Archive for the ‘society’ category

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.

2017

January 9, 2017

Just over a year ago I offered some thoughts about what might make 2016 a satisfactory twelvemonth in my life. To be totally frank, looking back at that post I marvel at the banality of what I wrote, a little cocktail of the technical and the trivial at the beginning of a year; a year that had rather more ambition than that and was going to upset many of the expectations and hopes and assumptions of the circles I tend to move in. 2016 certainly did not bring success for Newcastle United, nor did it bury the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). It did however bring Brexit and President Trump, two developments that I didn’t at that point predict and which have eclipsed the more prosaic concerns I listed.

Maybe I belong to those who have indulged in what Boris Johnson has called a ‘whinge-o-rama’ as our preferences and aspirations were apparently shredded by popular vote. But these are moments when it is appropriate to explore again what we stand for, and why, and how we can work for success in what is now an undoubtedly different setting. Every watershed change in politics is in fact an invitation to explore ideas and to re-emphasise principle and clarity of thought, not expediency, as the driver of action.

So my hope for 2017 is that we, in the universities, can offer an effective forum for such an exploration, where all views can be aired and analysed and where the values of tolerance and rigour of debate can co-exist successfully.

The strange, strange behaviour of the Brexit victors

October 18, 2016

I think I have a word of advice for those who were on the winning side in the recent Brexit referendum in the UK and who are now preparing for Britain’s departure from the European Union: stop behaving in such a truculent manner, you won. There is no need for you to keep attacking and insulting those who voted to remain, they (we) lost.

The speeches and comments from the winning side seem to me to be shot through with insecurity, with some deep worry perhaps that the great Brexit project might not go well. And so they lash out at those who voted to remain – and who on the whole are actually staying relatively silent, waiting for what will happen next. So some of the more exotic (meaning, divorced from reality) newspapers rant about ‘Remoaners’ and suchlike, sometimes à propos of absolutely nothing. And the Brexit politicians and their surrogates come up with ever more ludicrous statements, like one Stewart Jackson MP (who understandably is not a household name) who has suggested that all patriotic British people should boycott the Economist because of its ‘liberal smugness’ and ‘Remoaner whining’. Dear me. Or the Daily Mail and Daily Express newspapers peddling conspiracy theories and suggesting the voices of ‘Remainers’ should be silenced. Or the deservedly unknown Tory Councillor Christian Holliday (who should maybe take a break), who started a petition to make arguing for the EU an act of treason.

We might and should ignore the latter idiot completely – his ‘petition’ has been taken down, though not without having received some support first – but for the really curious response to it by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. When asked whether she supported the idea that support for EU membership should be treason, a spokesman replied (according to the BBC):

‘Different people will choose their words differently. The prime minister is very clear that the British people have made their decision.’

There was only one possible rational answer to the question, and that was ‘No.’ The fact that the Ms May apparently couldn’t being herself to answer clearly is itself astonishing, and potentially a cause for concern.

Supporters of Brexit are now filling the airwaves with conspiracy theories and loud complaints about all those who don’t agree with them, blaming them in a precautionary way for any economic turbulence that may yet emerge. The curious thing is that all the whining, notwithstanding these claims to the contrary, is now coming from the Brexit side. But why? Are they so insecure, so unable to see their mission with a sense of self-confidence? Do they think that they must cover their own inability to manage the Brexit agenda with a barrage of insults aimed at those who have the temerity to ask them about it; or indeed even those saying nothing at all?

It is clear that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. It must do so on the best terms available for the economy and for society. That necessary objective should prompt close and constructive collaboration and inclusiveness; not these constant attacks and stupidities. Brexiteers, it’s time for you to realise that you won and to grow up.

The politics of taking offence

October 17, 2016

Recently Jackie Walker, who was vice-chair of the Labour-aligned Momentum group, was first suspended from the Labour Party and then more recently was removed from her Momentum position because of remarks she made about Holocaust Memorial Day thought by many to be antisemitic. She had also indicated that she had never come across a definition of antisemitism that she ‘could work with’.

Amongst other things, these events prompted a very interesting discussion on Twitter between the journalist Iain Macwhirter and the President of NUS Scotland, Vonnie Sandlan. The issue in broad terms was how one could identify antisemitism and therefore address it through law and other appropriate means. Iain Macwhirter argued that this could not be done simply through ‘self-definition’ – i.e. by allowing members of a racial or other group to declare what offends them and what should therefore be out of bounds in open discourse. Vonnie Sandlan in turn argued that ‘I fundamentally believe that any action on racism or fascism should be led by, and defined by, those who experience it.’ If that latter approach were to hold, Macwhirter argued, the alleged victim of racism would always be right in their complaint.

In the context of a lot of recent debate about the rise of antisemitism in particular and experiences of oppression by various groups more generally (e.g. Islamophobia), and indeed of the extent or limits of debate where contributions are liable to offend someone, this has become a significant issue. It is a particularly complex question in universities, as it also involves discussion of what constitutes legitimate free speech and where we will constrain it because it creates offence. The battle lines in Britain have not yet been drawn to the same degree as in the United States, but there is little doubt that we will hear more about these matters over here too.

The angry brigade, intolerance and the assault on Enlightenment values

October 10, 2016

Last night I watched the second US presidential debate. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or for that matter what I would find most satisfying, but I wanted to see it happening live. The post-debate consensus appears to be that Hillary Clinton won a particularly nasty event – in which, mind you, the nastiness did not particularly come from her.

But if we are horrified, as I am, by all the bile and aggression, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just appearing in American politics. In Europe the language of political discourse is taking similar forms in some contributions from France and Germany (and elsewhere). In Britain we have just witnessed a party’s internal ‘debate’ that involved an emergency hospital visit. And often when we get to hear members of the public contributing to a discussion the tone is one of anger.

There are several layers to this phenomenon, and the most obvious one is not the most important. Commentators are referring to the current political mood as something unprecedented – a growing group of people who have become angry because they have been ‘left behind’, because the gap between their means or aspirations and those of an ‘elite’ has widened excessively, whose fears and discomforts are not identified and addressed by that elite. In fact some of this is a true reflection of global societies: income inequality has been growing, albeit less because of pressures on the poor but more because of a huge growth in more extreme wealth. But then again, how can we explain such anger leading to support by the angry for a billionaire (Donald Trump) or for a former city trader (Nigel Farage)?

The more significant element here is that the angry sections of the population have, as people often do, been looking for someone to blame; and across continents that someone is the foreigner. The key shout has been to stop migration. This is by far the most important, and the most worrying, aspect of recent trends in popular opinion, and of political responses to it.

Of course concerns with immigration can be quite rational. No place can at short notice accommodate a massive influx of people, as Germany has discovered, and a clash of cultures between migrants and host communities can create genuinely uncomfortable (and indeed unacceptable) consequences. It is not disreputable to say that immigration must be managed intelligently. But you can measure the competence and integrity of politicians by the way they undertake this task, a hugely important part of which is to stop the emergence of xenophobia and racism. Many of the current generation of leading politicians globally (with some very honourable exceptions) are failing dismally. Or worse, they see it as their opportunity to follow the mob and stoke the fires of resentment.

The key victim of all of this is the western post-war liberal consensus. In Britain the attack on liberal values has most recently come from politicians who might have been expected to defend them, but who appeared to conclude that they must side with public opinion (as for example expressed in the Brexit decision). Some academics have recently pointed out that UK politicians are departing from the Enlightenment values that actually have their origins in Britain and which made the country a beacon of tolerance and decency. And this is a dangerous road on which to travel; it has only ever led to catastrophe.

Those of us who still believe in liberal Enlightenment values, even where we understand the pressures facing people in their lives, must not now stay silent. We should not be intimidated by the insults flying in our direction, often from the left as much as from the right. The freedoms that we all still enjoy are very very easily lost, and very hard to recover when they are.