Archive for October 2017

Reformed thinking

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thereby setting in train the events that led to what is now referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’. The accumulation over a short period of time of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the printing press and widespread debate on issues raised in these processes changed western civilisation fundamentally and permanently.

Luther, like many of the leaders of the Reformation and for that matter many of those who opposed it, was not necessarily an altogether pleasant man. His strongly anti-semitic views gave a toxic prompt to some rabble rousers, with his influence stretching into 20th century fascism. But nevertheless, his actions opened up a new chapter of intellectual engagement and strengthened the position of Europe’s leading universities, as well as their capacity to engage in critical analysis and research – although Luther also opined that universities could be ‘the great gates of hell’.

Theologically, politically and socially, the Reformation was complex, and if it led to intellectual empowerment for some it also prompted narrow-mindedness in others. But the anniversary is worth celebrating, because our freedom of thought and of academic debate was reinforced through the posting of the 95 Theses and what followed. We are, in some respects at ;east, products of the Reformation.

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Autumnal mood

October 26, 2017

Autumn is a strange season – with great beauty, but also with dark moods as winter approaches. Here is my interpretation through photos of the fruit harvest.

It was, in fact, a very good harvest for apples and pears this year – more than I could process or even give away, so some are now compost.

Brexit perspectives in the academy

October 25, 2017

Apparently like all university heads in the United Kingdom, I received a letter this week from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a Conservative Whip in the House of Commons and, as his own website states, a ‘fierce Eurosceptic’. In his letter, Mr Heaton-Harris asks me to supply him with the names of professors ‘who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also wants copies of any syllabus and links to online lectures ‘which relate to this area’. The letter gives no indication of why he wants this information or what he proposes to do with it.

The story of this letter has been widely disseminated over the past day or so, and it would be fair to say that he has been roundly criticised for sending it by pretty much everyone, including some who are in favour of Brexit. As a Times newspaper editorial points out, if Mr Heaton-Harris had legitimate reasons, unrelated to any desire to stifle pro-EU voices in the academy, he should have said what they were. In the absence of such details, the fierce Eurosceptic might appear to have motives to limit freedom of expression – though he himself is adamant that this is not his intention (while still not saying what is his intention). Meanwhile the UK Universities Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP, has spoken on his behalf to suggest that he now regretted sending the letter.

Anyway, yesterday the airwaves and cyberspace were full of people expressing indignation at Mr Heaton-Harris, who, it was suggested, was practising ‘Leninism’. Actually I doubt that Vladimir Ilyich, were he to return now, would regard Mr Heaton-Harris as a soulmate, so maybe we should leave some of the more over-excited responses to his letter to one side. I suspect he was indeed up to no good, but I’m not too worried about his capacity to achieve much.

But Mr Heaton-Harris is not the only star in this particular B-movie. He was preceded by others, politicians, and newspapers, who have argued that in one way or another expressions of opinion criticising Brexit or calling for a continuing membership of the UK in the European Union are not acceptable and undermine the will of the people (which by now may be different from that expressed in June 2016, for all we know). And so while we should all calm down about the MP’s letter, we should reflect a little more about a tendency to incite a public mood of intolerance that may be showing up here. Specifically, a university must always be a safe forum for the expression of all legal views and opinions, however unpopular they may be; and this should not be put at risk either by politicians or, indeed, by groups of students. But more generally, Brexit advocates – even Brexit fanatics – must accept that their views have not become mandatory as a result of the referendum. Freedom of expression must flower, no matter what. And if that bothers you, it means that your position is probably a weak one. Work on that.

The curriculum vitae – time to let it go?

October 23, 2017

Writing in the Times newspaper, columnist Clare Foges suggested this week that ‘ditching the CVs would level the playing field a bit’ when it comes to recruitment for employment. It would, she suggested, in particular reduce the unwarranted advantage that graduates of Oxford and Cambridge get when their applications are seen by senior managers who are also graduates of these august institutions.

Over my 30 or so years in leadership positions of one kind or another in universities I have read goodness knows how many CVs (or resumés) when I have taken part in employment selection processes. Highlighted information about where the applicants got their degrees always tends to be the most immediately visible part of the personal sales pitch. In a recent case, one job applicant listed three degrees he had been awarded. The first – and this was awarded for his actual work as a student – was from a very well respected but fairly new university; it was not particularly highlighted. The other two were from one of the two aforementioned institutions and were recorded in bold print with a slightly larger typeface than the surrounding narrative. He knew I have a degree from Cambridge (OK OK, I shouldn’t mention that, but I’m not looking for a job) and maybe thought I should feel a strong affinity with him; or maybe he didn’t know and thought that, as head of a newish university, I should be most impressed by his pedigree and his willingness to condescend to apply to our modest institution.

Whatever. He didn’t get the job. But all over the academic world, and everywhere else, people use their CVs to make a sales pitch, and sometimes this can take on the form of some sort of masonic handshake between applicant and recruiter. So is it time to stop using CVs in recruitment processes? Is it time to test instead for specific skills, experiences and attributes that would qualify candidates, without allowing prejudices about various categories of institution to determine outcomes? Can it be done?

The campus free speech struggles, and litigation

October 16, 2017

You may well not have heard of Mr Richard Spencer; at any rate I hadn’t, though I must admit I don’t think my life was the poorer for it. So, to introduce him to you, let me tell you that he is president of the National Policy Institute, an American white supremacist ‘think tank’. The reason why he is making an appearance in this blog post is because he has developed a habit of getting himself invited, or inviting himself, to universities to make speeches or take part in debates. His modus operandi appears to be that when these universities cancel his appearances, he sues them, claiming that his freedom of speech has been violated. Indeed he makes some money that way, as universities have been known to settle with him to escape his litigious attentions.

Let us not spend much time on Mr Spencer. This post has another dramatis persona, in the form of Mr Briscoe Cain. Mr Cain is a lawyer and a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives. He is 32 years old, and I suspect he is on the look-out for higher things in the world of politics. He calls himself a conservative, and goodness knows what that actually means these days in the somewhat convoluted politics of the United States, but let’s say the label won’t please some students and others should he seek a university as a location for his oratory; which is what he has done.

Mr Cain appears to have been invited to address an audience at Texas Southern University (TSU). It is what is often referred to as a traditionally black university. Mr Cain was invited by a local chapter of the Federalist Society, an association that believes in the merits of ‘principles of limited government’, to deliver a speech on the campus of TSU. When the day came – and it was last week – a group of students from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement objected to his rhetoric, on the somewhat complicated grounds that Mr Cain was known to oppose public funding of sex reassignment surgery. The university cancelled the event, claiming that his invitation had been irregular since the Federalist Society was not appropriately registered and recognised administratively by TSU.

So, Mr Cain is now proposing to sue TSU and its president and maybe some students. I suspect that the whole thing will become a topic of interest to radio talk show hosts and others wanting to work up a nice lather of indignation at this latest egregious violation of freedom of speech, maybe in between arguing the case for removing broadcasting licences from TV stations that are hostile to the current US administration. Let’s just say that Mr Cain won’t be deprived of support from various commentators.

But here is the problem. You and I might not be booking our seats to hear Mr Cain. But as far as I can tell, the good Texas Representative is not on the same level of unacceptability as Mr Spencer, for whom I would certainly be more than reluctant to provide any kind of platform. Briscoe Cain is just an attention-seeking conservative Republican, and while I might not like his outlook I strongly believe in a competitive political forum in which all legitimate views should be given a hearing. According to media reports, Mr Cain’s attempts to speak were drowned out by student chants of ‘you don’t get a platform here’.

Right now universities in the United States, and some in the United Kingdom, are being criticised for their failure to protect the right to free speech; and some students may sometimes appear to limit free speech to speeches that they agree with. This is something we must be vigilant about. Unpopular views must indeed sometimes receive special protection, so that we never slip into a society in which oppression becomes easier because we have all paved the way for it.

I have no particular affection for Briscoe Cain. But he should have been allowed to speak.

A wayside inn

October 16, 2017

If you were travelling in the early 18th century in the American colonies, on the Boston Post Road between Boston and Worcester, you would have been able to stop at the Wayside Inn, where you would have enjoyed good food and a bed for the night. You can still do so today, and indeed the dinner menu contains ‘traditional New England fare’ of an appetising nature. Of course the Wayside Inn may be old in America, but coaching inns were common in Britain and elsewhere in Europe long before the 18th century. One of the oldest surviving ones in England is the George in Southwark, London (formerly The George and Dragon) dating from 1543 and mentioned in one of Dickens’ novels. I don’t think its menu compares favourably with that of the Wayside Inn, but it is good to see the building still in its originally intended use.

Continental Europe has many examples of fine old traditional coaching inns. The Inn Klausenhof for example, near the university town of Göttingen in Germany, once welcomed Goethe and the Grimm brothers.

For many contemporary travellers, however, the wayside options are rather less attractive, at least in these parts. A league table of British motorway services was recently compiled by Transport Focus. Reading Services on the M4 came out on top, with nearby Heston Services recorded as the worst. I cannot provide readers with the menus, but I can tell you that Heston offers you Burger King, Costa and Greggs. If you think Reading Services must therefore by much much better, I’m not so sure. There is an additional El Mexicana, which I’ll guess is a Tex-Mex sort of thing, but overall it’s pretty much the same offering as Heston.

Even in today’s world of fast travellers, it doesn’t have to be like that. In Switzerland, what you might get at the Luzerner Raststätte can be seen here. There are similar rather more attractive roadside places all over continental Europe.

There is an apparent assumption in Britain that the average motorway driver likes deep-fried food and 1970s-era toilets; indeed they may put up with nothing else. And yet even here change is in the air. My favourite, in what is admittedly not a very crowded list, are the Tebay Services in Cumbria. Here you even have a farm shop, and restaurant food that is nutritious and attractive. We cannot yet find the Wayside Inn on the M6, but maybe things will get better.

The philosopher’s stone

October 9, 2017

Outside of the world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, little attention is probably paid these days to the philosopher’s stone, or indeed the study of alchemy from which it derived. Even if we don’t now want to focus on the ostensible chemical transformation suggested by the concept (of base metals into gold or silver), alchemy provided an interesting framework for the study of life, enlightenment and perfection. Studies of alchemy provided early insights into both science and philosophy, as well as what we might now regard as more doubtful journeys into the esoteric and the occult.

What is interesting about all this is that in earlier periods of history scholars often had a much greater desire to understand more of the totality of knowledge than many would aspire to today, or indeed would be encouraged to pursue. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for example, who also wrote learned works on physics, political science, law and theology in the 17th and 18th centuries, did not accept the constraints of single-subject expertise. He even developed some of the foundations of modern computing.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity have been the subject of attention in this blog before. But perhaps a starting point for us now might be to give more space to philosophical reflection in all areas of learning, to create a sense of understanding of how different areas of knowledge connect and how they can either underpin or endanger our sense of values. It is perhaps time to ensure that all people, at key stages of their educational formation, are exposed to the major strands of philosophy. In this way education can be what it needs to be, the alchemy that turns knowledge into wisdom.