Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘universities’

16th century Sokal hoax

Many of our readers will recall the celebrated hoax perpetrated by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 against the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal submitted an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for an issue on “Science Wars”. The article strung together buzzwords helter-skelter to conclude with a flattering claim of the importance of social theory for natural science. The fact that it was published is cited even today by supercilious physicists and insecure journalists as conclusive proof that academic jargon in the humanities and social sciences is all fake.

Anyway, I was just reading Montaigne’s essay “Du pedantisme” (On pedantry), and found the following anecdote:

J’ay veu chez moy un mien amy, par maniere de passetemps, ayant affaire à un de ceux-cy, contrefaire un jargon de Galimatias, propos sans suitte, tissu de pieces rapportées, sauf qu’il estoit souvent entrelardé de mots propres à leur dispute, amuser ainsi tout un jour ce sot à debattre, pensant tousjours respondre aux objections qu’on luy faisoit. Et si estoit homme de lettres et de reputation, et qui avoit une belle robbe.

I observed at my home a friend of mine making sport of one of these [pedants] by making up a nonsense jargon, propositions with no succession, a patchwork of pieces that had nothing in common except for some buzzwords  that he stuck in that related to their topic, and he amused himself a whole day with this crazy debate, always managing to think of new answers to the man’s objections. And this was a greatly reputed man of letters.

Government intervention

It seems Theresa May has found her strategy for rescuing the British economy from the political damage the Tories are planning to inflict:

The prime minister will publish the strategy at a cabinet meeting in the north-west of England, setting out five sectors that could receive special government support: life sciences, low-carbon-emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, creative industries and nuclear.

She will say the government would be prepared to deregulate, help with trade deals or create new institutions to boost skills or research if any sector can show this would address specific problems.

Great idea! As one of the people working on developing “skills and research”, I’d like to suggest that it might be a good idea to arrange an agreement to share students, workers, and researchers with our neighbours, who are similarly technologically-developed and share common scientific and educational traditions. We could call it the Anglo-European Union, or something like that.

But no, that would help “old institutions” like my own. The Westminster Pharaoh is only interested in boosting skills or research if it can create “new institutions” as a monument to her greatness.

American-style catastrophe

Baroness Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has warned against new legislation that would make it easier to establish private universities.

Sweeping general legislation might make it easier to set up a really small, innovative, educationally wonderful institution, but it’s much more likely to mean we end up with the American-style catastrophe.

There are all kinds of catastrophes in America, many of them due to inadequate public oversight over the private sector. I’d be on her side if she were using the US as a bogeyman to warn us against conservative tendencies in healthcare, policing, schooling… pretty much anything. Not universities, or, at least, not in such a blanket fashion. It’s not clear, either, whether she is concerned primarily with improving educational opportunities or with national brand management, with a broad array of institutions “damaging the UK’s reputation for higher education”.

I think you would be hard pressed to convince anyone that private universities overall have damaged the US reputation in higher education.

The Rhodes goes ever on and on

It is decided: The Rhodes statue remains at Oriel College. What was promised to be a long and thoughtful reconsideration of the appropriateness of honouring a notorious racist in the facade of an educational institution of the twenty-first century was short-circuited by threats to withdraw £100 million pounds in donations. The ruling class has spoken! Surely, at the least, we can agree that this demolishes the notion that Rhodes is a mere quaint historical figure, whose ideology is of no concern. Clearly there are quite a few mighty pillars of the establishment who feel that an assault on the honour due to a man who brought great wealth and power to Britain through dispossessing, subjugating, and frankly murdering members of what he considered “childish” and “subject races”.

Most bizarre is the appearance of an extreme form of the standard political-correctness jiu-jitsu, whereby students raising their voices in protest constitute an assault upon free speech, while the superannuated poobahs who tell them to shut up until they have their own directorship of a major bank are the guardians of liberty. And we academic hired hands are neglecting our pedagogical duty if we don’t help them tie on the gag.

As I remarked before, they talk as though the protesters sought to excise the name of Rhodes from the history books with knives and acid, rather than proposing that the Rhodes statue be removed from its place of honour to a museum, where it can be viewed neutrally among other historical artefacts.

There is an argument that says, the Rhodes Must Fall argument points to general iconoclasm. What statue would stand if we judge the attitudes of our past heroes by contemporary standards. Putting aside the question of whether a complete lack of granite equestrians would impoverish modern urban life or undermine public morals, there is a vast difference between a historical figure who is honoured for great accomplishments and services to his country, but who shared in what we now consider benighted attitudes of his time; and Rhodes, whose accomplishments consist in dispossession and subjugation of other races. Take away the racism and imperialism from Rhodes and nothing remains.

Obviously, different views of the Rhodes statue are possible. What I find extraordinary is the accusation that even to raise the issue is somehow improper. That this is presented as a defence of free speech only demonstrates how the implicit critique has driven some portion of the elite into unreasoning frenzy.

When did it become verboten to rewrite history?

The role of chancellor is a difficult one: He’s the symbolic aristocratic authority figure, of modest intelligence but sterling character, set to superintend the carryings-on of the overly clever boffins.

Anyway, there’s been a bit of to and fro at Oxford over the position of Cecil Rhodes. Following the successful “Rhodes Must Fall” protests at the University of Cape Town, Oxford students have been demanding that Oriel College remove the statue of Rhodes prominently displayed in the college’s facade. Oxford’s chancellor, the failed Conservative politician and last colonial governor of Hong Kong Christopher Patten, has decided to stoke the flames by using his ceremonial platform, where he was supposed to be welcoming the university’s first woman vice chancellor, to attack those who wish to “rewrite history”:

We have to listen to those who presume that they can rewrite history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct. We do have to listen, yes – but speaking for myself, I believe it would be intellectually pusillanimous to listen for too long without saying what we think…

Yes. “We” must say what “we” think. Since history has been written once and for all, correctly, it is inappropriate to rewrite it. And heaven forfend that the rewriters should rely on their own notion of what is correct, morally or otherwise! It’s about time we got rid of all those people who try to rewrite history, you know, what are they called? Historians.

It’s pretty bizarre. It’s not as though protestors are breaking into the Bodleian and excising the name of Rhodes with a razor blade. The existence of the Rhodes statue is clear testimony to his outsized influence and to the honour accorded to him in his day, and it would continue to serve this function if it were placed in a museum. To continue to display the statue on the façade of a college is a declaration of current respect for him. Which is a matter of public debate. In 1945 all the Adolf-Hitler-Strassen in Germany were renamed, and I don’t recall whether Patten protested the felling of the Lenin statues in Berlin in 1989, or the Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq.

(A friend of a friend of mine, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, made the unfortunate choice to issue the bootlicking pledge in her application essay for the Rhodes scholarship, that she would aspire to fulfil the spirit of Cecil Rhodes. At interview she was asked, “Were you thinking of Rhodes’s spirit as a racist, as a colonialist, or as a paedophile?” Her answer was not transmitted, but she was not awarded a scholarship.)

(Personally, I would have attended the ceremony, to have been present at the historic investiture of Oxford’s first woman vice chancellor, if only I’d been able to rewrite the historical dress code, since at the last moment I couldn’t locate the academic hood required for attendance.)

Chinese towels

Another thought about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos: Her billion-dollar medical-testing company based on secret and unproven technology in her twenties depended largely on a board of well-connected politicians and former politicians, notable for their lack of any relevant scientific expertise. But before she got to that point she needed to turn the heads of some scientists. According to the New Yorker, she caught the attention of dean of engineering Channing Robertson in her freshman year at Stanford:

One day, in her freshman year, Robertson said, she came to his office to ask if she could work in his lab with the Ph.D. students. He hesitated, but she persisted and he gave in. At the end of the spring term, she told him that she planned to spend the summer working at the Genome Institute, in Singapore. He warned her that prospective students had to speak Mandarin.

 “I’m fluent in Mandarin,” she said.

“I’m thinking, What’s next? She’s already coming into the research group meetings at the end of her freshman year with my Ph.D. students. I find myself listening to her more than to them about the next experiments to be done and the progress that’s been made. I realized she’s different.”

Clearly scientific acumen was exceptional. But what is the role of Mandarin? (This is the second story in the article about how she impressed people with her knowledge of the language.) I am reminded of the famous passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value… More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have ”lost”.

Is speaking Mandarin (assuming you’re not yourself Chinese) the intellectual equivalent of having your towel? Is that what he means by “What’s next?” He’s thinking, I’m dean of the engineering school at Stanford, and I don’t speak Mandarin. She’s only 18 and she’s managed to learn to speak fluent Mandarin. She must know all kinds of things that I have no inkling of.

Is that the reason why the chic private schools in the UK all seem to be teaching Mandarin?

The right to be honoured

The journalist Barbara Ellen, writing in the Guardian, has defended Cambridge historian David Starkey, who has come under attack for his racist remarks:

An open letter to the university, signed by hundreds of staff, students and alumni, accuses Starkey of repeatedly making racist statements. It cites his appearance on BBC Newsnight after the summer riots of 2011 in which he said: “A substantial amount of the chavs have become black. The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”

It also cited a more recent interview in the Telegraph in which Starkey said statistics “appeared” to show a black propensity to violence.

A twofer: He insulted all black people, and simultaneously applied an insulting term for the white working class. Ellen protests

Free speech is one of the most precious facets of British society, but here is proof that, for some, it is all too dispensable. The pre-emptive ban is replacing the enriching debate. Nuance and difference are being hounded into the shadows.

How long before society reaches a state of self-monitoring, self-censoring “offence-Stasi”, with everyone on permanent red alert?

That sounds terrible. Starkey was “pre-emptively banned” merely for making perfectly ordinary disparaging remarks about black people. What was he banned from? Appearing as the leading spokesman for one of the world’s most esteemed universities in a promotional fund-raising video. That’s exactly the sort of thing that used to go on in communist police states. (more…)

National Union of Students causes division… by criticising government anti-Muslim policies

From The Guardian:

In a pointed letter to the NUS president Megan Dunn, higher education minister Jo Johnson has said he is disturbed by a motion passed at the NUS conference to oppose the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, the government’s main piece of counter-terrorism legislation.

Although he concedes the NUS is doing some good work, he also asserts contradictory statements made by NUS officials, including those that described the government’s approach as a “racialised, Islamophobic witch-hunt”. Earlier in the year, another officer claimed that strategies such as Prevent “ultimately exist to police Muslim expression”.

He said such views cause division, and points to motions passed by student unions in a series of institutions opposing Prevent, including King’s College London, Durham and Soas, University of London.

We can’t have people espousing “views” that “cause division”. Because uniformity of views is one of those British values that immigrants need to learn about.

You may think it’s all fun and games, passing motions at your conference in opposition to certain government policies. But you have to be aware that these “motions” lead to other people making “contradictory statements”, then you’re on a slippery slope to other student unions also opposing the government policies, and before you can stop it you’ve destroyed the House of Lords:

The Home Office is concerned peers could reject the regulations, which are due to come into force next week, on the grounds they inhibit free speech and thought on campuses.

Stupid kids! Not thinking about the consequences of their actions. Presumably that’s why David Cameron said

Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds.

“Serving the purposes of the Israeli apartheid and colonial regime”

The American Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu has been expelled from a Spanish music festival, for refusing to issue a statement in support of a Palestinian state. Apparently such loyalty oaths are required of suspect persons, such as Jews. His silence, they said, serves “the purposes of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime”.

This buttresses the view that BDS has a significant dollop of antisemitism in its ideological matrix, even if not every BDS supporter is antisemitic (and not everyone motivated partly by antisemitism is entirely or even consciously motivated by antisemitism).

This takes me back to 2007, when one UK academic union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (since melded into the University and Colleges Union (UCU)) couldn’t find any more relevant challenge to higher education in the UK than a boycott of Israeli academics who do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from Israeli “apartheid policies”.

I immediately recognised a problem: What is the appropriate form for expressing such dissociation? And how would we test whether the self-criticism was sincere, or merely careerist dissimulation. After all, we wouldn’t want crypto-Zionists sneaking in to British universities and scientific conferences, infecting them with the taint of racism and colonialism. Leaping into the breach, I composed a form to enable the aspiring good Israeli to have his anti-Zionist bona fides tested and confirmed by the proper authorities.

Too many orang-utans?

I recently read Pierre Boulle’s Planète des Singes [Planet of the Apes]. I knew about the novel, of course, but hadn’t read it. It is very much of its time and place — though, as I have commented, the origins of the story have been sufficiently obscured by the various film versions, as to make a French version seem to an American cartoonist a plausible punchline. What I had not anticipated was the extent to which the novel is a satire about scientists, the management of science, and science education. The point is well summarised mid-way through the story, when we are finally given an overview — from the chimpanzee perspective — of the social structure of the planet Soror. I say social structure, but the only apes who are of any interest are scientists of some sort or other, and the only social or political organisation we hear about is scientific, though we do hear about a more brutal past, where the gorillas ruled by force. They have maintained the habit of power.

Ils excellent dans l’art de tracer des directives générales et de manoeuvrer les autres singes. Quand un technicien a fait une découverte interéssante, tube lumineux par exemple ou combustible nouveau, c’est presque toujours un gorille qui se charge de l’exploiter et d’en tirer tout le bénéfice possible. Sans être véritablement intelligents, ils sont beaucoup plus malins que les orang-outans. Ils obtiennent tout ce qu’ils veulent de ceux-ci en jouant de leur orgueil. Ainsi, à la tête de notre Institut… il y a un gorille administrateur, que l’on voit très rarement…
[They excel in composing general instructions and in manipulating other apes. When a technician has made an interesting discovery, for example a luminiferous tube, or a new fuel, it is almost always a gorilla who takes charge of the development and extracting the maximum possible benefit. Without being genuinely intelligent, they are much more clever than the orang-utans. The gorillas get everything they want from them by playing on their pride. Thus, our Institute is headed by a gorilla administrator, who is almost never seen.]

The gorillas also produce, when they do occasionally stoop to research, massive tomes that are expertly structured and organised, even if the content is produced by others, each one by a different subaltern chimpanzee.

The orang-utans are referred to as the “official science”, although

certains se poussent parfois dans la politique, les arts et la littérature. Ils apportent les mêmes caractères dans toutes ces activités. Pompeux, solennels, pédants, dépourvus d’originalité et de sens critique, acharnés à maintenir la tradition, aveugles et sourds à toute nouveauté, adorant les clichés et les formules toutes faites, ils forment le substratum de toutes les academies. Doués d’une grande mémoire, ils apprennent énormément de matières par coeur, dans les livres. Ensuite, ils écrivent eux-mêmes d’autres livres, ou ils répètent ce qu’ils ont lu, ce qui leur attire de la considération de la part de leurs frères orang-outans…. Le malheur c’est qu’ils fabriquent ainsi tous les livres d’enseignement, propageant des erreurs grossières dans la jeunesse simienne.
[some of them do occasionally make their way into politics, art, and literature. They display the same characteristics in all their activities. Pompous, solemn, pedantic, lacking in originality and critical sense, obsessed with preserving traditions, blind and deaf to all novelty, adoring clichés and settled formulas, they form a substratum in all the academies. Gifted with excellent memories, they learn enormous amounts of material by heart from books. Then they write it all down in other books, repeating exactly what they read, thus attracting the approbation of their brother orang-utans… The real tragedy is that they write, in this way, all the textbooks, perpetuating gross errors among the simian youth.]

As for the chimpanzees,

Ceux-ci semblent bien représenter l’élément intellectuel de la planète. Ce n’est pas par forfanterie si Zira soutient que toutes les grandes découvertes ont été faites par eux. C’est tout au plus une généralisation un peu poussée, car il y a quelques exceptions. En tout cas, ils écrivent la plupart des livres intéressants, dans les domaines les plus divers. Ils paraissent animés par un puissant esprit de recherche.
[They appear to be the intellectual element of the planet. It is not mere boastfulness when Zira claims that all the great discoveries have been made by chimpanzees. To be sure, it is a bit exaggerated, as there are some exceptions. In any case, they write most of the interesting books on all subjects. They appear to be motivated by a powerful spirit of research.]

There must be important lessons for us here, in the age of the REF. Also for teaching. The government wants us to produce more gorillas, but our education system is optimised for orang-utans. As for the chimpanzees, they’ve recognised that they’ll muddle through anyway, or enough of them anyway, motivated by this “powerful spirit of research”, willing to work for a few bananas on fixed-term contracts.

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