For an academic community, there is always something uplifting about the arrival of one of its respected members in high office. In Ireland this happened last year with the election of Michael D. Higgins as President. As those who know President Higgins will testify, despite his long and distinguished political career he does not hide his academic credentials – nor should he, for they are genuinely impressive. Yesterday provided the President with an opportunity to display them in an obvious setting, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in a ceremony in Dublin Castle.
However, I am not really intending to describe or comment upon the ceremony. Rather, I was struck by the theme the President struck in his address to the convocation, which apart from some reminiscences of his life as an academic in Galway took him to a detailed and scholarly exploration of the role of the university in changing times. The speech (which can be found here) is worth reading in full, but let me focus on what was really his major point. He suggested that public and economic policy was hijacked over recent decades by a particular school of thought, and that this exercise in intellectual aggression produced both an impotence of academic discourse and, in the ‘real’ world of people’s lives, great hardship and deprivation and, ultimately, economic collapse. Following the same trail of thought the President suggests that an invigorated and independent academic community willing to ‘recover the unities of scholarship, to strike out for originality, seek as comparative standards the great moments of intellectual work from around the world’ will be able to make its powerful contribution in the recovery of a more humane political and economic settlement.
There is much in his speech worth supporting, and in particular it must be right to encourage the academy to take its place in leading genuinely independent and scholarly debate that actually addresses the issues in the life of the community. But there is also room for some notes of caution. First, I am not at all sure about the President’s focus on what he describes as a ‘new and largely uncontested paradigm’, which he attacks strongly but never quite explains. He references Friedrich von Hayek and the idea of ‘unrestrained market dominance’, and the notion of the total ‘rationality’ of markets. I always used to forbid students from using the (more often than not misused) word ‘paradigm’, which too often gets conscripted to a weak argument, but leaving that aside, there is in all this just a little bit of an unrestrained caricature which sits on top of much more complex realities. Nobody that I am familiar with has ever advocated ‘unrestrained’ markets, nor was the period that ended with the banking disasters characterised by lack of regulation as is sometimes suggested; it was just regulation that (as is so often the case) didn’t work properly; but there was actually lots of it.
We are all vulnerable to the seductive but damaging charms of nostalgia, and often we are tempted to believe that in another age they did things better and got it right. Then we forget that so much has changed. The period after World War 2 which saw the strong development of the welfare state and what the Germans called the ‘social market economy’ was one in which national markets could be easily protected, and therefore social regulations could be sustained without damaging employment, because technology, and information technology in particular, had not developed to the extent we know it now. We cannot return to that time or its basic methods. A global economy is here to stay, at least for all those who don’t want to accept spectacular poverty as a price for not having globalisation.
But then again, while I wish he had left out the search for an ideological rogues’ gallery who can be fingered as the culprits for all recent woes, President Higgins is still right in his broad message. We are where we are, and we must succeed in the economic world we are in; technological innovation is not our enemy – but…: we must engage in a search for a way in which this world can be made into a place that values and enhances the life of the community, and in which academics pursue themes of critical scholarly inquiry that has the capacity to change lives. This is not a return to some lost golden age. It is the search for a new one.