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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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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War on the humanities, again

The THE reports that leading historian Professor Peter Mandler has delivered a paper on the “crisis in the humanities”, concluding that there isn’t one. In particular, he says:

It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold.

In the US, over a period of much slower expansion, their numbers have still doubled…Talk of a crisis triggered by a decline in a percentage point or two does seem like an over-reaction that is likely to contribute to rather than ameliorate the alleged problem.

As well as looking at student numbers, we can look at the UK data for academic staff numbers, as a proxy for resource allocation.


The figure shows the percentage of academic staff in STE (Science, Technology, and Engineering), Humanities (shown dashed), and Medicine from 1994 to 2008, using the freely available HESA data sets. The break in the curves corresponds to a change in the reporting of data. The details of how staff numbers were assigned to the three categories are given in a separate PDF.

The first part of the plot shows a drop in the percentage of STE staff, which might correspond to the closure of Chemistry departments over that time (the data for these years are not broken down to subject level), while Medicine rises, and Humanities are fairly steady.

After the change in reporting methodology in 2003, Medicine has about the same proportion of staff as before the change, while Humanities increases markedly and STE reduces. Clearly, this is an artifact of the breakdown of data and does not indicate real changes in the proportion of academic staff in STE or Humanities. The trends from 2003 onwards are validly indicated, however, and show STE and Humanities holding more or less steady.

In summary, the data from 1994 onwards show a sharp drop in STE, a rise in Medicine, and a small drop in Humanities.

Crisis in the humanities? What crisis?

Theodor Adorno and Michael Gove

So there I was, minding my own business, when I discovered that the Frankfurt School was responsible for giving gay men and women in Ireland the right to marry.

“Well now,” says I, “what else might they be responsible for, these gnomes of Frankfurt.” It turns out they have been the source of the “ideas” for education policy in the United Kingdom for decades. From Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Cultural education spread with bourgeouis property. It forced paranoia into the dark corners of society and the soul. But since the real emancipation of mankind did not take place with the enlightenment of the mind, education itself became diseased. The greater the distance between the educated consciousness and social reality, the more it was itself exposed to the process of reification. Culture became wholly a commodity disseminated as information without permeating the individuals who acquired it. Thought became restricted to the acquisition of isolated facts. Conceptual relationships were rejected as uncomfortable and useless effort. The aspect of development in thought, all that is genetic and intensive in it, is forgotten and leveled down to the immediately given, to the extensive. Today the order of life allows no time for the ego to draw spiritual or intellectual conclusions. The thought which leads to knowledge is neutralized and used as a mere qualification on specific labour markets and to heighten the commodity value of the personality. And so that self-examination of the mind which works against paranoia is defeated. Finally, under the conditions of modern capitalism, half-education has become objective spirit. In the totalitarian phase of domination, it calls upon the provincial charlatans of politics, and with them the system of delusion as the ultima ratio: forcing it upon the majority of the ruled, who are already deadened by the culture industry. The contradictions of rule can be seen through by the healthy consciousness so easily today that it takes a diseased mind to keep them alive. Only those who suffer from a delusion of persecution accept the persecution to which domination must necessarily lead, inasmuch as they are allowed to persecute others.

War on the humanities? What war?

After I wrote a response to Professor Sarah Churchwell’s comments on the `war on the humanities’, she tweeted that if I wanted her opinion, it could be found in a piece on The Conversation, and represented a better statement of her views than a ten sentence extract from a ninety minute interview. I was not the only person to object to the comments as reported, whether in comments on the article, or in the letters page, but it seems only fair to engage with a full statement of the position.
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It’s only yourself you’re hurting in the long run

Recently, Sarah Churchwell, `one of our most prominent public intellectuals and professor of American literature at UEA’, was quoted on the subject of the `war against humanities at Britain’s universities’:

“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Churchwell is right: education is not a commodity and should not be monetized, and universities are “custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration” (letting pass what Paulo Freire might have made of such a concept of learning). It can surely be agreed that universities are, in Stefan Collini’s words, places where things are studied for their own sake and that the value of education is not monetary, whether to the student or to an economy, that education needs no market justification because it is a good thing for people to be educated and for there to be places where disciplines can be pursued for their own intrinsic worth. Read the rest of this entry »

Turbulence and Noise

I have produced some notes for a final year aerospace engineering unit on Turbulence and Noise (PDF). The introduction reads:

This is not a textbook and should not be read as one. It is a set of notes written for a final year unit at the University of Bath, with the aim of introducing aerospace engineering students to the extra concepts, mainly mathematical, which they will need in order to be able to read research papers in turbulence and noise. These papers are a mixture of classic work, such as Lighthill’s analysis of aerodynamically-generated noise, and more recent studies which apply state-of-the-art techniques to hard problems, and either extend our understanding of the physics, or give us completely new insights, in a way not previously possible.

The notes are written fairly informally, to give some intuitive sense of the concepts, as an aid to getting started on the real thing. Having read about correlation functions, for example, you will be in a position to read a paper which makes use of them, but that does not mean you will find it easy. You will find it possible, and the more papers you read, the deeper the understanding you will develop as you see how different people have made use of the same techniques. In practice, any writing of substance will require multiple readings, and will reveal more of itself under each reading.

Turbulence and acoustics are difficult, and you will not master them on this unit. You will have to work hard on ideas which will not be obvious, and were not obvious to the smart people who developed them. You will often feel stupid and confused, and you will wonder why you are doing this. You are doing this because it is worth it: you are taking on a difficult topic which some of the brightest people in history have found hard, but have nonetheless been able to contribute to.

Feeling stupid means you are working on something worth the trouble: if you want to feel clever, watch Sesame Street or read the Daily Mail.