the past 20 years few words have enjoyed so much use and suffered so much abuse as narrative and its partial synonym, story, still as narrative theorist, Peter Brooks, points out, while the term has been trivialized through overuse, ‘the overuse responds to a recognition that narrative is one of the principal ways we organize our experience of the world – a part of our cognitive tool kit that was long neglected by psychologists and philosophers.’
    The fact that such narrative has become ‘disjointed’ (if ever was jointed!) reflects the complex development that our communities have/are experiencing. My personal view is that we should not aim to rediscover some kind of perfectly coherent master narrative to fix our ‘broken’ society with, (we would then fall back into the nostagic view) rather to acknowledge that there are multiple communities and thus multiple, not necessarily linear (to use stick to the literary trope) stories to be told using all the variety of media we have at our disposal. Digital storytelling is one clever way to address contemporary social/racial/identity issues, one example among many: ‘Question Bridge: Black Males’ a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine Black male identity in America (http://www.questionbridge.com/), maybe Mr Cameron and Mr Milliband should have a look..


  5. Have been reading ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ recently (Allan Bloom) and find its perspectives on life fascinating even in terms of the recent climax of long-developing problems in London. Friendly people are lovely, but a deeper connection is needed than just the fact that ‘I’m a human being and you are too, so let’s be friends…’

    Societies are built on common beliefs, traditions, boundaries, morals and attitudes. Religions, for example, used to be (and still is) the reason for many communities; in the West of Ireland, village life circles still around the church. For students, the university is their bonding factor. Many more examples could be given; what is obvious to me is that true, steady communities are ones where each individual has beliefs in common with his neighbor, something to connect with, something in which each individual has a protective interest.

    Today’s families consist of separate individuals who sit at the same table for breakfast, use the same house, watch the same TV, and beyond such banalities have nothing in common. Parents, themselves without secure values, have little to give their children beyond the fulfillment of physical needs. Relative values and the cult of the individual have created a society where there is nothing shared in the spiritual realm, no over-riding connection, no common ground. The narrative of society has suffered some severe plot twists in the last century, and risks losing, and in places has perhaps already lost, this essential sense of togetherness, based on a shared belief, a community spirit, something which belongs to everyone despite their personalities or talents. It is extremely important for us, as citizens, first of societies,and then of the world, to work at unearthing and promoting the thread of unity which anchors and connects a diverse, multi-talented, many-faceted society which is in danger of falling apart with dire consequences.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Eistear, just wish to add another element, often omitted, to your description of what keeps societies together and this element is ‘play’..actually one could even argue that socializing is the adult equivalent of what play is for children, that’s way the public places where we interact with each other are of crucial importance – city squares, football stadiums, museums, work places – that’s also why space is an important category to define what a *community* is (in the real as well as in the virtual dimension) and architects & urban planners (and the universities which should provide them with technical skills and intellectual understanding) are significant actors in this process…
      As for the narrative of society having ‘suffered some severe plot twists in the last century’ I doubt that there ever was a *smooth* narrative maybe because life never is the smooth unfolding of events…


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