Archive for the ‘society’ category

Exploring discriminatory language

July 3, 2017

I want to raise something here without suggesting what the appropriate response should be.

Let me take the report from the Daily Telegraph:

Cambridge University examiners are told to avoid using words like “flair”, “brilliance” and “genius” when assessing students’ work because they are associated with men, an academic has revealed.

Lucy Delap, a lecturer in British history at Cambridge University, said that History tutors are discouraged from using these terms because they “carry assumptions of gender inequality”.

“Some of those words, in particular genius, have a very long intellectual history where it has long been associated with qualities culturally assumed to be male”, she said. “Some women are fine with that, but others might find it hard to see themselves in those categories”.’

I have absolutely no doubt that a fair amount of language used ostensibly in an impartial way actually conveys discriminatory assumptions, and sometimes intent. It would be very difficult to argue otherwise. A couple of years ago Liverpool Football Club issued a list of unacceptable words and expressions as part of the campaign to drive out sexual and racism from football. Most of these words are easily recognisable as unacceptable. Would the same be said readily about Lucy Delap’s short list? And if not, how do we know where the line is to be drawn between expressions that are acceptable (even if sometimes controversial) and those that are not?

Community

June 6, 2017

In the United Kingdom, we have all been shocked by recent events in Manchester and London – and perhaps heartened just a little by the extraordinary response of an undefeated and generous community in each location. But many of us are struggling to see how we can maintain that sense of togetherness, which is constantly threatened, not just by terrorists but by others who see such moments as a good occasion to rattle the cages, for example by talking of internment of innocent people or deliberately stirring divisiveness.

Most of us can do far too little in the face of this. But we can do something, and this something is central to the raison d’être of universities. We can remind ourselves and others that the liberal values of liberty, justice, knowledge and inclusiveness, but also the willingness to defend those values and continue to live them even when we face the threat of bombs and vans on pavement, matter. We must work for the survival and prospering of a community in which we all support each other, even in the face of setbacks. And we must remember that everyone, all over the world, deserves such a community.

There is much to be done at this difficult time.

The literacy imperative

May 15, 2017

The history of social progress, of public health, of prosperity has all been closely connected with the advance of literacy. Societies with high literacy rates are capable of social and technological progress that evades those with low literacy. The fact, for example, that the Central African Republic has a literacy rate of 37 per cent, while in Germany it is 100 per cent, gives you a very close idea of the difference in wellbeing between the two countries.

Literacy itself has become more complex. It has always been discussed alongside numeracy (which in turn strongly affects scientific capacity), but increasingly literacy is seen to include digital literacy in the information technology age. But even ‘traditional’ literacy is not always straightforward: employers in western developed countries often complain that people looking for employment are inarticulate and unskilled in basic writing tasks. In explaining this state of affairs it is sometimes suggested that ‘progressive’ learning methods have undermined literacy. For the generation entering school in the 1970s and 1980s, children were often given books in which, without basic spelling and phonetic instruction, they were encouraged to associate written words with pictures and related context (a programme known as ‘real books’). But this, it is argued, makes literacy depend on remembering how words ‘look’ rather than the ability to make connections between combinations of letters and sounds. It has been suggested by some that this pedagogical fashion did at least instil in young people a respect for and love of books; though whether it supported basic literacy is more questionable.

I do not myself belong to the tribe of nostalgia pedlars who believe there was a golden age (probably in the 1950s) when everyone could read and write perfectly. It was never perfect. Nevertheless, we do well to keep a real focus on literacy, because so much else depends on it. The attainment gap between rich and poor is directly connected with literacy.

Those who think that graduates today lack literacy often blame the universities. There are certain remedial initiatives that universities can undertake to help students who enter higher education with literacy problems, but overall the issue needs to be addressed at a much earlier age if such methods are to be effective. In Scotland the government is supporting some pilot programmes in primary schools to improve vocabulary – and that is where the initiatives need to be undertaken.

Science: on the march or in retreat?

May 8, 2017

In around 600 locations around the world, on 22 April 2017, there were demonstrations described as ‘marches for science’. These marches were organised to make the following point:

‘We marched because science is critical to our health, economies, food security, and safety. We marched to defend the role of science in policy and society.’

More specifically, the organisers wanted to reinforce one of the key characteristics of an enlightened society, that public policy (and other) decisions should be taken on the basis of evidence.

Less than two weeks later in the United States of America, the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed from its scientific review board all its academic members, replacing them with representatives of the industries that the EPA was set up to regulate.

In the development and implementation of environmental policy there are, as in all areas of scientific investigation, reasons for ensuring that points of view contradicting received wisdom are given consideration. But in this as in every other area, such consideration should be based on evidence rather than assertion, and certainly should not overlook the vested interests of those expressing the points of view in question.

Social, scientific and cultural enlightenment was not won easily through the course of human history. It is very easily lost. Universities have a very special responsibility to make the case – the unarguable case – that clear evidence should be sought and given priority in all matters of public policy. Dismissing from view those able to provide that evidence should and must be seen as a scandal, to be highlighted as such.

The world today: it’s all about migration

March 14, 2017

Whatever part of the world or country or region you may call your own, the population you share it with got there largely as a result of mass migration. Most of Europe is populated by those whose ancestors took part in the major movements of Völkerwanderung, and populations changed and shifted through major major migration or conquests. No significant country you have ever heard of has had a settled population through the centuries. Nor is this all ancient history – it has been a feature of all centuries, to some extent at least.

One of the consequences of migration has been the internationalisation of learning. Even when there were hardly any efficient methods of transport, scholars and students wandered between centres of education and enriched each other’s cultures. Universities became knowledge exchanges of scholarship and cultures, influencing national development (of which Scotland, from where I write, is an excellent example).

Of course large-scale migration also poses challenges and requires the adoption of sensible policies to manage it. But the desire sometimes expressed in modern times for a recognisably uniform autouchtonous ethnic culture that has uniform traits is not at all an expression of tradition: it contradicts civilised human experience and has the capacity to align itself with tyranny.

Many of our recent global developments have their roots in the fear of migration: Brexit, Donald Trump’s wall, ethnic cleansing. These are not good developments in so far as they are driven by fear and insecurity. Politicians must address this with more wisdom than many have shown; but in particular they must recognise that scholarship and learning cannot thrive within closed borders. And the higher education academy must keep making the case for the shared international experience of the educational community.

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.

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.