Archive for the ‘society’ category

Must Rhodes fall?

January 12, 2016

If we were looking for an historical figure with whom a contemporary university would want to be associated, Cecil Rhodes probably would not be on the shortlist. He is strongly associated with the colonisation of Africa (often conducted very aggressively), and from time to time expressed views that we would have to regard as racist – though he also stated that it was unacceptable ‘to disqualify a human being on account of his colour’.

Last year a movement began to have a statue of Rhodes located on the campus of the University of Cape Town taken down. Of course this movement had a hashtag, #RhodesMustFall. The university took down the statue and is re-locating it elsewhere. Shortly afterwards a similar movement, initiated by South African Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, demanded that Oriel College Oxford remove its statue of Rhodes (who was one of the College’s major benefactors). Mr Qwabe may have slightly muddied the waters of his campaign by including in its objectives the banning of the French tricolour national flag.

But how should one see such campaigns? There have been vocal contributions to the debate, both for and against the removal of the Oxford statue. But how should one treat the issue? Is it good enough to say that historical artefacts must be retained because they are of their time and may help us to illustrate our contemporary evaluation of history? Would anyone suggest, for example, that if we found a statue somewhere of Hitler it should stay put? And not just Hitler, though actually there are still statues of Stalin, who was responsible for a good deal more aggression, violence, oppression and death than one could ever associate with Rhodes.

In the end, the key in all of this maybe does not lie in what we do with statues or other symbols, but how we ensure that our words, our vision and our actions reflect an ethos and values that are in keeping with the spirit of higher education. Oxford may, as some have argued, have a racism problem – but this has little enough to do with whose likeness is on the outside wall of Oriel College. The university may need to take action to correct this; but thinking that the main objective is about what it does with statues is a distraction.

For myself, I would leave statues where they are, but would want to be reminded from time to time that the values of learning, integrity, tolerance and equality need to be stated and restated in every generation; and that the symbols we erect today should be beacons of those values.

Floods

January 11, 2016

As readers of this blog will know, many parts of Britain have had to deal with serious flooding. The North-East of Scotland had, until about a week ago, largely escaped the heavy rain and wind that caused such damage elsewhere, but over recent days that changed dramatically. By the weekend many towns and rural communities had been affected. The rather pretty little town of Ballater (near Balmoral Castle), for example, has been so badly flooded that some are wondering whether it can ever be restored to its prior state.

My own neighbourhood has not fared well. We live outside the village of Tarves, and the little road from our house was by Friday submerged, though still passable with care.

flooded road

Not far away, the river Ythan burst its banks in the village of Methlick.

Methlick

The actual river is on the left, above – the large expanse of water on the right is a flooded field, and the houses on the far right were at one stage about three feet under water.

One other feature of the floods has been the flow of unexpected items in the torrents caused by the floods. In one location two mobile homes were dumped by the flow of water in a person’s back garden, having been pushed over the garden wall; sitting on top of one of them was a BMW car! In the photo below the car was carried along by the water and left stranded on the edge of a flooded field.

car

It is to be hoped that the weather will now settle down – there has already been too much damage.

Here’s what I’m hoping at the start of 2016

January 5, 2016

It is the human condition to hope that everything will be better in this year compared with the last. Tennyson expressed it well:

‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.’

So, in that spirit, here are my hopes (I shall not say expectations) for 2016. They may or may not be in order of importance.

  • Newcastle United will shine in the English premiership. OK, won’t be relegated.
  • Ireland will win the European football championships. OK, won’t be eliminated in the group stage.
  • There won’t be a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in Scotland. (I don’t think it should be adopted anywhere, but let’s stick with Scotland).
  • There will be a real drive to remove bureaucratisation from higher education.
  • Daniel Craig will agree to play James Bond one more time.
  • Aberdeen City and Shire will succeed in the bid for a City Region Deal.
  • The Eurovision Song Context will be the most enjoyable ever, and avoid geopolitics.

A very happy New Year to all readers of this blog. May 2016 bring you health, and prosperity, and intellectual curiosity and satisfaction.

Keeping the library open

December 21, 2015

This post will be slightly more philosophical in intent than the title may suggest.

In the late 1970s I was a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England. As was the case with many of those doing research for a PhD, I spent a lot of time in the library. Or maybe I should say, in the libraries, because Cambridge had a number of these and I frequented many of them, in part because I was trying to stretch my work across disciplinary boundaries. I loved the libraries, and I enjoyed working there and eating there and observing other users there.

And then I attended a talk at which the speaker suggested that the age of libraries was nearly over. At the time we were not yet in the era of personal computing, but the speaker predicted – accurately – that this was just over the horizon, and (less accurately) that once computers became accessible to the masses libraries would be out of business. Books, he suggested, would be acquired for their historical and aesthetic attractions but not for reading.

Earlier this year, on a visit to London, I sought out a library I used to frequent on visits from Cambridge, and found much of it as I remembered it. There were plenty of readers, and while some were sitting at desks with iPads out, others were immersed in old fashioned print. But there was a difference. I don’t know whether it was just that particular day, but what I found was that the readers were interacting with each other much more than in former days. Back then we would sit quietly and do our reading and writing, and the only interaction would be an irritated glance at someone making a noise. Now people were exchanging views, pointing to things 0n their iPads or their books, quietly arguing or discussing.

If there has been a change, I suspect this will have been caused by a number of different factors; but I think the accessibility of technology-disseminated information will have played a part, as this breaks down strict disciplinary boundaries more easily than, in former days, cautious attempts to invade some other discipline’s scholarly spaces. And books have kept pace, still read, indeed perhaps more widely shared now than before: the analog and the digital in harmony.

Very frequently, not unique

November 24, 2015

For all you academic authors out there, what you need to know about the title of this post is that you must never ever use any of the words in your writing. Nor should you ‘feel’ anything ‘eagerly’, or indeed ‘frequently’, and ‘finally’ you should ‘never’ write about ‘the public’.

Who says? Well, it’s a support service for writers called Tameri, and they have a guide for writers that contains a  list of words and phrases to avoid. And indeed they also suggest you stop using adjectives and adverbs; and infinitives. Only then will your writing be perfect. Or not, as you mustn’t use ‘perfect’.

Liberté, liberté chérie

November 17, 2015

This is not the time to offer a political commentary on recent events. But it is perhaps apposite to remark that many of the values we take for granted in our part of the world had their intellectual origins in France – together with those nourished or developed in the United States and in Britain.

The world is a complex place, and difficult dilemmas face us, but these values should continue to drive us: of tolerance, political secularism, equality of opportunity and personal freedom. Standing in solidarity with France, we should never compromise on these.

[Liberté, liberté chérie is a line from the sixth verse of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.]

Knocking louder on Europe’s door

September 27, 2015

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, the University of Dundee

It is almost two years exactly since my guest post on this blog, Knocking on Europe’s door, a post I felt compelled to write out of outrage and frustration at the loss of over 300 migrants’ lives off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Sadly, Lampedusa has proven not to be an isolated tragedy. Only a few weeks ago the photograph of a dead Syrian boy on a Turkish beach suddenly captured the world media’s attention dispelling, or so one hopes, any ‘compassion fatigue’ that the European public opinion might have experienced so far. Germany has taken the lead, presenting itself as the Weltmeister in willingness to help, while also asking for that pan-European solidarity (in the form of a redistribution of refugees across the Union) it so clearly rejected in the Greek crisis. The country is struggling to cope as the first destination of choice for the world’s refugees and asylum seekers, to the point that plans of housing some of them in Buchenwald barracks are being considered. History, as philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote, is “irony on the move.”

While the watershed moment in public opinion caused by the powerful photograph of a dead child is welcome, I don’t think that the EU can function if it is run according to the shifting moods of the national electorates. This is exactly what has happened so far with regard to the immigration debate, which not only has conflated crucial legal distinctions between a migrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker, but also has predominantly reflected the populist views of the mob over those of the democratic crowd.

This is not the place to analyse in depth the root causes of what is only the latest migration/refugee crisis in humanity’s history – the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory is often evoked; I believe instead that literature provides us with the most useful insights into the shape of things to come. The Camp of the Saints (Le Camp des Saints), a 1973 French apocalyptic novel by Jean Raspail depicting a not too distant future when mass migration to the West leads to the destruction of Western civilisation, eerily foreshadows current discussions about ‘European (Christian) values,’ or its local variant of ‘British values.’ In December 1994 The Atlantic Monthly dedicated its cover story “Must It Be the Rest Against the West?” to the novel. The piece is still so relevant that it might have been written yesterday. Here is its sobering conclusion:

For the remainder of this century, we suspect, the debate will rage over what and how much should be done to improve the condition of humankind in the face of the mounting pressures described here and in other analyses. One thing seems to us fairly certain. However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints.

For a more recent literary example in a similar dystopic vein I would suggest Michel Houellebecq’s  Soumission (2015), which features the election of an Islamist to the French presidency, against the backdrop of a general disintegration of Enlightenment values in French society.

So here is the challenge facing us: how best can we advance the debate from the disturbing xenophobic undertones which have characterised it so far?

First of all a close look at our own myths might reveal that at the origin of Western civilization there is a refugee story: wasn’t Aeneas, the founder of Rome, a homeless refugee from the war between Greeks and Trojans? From the world of myths to the more pragmatic one of politics, the answer lies in “more Europe and more union”, as the EU commission president recently put it (not only more but a much better union and Europe, I would argue), and in the role that cultural institutions like universities, Europe’s traditional seats of knowledge, must play.

It is very welcome that, perhaps belatedly, Universities UK new President, Dame Julia Goodfellow – first female President since UUK was established in 1918 – launched the Universities for Europe campaign last July. Also, the UK universities’ commitment ‘to a future in the European Union’ was strongly reaffirmed in her recent address to the Annual Member’s Conference, together with the repeated urge to remove international students from the Government’s net migration target. In her conclusions Dame Julia Goodfellow reminded the conference that ‘every day, universities are improving lives, helping the country grow, and changing the world.’ This is the time for universities to be true to such an ideal mission. They can contribute to changing the world and changing lives in many ways, one of which is by supporting projects like Article 26, whose aim is to promote access to higher education for people who have fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK. Universities can make a difference by introducing a whole series of measures to support refugee students, as the University of Glasgow has just done. In ‘The Syrian refugee crisis – What can universities do?’ Hans de Wit and Philip G Altbach identify several ways in which universities can provide a positive response to the crisis, not least because ‘in the current competition for talent, these refugees are not only seen as victims and a cost factor for the local economy, but in the long run also as welcome new talent for the knowledge economy.’

Personally, I would love to see universities, so acutely aware of the benefits of philanthropy at times of financial constraints, becoming themselves generous intellectual benefactors. Solidarity (fraternité) might have its costs, but the costs will be enormously higher in the long run for us all by the lack of it. In a globalised world our personal stories and those of our nations are interconnected, just like our destinies.


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