Archive for September 2017

Philosopher King

September 18, 2017

It is, I think, not so fashionable these days to consider history in terms of monarchs and leaders. To many, kings and generals have hijacked the ‘story’ that really belongs to those whose lives were more of a struggle and who paid the price for royal vanity or incompetence. Then again, the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful.

Friedrich der Große

For much of my youth I was in the presence of a copy of this rather famous painting of Frederick the Great, by the artist Anton Graff, painted in 1781 when the King was 69 years old, five years before he died.

It hung in our family home. My father was something of an admirer of the Prussian king. I probably never thought about it (or him) to any great extent at the time, except when I encountered some references to Frederick in history lessons. But a friend of mine who was a regular visitor to the house found the portrait disconcerting, and always claimed that Frederick eyed up the modern world with obvious disapproval and kept his gaze firmly on us as we did whatever we did back then.

So although I knew next to nothing about Frederick, he was a very definite presence in my youth. Then I left the parental home and, frankly, forgot all about him and Prussia and the times in which he lived. If I ever knew much about them in the first place. Recently someone gave me a book about Frederick, and I got interested.

As we sometimes wonder about the qualities (or lack of them) of our contemporary politicians, it is interesting to reflect on Friedrich der Große, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. In many ways one could describe him as the architect of the modern concept of the state. Although some will record him as a military leader who secured Prussia’s place as a growing European power, it is more interesting to note his establishment of a civil service, of his (relatively speaking) support for a free press, of his status as a patron of literature, music and art, of his championing of science and philosophy (his relationship with Voltaire in particular). In addition, he was a composer and performer of music – indeed a composer of music that is still played and recorded, his flute concertos being the most popular.

Sometimes we don’t really know what we want of our leaders. Sometimes we put up with leaders who manifestly will not give us what we need. The ‘enlightened absolutism’ offered in the 18th century by Der Alte Fritz really wouldn’t do today. But the enlightened intellectual engagement might. At least I would like to think so.

I now have the portrait that hung on my father’s wall. I don’t think I’ll take it down.


The mysteries of academic recruitment

September 11, 2017

I have no idea on how many occasions I have set on university selection panels to fill academic or other vacancies, both in the various universities in which I have worked and in other institutions. Nor, to be honest, am I sure how often I personally got the decision right or wrong. And yet, these decisions change people’s lives and the destiny of institutions.

There are two key elements in staff recruitment. The first relates to the job specification – i.e. the particulars that are published describing the post and the attributes of the ideal candidate. The second is the selection process, including shortlisting and interviews. Both of these are critical: they contain a vision of the institution and of people who can help it to thrive, but that vision may be faulty, may be affected or undermined by bias or prejudice, and may be applied without proper expertise by those making the selection.

Mostly those taking part in faculty and staff recruitment do so with great care and with a real intention to be objective and fair. But that may not always be enough. Research in the United States has looked at some common criteria used in recruitment and assessed whether they are as helpful as people often believe; and has suggested that at least the early stages of selection (like shortlisting) might be conducted ‘blind’ – i.e. without knowledge of the candidate’s’ names, background and previous educational or institutional affiliations.

For those (like me, as I must admit) who have not tried this approach it may be worth a go. Selection for a university (or any other) job will never be a perfect process in all circumstances, but it should be as fair, transparent and objective as possible.

A degree of brevity

September 5, 2017

When, as a school leaver in Germany in 1972, I contemplated  becoming a student at a German university, one of the key considerations was the likely duration of my studies. The brother of a school friend of mine was at the time studying economics at a well-known German institution. Actually, I don’t really know whether he was studying or whether he was just hanging around, for he had been registered with the university for a cool seven years on the one programme.

In the event I didn’t at the time go to university, and instead became a banking apprentice. Later I moved to Ireland and studied law in Trinity College Dublin. Even there you could at the time find some students who had been able, probably with the support of wealthy parents, to extend their studies considerably, but on the whole your degree course was going to take four years to complete (as is the case to this day in Scotland). Other Irish universities had mostly three-year programmes.

But what is the most appropriate length for an undergraduate university course? What time is needed to acquire information and knowledge, learn to apply critical assessment and become sufficiently skilled to succeed in examinations and assessments? Should this be determined by pedagogy (but how?) or are other considerations also appropriate?

In this context, two former British cabinet ministers (one Labour, one Conservative) have backed suggestions that in order to avoid excessive student debt and financial opportunism by universities degree courses should be reduced in length to two years.  This would ‘accelerate learning’ and bring forward the students’ capacity to earn money.

I do not myself doubt that two-year courses can be done satisfactorily, but not in all cases and circumstances, and not if work experience is to form any part of the design. The worry is not that such ideas are being floated, but rather that we are being invited to consider them solely on material grounds, rather than through an assessment of pedagogy and scholarship and of the most effective way to acquire judgement and skills.  The question is a legitimate one, but there has to be a better debate about the arguments for and against, rather than just about money.