Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Egotism in academia

It's often said that academics are rather arrogant. This article certainly gives some telling examples, but I still don't know to what extent I agree with a broad-brush negative characterization — I've probably known too many pleasant, rather humane academics.

But there is one supreme virtue possessed by academics, which I think should always be cited in their defence — they are, on the whole, comfortable with people who are as smart as, or smarter than, them.

Ok, yes, there's a huge amount of bitching and snidiness. But compared to other professions (including 'para-academic' ones such as lexicography), and to other parts of the educational profession, those in academia are much more likely to be unintimidated by talent and to embrace and nurture it. Academics may be petty, but they can also be big.

But now back to the beginning — is this acceptance and nurturing of talent only possible because academics are so egotistical that they think no challenge threatens them? Perhaps academic egotism is a positive thing, a necessary ingredient in university teaching because without it the most capable students would inevitably have their prospects sabotaged by insecure, threatened professors.

Or am I being naive, and insecure, threatened professors are the reality?

Blunt vs. Bryant

Shadow cabinet minister Chris Bryant bemoaning the renewed success of the public schoolboy in modern-day Britain:
I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk. Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system.
To hazard a guess, I'd say the Alberts and Glendas are still with us, it's just that their ambitions have been neglected by a state education system that, through the best of intentions, has become ideologically committed to mediocrity.

Also, since when was Harrow then Sandhurst a sneaky backdoor into pop stardom?

It's an unpalatable thought, but what if Britain actually is fairly meritocratic, and this is exactly the reason why the public-schoolers are doing so well — they've been better educated and are consequently more successful. 

How do we make sure government, the top end of sport, and culture represent broader society?

We could say — yes, well-educated old Etonians etc. largely do succeed in wider society through fair, meritocratic competition, but their becoming well-educated in the first place was un-meritocratic, because it came to down to having rich parents: so let's achieve meritocracy by banning private education.

Problem with outlawing private education is that it means the state would have a monopoly on coming up with ideas for how to educate ourselves - on current evidence it is too unlikely those ideas would always (or regularly) be the best ones, and education is too important for close-mindedness. Think of a private school and one thinks of Harrow, but there are plenty of experimental private schools based on diverse educational theories.

I'd rule out this illiberal solution, though would agree on the need to reform the overly lax tax rules.

If a liberal democracy that values education therefore has to live with private schools, then what is the best way to cohabit? Positive discrimination in favour of state schoolers, or negative for public schoolers is unthinkable — if our two-tier society is bad and invidious why perpetuate it? Besides, we forget that meritocracy doesn't just mean the best candidate getting what they deserve — it also means our society gets what it deserves, which is the best-qualified and educated people doing the important jobs, whatever their background.

The only way we can live with a private education sector, be a liberal democracy, and have a properly representative elite is for the state sector to compete with the private. Ok, in terms of cash — impossible. And let's rule out grammar schools for now as a partially failed experiment. 

That leaves institutional ethos — easily rejected by the materialist dogma of many on the left, but this is no sensible reason to neglect it. We would be silly to ignore the principals of successful independent schools when they stress the centrality of ethos in their success. Maybe 'ethics' would be a better term — what it is good that you do, what it is bad that you do. The universality of state education encourages the assumption that it is ethically neutral, but I don't think it is. 

So here is a list of ethics I think state schools should propagate, but which were either absent or merely soft-pedalled at the state school I went to:

  1. It is good to be pushed, hard, to do worthwhile things;
  2. It is good to excel, even though others around you do not;
  3. It is good to be extraordinary;
  4. It is good to do difficult things.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Joe Sacco on Charlie Hebdo

Why so many plaudits for the piss-weak hand-wringing of Joe Sacco's response to the Charlie Hebdo murders?

We certainly should 'try to think about why the world is the way it is' — in our politics, our science, our moral reasoning, and elsewhere. But not in satire, which is our set-aside space for anarchic mockery and subversion — isn't it? A mutually agreed breather from the obligation to reason seriously about why the world is as it is, how it could be changed, etc.?

Sacco's answer to the Charlie Hebdo debate is to propose a duty to be morally and politically serious that limits the freedom to be satirical and anarchic. Maybe Mr Sacco doesn't follow the news much — isn't that essentially the very proposition, violently expressed by Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, that kicked off this whole debate?

We should accommodate satire, he says, by leaving no room for it, by erasing it. This question-begging doesn't even resemble a useful solution to the problem. It should be disregarded.

Review: Antonia Syson, 'Fama' and Fiction in Vergil's 'Aeneid'

I wrote a review of this book for the Bryn Mawr Classical Review — it can can be read here.

(I didn't like it.)

Thursday, 8 January 2015


It seems certain that at some point in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris discussion will turn to multiculturalism, and that the discussion will be fairly polarized - some will argue it is fundamental to our aspiration to be a decent and tolerant society, others will argue it is a dangerous and naive abandonment of important democratic values.

My own sense is that we have to work towards a functioning pluralistic society, if only so that we can all live decent and peaceful lives. Acknowledging the difficulty of this aim in no way diminishes its validity and rightness. Of course it will be difficult getting people of different religions, cultures, nations, and ethnicities to live together peaceably - to hold otherwise would require a dismissal or ignorance of most of human history.

Unwillingness to admit this difficulty is also motivated - particularly among those on the left - by a fear of guilt by resemblance. Expressing anything circumspect about multiculturalism could see you misidentified as one of those right-wing enemies who express similar sentiments - it might even somehow put you on a slippery slope towards holding the same opinions. Best, then, to avoid circumspection.

But this is nonsense. The most worthwhile prizes, a pluralistic society being one of them, are often difficult to achieve, and achieving them involves being circumspect and facing the hard questions. 

So here's what I think are some hard questions. Muslim clerics have been vocal in their denunciation of the killings - as e.g. here. Is it, however, the right sort of denunciation, and is it right for us to ask the clerics for more? They agree that the killing of the journalists was wrong, but the wrongness of murder is a fairly easily achieved piece of common ground, and falls short of a trickier and more important confrontation (and hopefully, ultimately, reconciliation) between the religious and the secular: 

we can all agree the murders violated the sanctity of human life, but do the clerics agree that freedom of speech enjoys a similar sanctity and that its violation is a large part of the wrong committed by the murderers?  
Do the clerics agree that the murderers' right to act on their indignation, however justified, was always curtailed by the need to protect the free speech of others (indeed, of all) and not just the lives of others?  
Do they accept the reason for this curtailment, which is that protecting freedom of speech is a greater and/or more necessary virtue than religious observance?

These are not leading questions - 'if they say "no" to any of them then let's deport them' - and I do not think they are a means of identifying deviancy or 'enemy' thinking - the last one would probably prove tricky across our entire society, not just for followers of Islam. But it's hugely important right now that we see eye-to-eye with the Muslim community, and work out where we all stand, and what sort of understanding we can come to. So let's have at it.