What is to be done?

This is a response to Liz Morrish’s article on whether universities “are meaningful to the academics who work within them“. You should read the whole article, but the crux of it is here:

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

This is a quick response, following the engineering practice that good enough today is better than perfect tomorrow.

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Casey on oaths

In the fuss over Sajid Javid’s support for an oath of loyalty to `British values’ to be taken by public servants, it is worth having a look at what the Casey Review actually proposes. It has recommendations for two oaths. One would be taken by public servants:

Recommendation 12:
We expect the highest standards in all civic leaders in selflessness and integrity, so too we should expect all in public office to uphold the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. The Government should work with the Committee for Standards in Public life to ensure these values are enshrined in the principles of public life, including a new oath for holders of public office.

Quite rightly, this has raised objections, though Diane Abbot is missing the point when she says that “I have nothing against it in principle, but it will not make a difference to the problems of radicalisation, or integration. I don’t think the oath will make any verifiable difference.” It is wrong in principle, and should be objected to on principle. Nothing more should be demanded of any office holder than that they do their job competently and honestly. Anything else is a matter for the law, and not for some performance of acquiescence to the state. Of course, such an oath will make a verifiable difference, like loyalty oaths everywhere: it will intimidate the dissident and produce a climate in which people will fear for their livelihoods if they say the wrong thing. Incidentally, given that members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines do not swear an oath of allegiance, this would be setting a higher bar for “elected officials, civil servants, council workers, and BBC and NHS employees” than for an Admiral of the Fleet.

The second recommendation has been less-widely discussed but is equally disturbing. It would require newly arrived immigrants to swear an oath on arrival, merely in order to remain in the country.

Recommendation 6:
The Government should also review the route to full British Citizenship, which is of huge national, cultural and symbolic value. The Government should look at what is required for British citizenship, as opposed to leave to remain, and
separately consider an Oath of Integration with British Values and Society on arrival, rather than awaiting a final citizenship test.

A citizen of another country would be required to swear an oath merely to live in the United Kingdom. This goes beyond any undertaking to obey the laws of their country of residence, or to learn the language, or know something of the culture. It is a demand for a performance of loyalty and acquiescence which can only have the effect of insulting and demeaning people newly arrived in this country and intimidating them into renouncing the exercise of basic civil and human rights.


Meet the new normal, same as the old normal

We are being told that the present state of chassis is #notnormal, and that we should not normalize it. Zoe Williams in the Guardian talks of what is now being accepted as `normal’, whether under Trump or after the Brexit vote, and lays the blame where it belongs:

Normalising is not anything the rightwing extremists do, and they do not try: they don’t look for acceptable labels for themselves. It is the mainstream that twists itself into conciliatory pretzel knots finding nicer words for “fascist”, such as “alt-right”.

Democrats try to find the fault within themselves: ask not whether a racist hates; ask what made the racist so angry in the first place. Once we have found the right member of the liberal elite to pin it on, the hate maybe won’t sound so frightening.

The reason things seem `normal’ or `normalized’ is that they have been treated as normal for years, certainly within higher education. For example,

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So, Vice-Chancellor, now what?

So the UK is leaving the European Union and it is time for the Vice-Chancellors to panic. Before `university leaders’ tell university staff, students, and the public who pay their inflated salaries that “we’re all in this together” or some variation thereon, begging us to help get them out of this mess, they might like to think on their own conduct.
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Before I die I will speak my native language

James Plunkett was one of Ireland’s greatest writers, author of the great Irish novel, Strumpet City. This extract is from The Gems She Wore (1972), his account of some Irish places and his travels to and in them.

We set out from Castletownbere by helicopter, filmed here and there for some hours and were, from my amateur grasp of navigational matters, firmly in the middle of nowhere when the pilot asked me if there was any place near in which we could get morning coffee. I looked down. There was a great lump of uninhabited mountain below, forbidding cliffs ahead and the rolling sea beyond. The most I knew about our whereabouts was that we were certainly not over the Phoenix Park, but being the only Irishman at hand I had to pretend to be knowledgeable. Seawards, the nearest coffee shop would be in New York, so we turned inland. Stony fields, narrow tracks and an occasional cottage with hens and domestic animals scattering in all directions at the noise of our approach were the only signs of organised society, until we passed over an isolated building which from the air looked very much like the others, except that it was larger and there were three cars parked fairly near it. I pointed down and said: `There’. We circled, saw a possible landing place about half a mile away and descended near a beach, where a party of men were packing up some land-sea rescue equipment with which they had been practising. They were speaking Irish, but answered the pilot’s inquiry about coffee in English. The pilot, Peter Peckowski, speaks with a slight Polish accent. By all means they said, but doubtfully. Coffee is not very usual in remote Ireland. They led us over ditches and by tracks to the roadway and there, in front of us, was the building I had spotted from the air. It was a public house.

`Tell me’, said one of the men, `did youse ever drink tea?’

I assured him we had.

Inside the women of the house went off to make coffee without fuss, while Peter asked where we were.

`In Ballydavid’, said the owner, `if you go by the map, but the right name is Baile na nGall’.

I was sitting at one of the tables and said: `The town of the Strangers’.

He hadn’t expected that and came over to scrutinise me.

`You’re not foreign’, he said.

`I am not’, I said.

`Irish’.

`That’s so’.

He looked more closely.

`You have the look of a Dublin man?’

`Now you have it’.

`A writer maybe?’

`Correct.’

`James Plunkett?’

It was embarassing. It was also, quite unexpectedly, deeply moving to be recognised in my own country so far away from my own small world.

`Pleased to meet you’, I said.

If he had presented me with the Freedom of Dingle I wouldn’t have been so genuinely honoured and I felt, not for the first time, that before I die I will speak my native language adequately enough to talk with those of my countrymen who have it from birth, so that they won’t shame me by having to change to English on my account.

 


So now engineers are jihadis too?

[This post is to be treated as a draft rather than a fully-developed position: so I welcome comments, and requests to expand points, and may well change my mind about certain things.]

Not for the first time, the argument is being made that STEM turns its graduates into uncultured oafs, recoverable only through the application of the mind-soothing balm of the humanities. This time, however, it’s serious: Paul Vallely, citing a British Council study, claims that there is `“an engineering mindset”, which makes science students easier prey for terrorist recruiters.

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How to be a bastard: crowd control in the academy

When I had my first academic job, new staff spent a couple of days of induction learning about how to teach. On the afternoon of the last day, which was the Friday before teaching started, the course tutor asked if there was anything he hadn’t covered which we would like to learn about.

A colleague said he had 150 first year engineering students on Monday. I laughed. The course tutor laughed. Nobody else laughed. The tutor explained to the other academics, mainly from the humanities, that engineering students, at least in Ireland, are a notorious shower of animals, liable to throw things at the lecturer, including, on one occasion, a frozen chicken.

“So you want to know how to be a bastard?”
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