Archive for the ‘society’ category

Breaking away?

July 26, 2016

Academics are well used to being asked some time in early June at the latest whether the are now off until September. As I have mentioned a number of times, this is never the case now (and anyway never was the case in most universities) – few manage to take more than 2-3 weeks away.

However, I can report that I am now on a two-week break, and right now am travelling between the United States and Canada (tomorrow I shall be in Halifax, Nova Scotia).

As I travel I get a chance to read things I don’t normally have the time to tackle. This time it has been Pnin by Nabokov; Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; and The Silent People by Walter Macken. Alongside that, and for real entertainment, a book on monetary economics.

I hope some of my readers are also enjoying a break. Back to normal service for me next week.

The nature of argument

July 19, 2016

One of the key demands made of a democratic community is that it must be capable of critical argument. Nobody can be sure that an idea, or a policy, or a proposal has merit until it has been properly tested in debate. However, as Monty Python pointed out (or not) some time ago, conducting an argument is not the same thing as hurling abuse. And yet that increasingly is what it has become, at any rate in certain political quarters.

Right now I am visiting the United States. It is an interesting time to do so, as we are just into the Republican Party Convention. Perhaps unwisely, I spent a little time this evening watching the proceedings on television, and the sum of the speeches, interjections, interviews and commentary was simple enough: Hillary Clinton is a crooked liar. That’s all you need to know, and let’s not assess the evidence too much, it confuses the message.

But before those who dislike the Republican Party and maybe feel superior to the United States get into their stride, the last few days have seen bucketloads of abuse thrown around in Britain also, a good bit of it at the Conservative Party; in fact, there is a popular hashtag on Twitter that reads #Toryscum. I am not an apologist for the Tory Party, but I cannot help noticing that all too often its detractors detract less with reason and more with vilification.

Political debate is becoming increasingly coarse, and all too often those conducting it seem to assume that they will fare best if they succeed in attacking the bona fides of their opponents rather than the merits of their opponents’ arguments. The result of this is popular cynicism, which in turn corrodes democratic processes.argument

Of course there are some politicians who deserve censorious denunciation. But not all of them do, and not even all in a particular party with which you or I might disagree. Real argument is more intellectually laudable than personal abuse. In fact, abusive anger is never attractive and rarely appropriate, in whatever setting we might be tempted to apply it.

I’ll probably go back to watching the GOP tomorrow. I have asked my family to prod me if I mutter anything abusive.

A quest for ignorance?

June 20, 2016

One of the more curious things to come out of the current British EU referendum campaign is the debate about ‘experts’. For some time the Remain side have been producing economists, political scientists, financiers and others to explain why a UK exit form the EU – so-called ‘Brexit’ – would be a bad idea. The Leave side have been much less successful in getting well known figures to support their case. And so, in the course of an interview on Sky television, leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove offered this: ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’.

However, this is not a completely new suggestion. Some years ago in 1981 I attended a conference as a young lecturer. One of the invited speakers was one of Mr Gove’s predecessors as Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. In the course of a questions and answers session at the end of his talk, he was invited to consider the line-up of prominent economists then publicly criticising the Conservative government’s economic policies. ‘Ah, the experts,’ he mused. ‘”Expertise” is just a fancy word for “bias”. We don’t need all these self-proclaimed experts.’ And before him still, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan complained that ‘we have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts’.

In the current EU campaign, the dislike of expertise and a lack of trust in experts has become one of the characteristics of the Leave population. According to a recent poll, Leave voters actually don’t trust many people generally, but particularly not economists, academics, people from the Bank of England, and think tanks. Instead they prefer to rely on the common sense of ‘ordinary people’.

It is tempting for an academic to be dismissive of all this. However, that would be wrong. Far from being dismissive, we should be concerned that the pursuit of knowledge is so little valued by so many people. Is it because Lord Hailsham was actually right – that becoming highly knowledgeable in a particular field desensitises us to the validity of challenge from those not in the inner circle of expertise? Do we need to look more closely – as a research project is doing – at the idea of intellectual humility?

On the other hand, we should be vigorous in defence of knowledge and discovery, without which we can achieve neither progress nor a civilised society. Those of us who make some claim to expertise should do so without arrogance, but also with confidence in the importance of scholarship and the contribution it makes. Common sense is a traditional British virtue; but it is not a substitute for expertise.

Butterfly and bee. And poet.

June 5, 2016

I think that everything that can be said on the death of Muhammad Ali has been said by now. So I’ll just let him talk:

Muhammad Ali was, perhaps more than a boxer, a poet; a poet of words, rhyme and movement. That is worth celebrating, and his passing is worth mourning.

The rise of the illiberal university?

May 23, 2016

In 1982 the German-American historian Konrad Jarausch published a fascinating book (Students, Society and Politics in Imperial Germany: the Rise of Academic Illiberalism) in which he charted the rush of Wilhelmine universities and academics into sentimental nationalism and xenophobic intolerance, a rush that later allowed Hitler to secure student support even before he had assumed political power. It was a trend to be found also in other European countries at the time. But in Germany it was remarkable that the stirrings of inward looking nationalism in academic and student circles came just as universities were becoming less elite, and in particular were less the property of the aristocracy. The new academic population gave its support to an uncritical nationalism and shut out contrary voices.

Today’s universities are not on the same trajectory, and yet they too are experiencing tremors of illiberalism.  A recent study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute has revealed that a significant majority of students in the UK (76 per cent) have some sympathy for so-called ‘no platform’ policies, under which certain speakers are banned from speaking on a campus because their views are deemed unpalatable. Curiously the same study revealed that 60 per cent of students think that universities should never limit free speech.

What do we make of that? Nick Hillman, the Director of the Institute, thinks that for some students ‘illiberalism appears to be a way of protecting liberalism.’ But a democratic and open society requires debate, and this requirement is not satisfied by the presentation solely of arguments that the majority approves of or likes. A liberal and tolerant society needs to be tested in robust argument or it will quickly become illiberal. Free speech is not ‘free’ at all if it excludes certain views.

Today’s university population will, much more still than in Wilhelmine Germany, supply the dominant leadership in all layers of society for the next generation, and its values will inform our future. A society that only ever wants to hear what it already believes is hugely vulnerable to something it may think it is warding off. It is time to recover the truly liberal university.

Bookend?

May 2, 2016

Let’s not personalise this, so no names. But a few years ago I read about a group of academics protesting at their university about some restructuring or other then taking place. Their ire was particularly directed at one of the university’s senior management team, an academic who, they claimed, didn’t have a single book in his office. More recently at another university, or so it is claimed, another member of the senior team stated openly that he didn’t see the need for a university library any more.

But it’s not just university heads and their teams. The Independent newspaper recently reported that at an English university some academics are finding it hard to persuade their students to read books. One professor suggested:

‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.’

Others have reported that Victorian literature is disappearing from the curricula of English degree courses because the novels are simply too long – nobody could be expected to read them cover to cover.

Of course it’s not just universities. A couple of years ago in America the Pew Research Center found that 23 per cent of adults had not read a single book (in whatever form, including digital and audio) in the preceding year. Some 35 years earlier that figure would have been 8 per cent.

So what is happening? Are books dead? I doubt that: in recent years there has been a drop in book sales in some countries, but more than off-set by significant increases in others. Nevertheless, people’s engagement with them is changing, and because you can read things in unusual ways and take them from unusual sources it is hard to gauge changes in reading patterns. And of course a ‘book’ is a more complex item now, as it is not necessarily something printed on paper between covers.

I would be more concerned if the choice of books we might read were all about volume and length. There is of course an important place in literature for the short story or the novella. But it is important that we take the time and make the effort to engage with ideas that occupy more than 60 pages. There may be all sorts of reasons for including or not including Charles Dickens on a university curriculum: but the fact that his books tend to be longer than 500 pages should not be one of them.

Alphabetical fate

April 19, 2016

A good few years ago I wrote an academic paper with a colleague. We thought it was pretty good. While we did more or less equal amounts of writing, I had done most of the research and so we agreed easily that my name would come first. This was not however the view of the journal in which we wanted the piece to appear. They agreed to publish it, but insisted that my fellow author’s name had to come first.

Why was this? Was he the better academic? Was he better known in our field? Hell, was he better looking than me? None of that. His surname began with the letter ‘B’, mine with a ‘V’. That was it.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a report on research that showed that people with a name beginning with letters from A to M were more likely to earn more money than those nearer the bottom of the alphabet, more likely to be elected if they were politicians, more likely to be university leaders, more likely to win the Nobel Prize.

In my own case, I could of course argue that my surname officially (under German practice) begins with a ‘P’ rather than a ‘V’, but why bother, I end up in the lower part of the alphabet either way.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that in this most intellectual of environments – in the academy of higher education – the odds are also stacked in favour of those higher up in the alphabet. When we tell ourselves that we are always objective and uninfluenced by irrelevant factors, someone might perhaps suggest to us to think again; though ideally that someone’s name should begin with an ‘A’.


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