Archive for January 2017

Universities and citizenship

January 31, 2017

For those of us whose understanding of political and social values may have taken something of a battering over the past week or so, here’s an interesting intervention from an American university president. Mark Schlissel, President of the University of Michigan, has suggested in an interview that a key task for higher education now is ‘how to teach citizenship in the age of fake news’. The idea that universities should promote responsible citizenship is not new, and for example this has been explored in a very interesting project coordinated by the University of Pennsylvania, the Universities as Sites of Citizenship and Civic Responsibility Project.

However, the aspect of citizenship that Dr Schlissel wants to address is that of understanding how to accumulate and assess information. This starts with ‘making a personal commitment to pay attention to what’s going on all around you in the body politic’ and then to get ‘good, reliable information’. Teaching students to make appropriate use of the information tsunami is now one of the top priorities, to move from the idea that every bit of published or asserted information has a claim to be as good as anyone else’s, to a position of being able to assess the credentials of what is out there. This is now the primary requirement of good citizenship.

Alongside that, Dr Schlissel wants academic scholars to step beyond a body of output addressing other scholars, and to offer their expertise to the wider community (and indeed politicians) to support the drive to responsible citizenship.

Much of the battle of ideas will now be about evidence, in an age where experts are treated with scepticism and highly dubious information is treated as valid. This is the territory where good citizenship, with the appropriate tools, needs to be rediscovered; and many of the tools are held by the higher education community.

Advertisements

Quid est veritas?

January 24, 2017

‘What is truth?” This is what Pontius Pilate is recorded as asking Jesus before the Crucifixion (John 18:38). In the millennia since then, politicians and philosophers have tried to supply answers, or at least further analysis. This has included considering whether truth should be assessed as a concept in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), which would address validity and evidence; or metaphysics (the theory of abstract concepts of being and knowing). The academic community more widely is charged with identifying truth, using available evidence to sustain or reject hypotheses. Truth is central to academic study and scholarship.

In the political field, this debate has just been given an unexpected prompt. Ms Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s special counsellor, suggested on the US television programme Meet the Press that when the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted on re-stating claims of easily rejected accuracy he was in fact providing ‘alternative facts’. The phrase, as many pointed out quickly, has significant Orwellian undertones, and must alarm anyone who feels that the interaction between politicians and the media is moderated by the production of evidence. But if Ms Conway’s philosophy holds sway, truth is neither knowledge nor belief (in that Mr Spicer cannot himself have believed the information he was peddling in the White House press briefing) but a matter of choice: the truth is what I tell you it is; its relationship with anything verifiable is not important.

In the run of human history, we have been here before. Now, as then, it is the duty of the academy to intervene, and to reinforce the integrity and importance of truth. There is an interesting task ahead, and one much more difficult (given the public mood) than any statement in a blog post may suggest. But very important.

Universities in the uncertain world of Brexit

January 16, 2017

There was never any doubt where the higher education sector stood on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Right from the start, Universities UK took a strong position in favour of the EU, and sponsored a campaign group entitled Universities for Europe. This almost certainly aligned with a widespread view amongst academics, as reflected indeed in guest posts in this blog.

But of course the UK electorate narrowly opted for Brexit, and it is now going to happen. But what that means for universities is still far from clear. The message from the academy hasn’t changed, and the theme still is that leaving the European Union will prove damaging and costly. Right after the vote, a senior Cambridge professor estimated that Brexit would cost his university around £100 million a year. Others have pointed to a whole list of potential issues, including staff recruitment, international student admissions, research funding, and so forth. Even an international university rankings website has regularly listed the issues arising from the referendum vote, all of them representing risks or disadvantages.

The question for universities now is how to handle this agenda. There may well be a risk that those needing to be influenced will find the flow of jeremiads to be uncongenial to the stimulation of second thoughts. There are no signs, for example, that the universities’ repeated warnings about the impact of immigration restrictions on the sector’s financial and cultural wellbeing have had any effect at all on the UK government.

The problem is, I think, that very little about Brexit is concerned with reasoned argument: it is more about emotion. It is the product of the fears of those who believe the integrity of their culture to have been compromised, who see sovereignty as an abstract ideal rather than a decision-making mechanism, who fear the impact of immigration. If your frame of reference is governed by abstract principle, then the technical or financial drawbacks of the project may not much interest you.

It may therefore be that those who are alarmed by the impending Brexit – and I am amongst them – need to recalibrate our language, and need to speak in terms of principle rather than of operational impact. This campaign may need to be re-thought.

2017

January 9, 2017

Just over a year ago I offered some thoughts about what might make 2016 a satisfactory twelvemonth in my life. To be totally frank, looking back at that post I marvel at the banality of what I wrote, a little cocktail of the technical and the trivial at the beginning of a year; a year that had rather more ambition than that and was going to upset many of the expectations and hopes and assumptions of the circles I tend to move in. 2016 certainly did not bring success for Newcastle United, nor did it bury the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). It did however bring Brexit and President Trump, two developments that I didn’t at that point predict and which have eclipsed the more prosaic concerns I listed.

Maybe I belong to those who have indulged in what Boris Johnson has called a ‘whinge-o-rama’ as our preferences and aspirations were apparently shredded by popular vote. But these are moments when it is appropriate to explore again what we stand for, and why, and how we can work for success in what is now an undoubtedly different setting. Every watershed change in politics is in fact an invitation to explore ideas and to re-emphasise principle and clarity of thought, not expediency, as the driver of action.

So my hope for 2017 is that we, in the universities, can offer an effective forum for such an exploration, where all views can be aired and analysed and where the values of tolerance and rigour of debate can co-exist successfully.

Left or right, and does it matter?

January 3, 2017

Here is a policy document by a British political party: suggesting that people should vote for it because it would ensure ‘fair conditions in industry’, the better representation of women in Parliament, ‘increased prosperity’ and ‘better wages’, the abolition of slums, better ‘maternal and infant welfare’, ‘shorter working hours’, equal pay for equal work, ‘decent homes at economic rents’. So, which party was advertising all of these progressive policies? Well, it was Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Ask anyone at all, and they will tell you that Mosley led a bunch of ultra-rightwing extremists. But look at these policies, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could sign up to all of them. Of course I am not suggesting that today’s Labour Party is fascist, and indeed Mosley held all sorts of racist views that would be anathema to any true member of the Labour Party – but he did describe himself to his death as a man of the left.

When I was beginning to form my own political views in my teens, with the Cold War in full swing, identifying the left and the right was simple enough. The left supported or to a degree tolerated the Soviet Union and/or Chairman Mao, believed in the common ownership of key industries and services and argued for workers’ rights in their struggles with big business. The right supported the United States and NATO and believed in the value of free trade and capitalism and individualism. You supported one or the other of these positions, and that was it.

But the certainties of the Cold War world have been turned upside down. The USSR’s successor, Russia, now has as its admirers a mixture of old left nostalgia addicts, but also Donald Trump and what the media like to call the ‘extreme right’, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. The latter, a little bit like Mosley’s fascists, mix anti-immigrant rhetoric with vague policies suggesting social concern; and for former (or nostalgic) communists, it has substructures that will sound comforting and familiar: a ‘politburo’ and a ‘central committee’. And its senior politicians are every bit as opposed to ‘neoliberal’ policies as the most committed member of the traditional left.

If the dividing line between left and right is geopolitical, then goodness knows how you would classify today’s politicians and parties: Putin, Trump, Farage, Assad, Le Pen are all on one side, but what side is that? And what about Angela Merkel, is she left or rightwing? If it’s all about economics, then how do we handle globalisation, freedom of movement (for workers and refugees), international trade?

In fact, the dividing line between ideologies is now almost certainly globalisation, though it is hugely complex. In America the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement shares with various voices of the ‘left’ a dislike of military interference in other countries, but more significantly than that wants to protect traditional cultures, and in particular the perceived (or claimed) ‘white’ history of the United States. Migration rather than economics is the new battlefield in the fight for votes. But it is really hard to identify the combatants, because the causes range from what is really just racism, to the fear of losing one’s culture, to a rampant nostalgia for some perceived golden era in which everyone kept to their ‘own’ places, to the suspicion that migrants take jobs or depress wages.

I am, though in no party political sense, a liberal. I believe in freedom and tolerance, in enterprise and innovation, and in fairness and justice. I believe that this outlook has brought progress, prosperity and enlightenment when it has been allowed to flourish.  But I am increasingly concerned that this kind of manifesto has almost no committed defenders in the global theatre of politics (though in Scotland I may not be so alone).

I doubt that the old left-right taxonomy still has much meaning. But I fear that the absence of any clear political direction will make this world a much less pleasant and a much more dangerous place. In the past, much of the key ideological debates came from the contributions of academics: Hayek, Friedman, AJP Taylor, Hobsbawm. Where are we academics now, in this new world of ideological disarray?